Padma Lakshmi | Taste The Nation

Who Gets to Host Food Travel Shows?

Padma Lakshmi’s Taste the Nation offers a perspective that has been notably absent in food travel shows.

Padma Lakshmi has an agenda. Her goal is to place the immigrant story front and center; to hammer home that immigrant food is American food, and more importantly, to underline the clear fact that immigrants are also Americans. “This is not an impartial show,” she declares. “It is a very editorialized show based on my view of the world.” Lakshmi emphasizes her point with large hand gestures, just in case the resolve in her voice wasn’t clear enough.

Lakshmi is speaking to me from a house in Long Island that she is staying at with her partner and daughter. She is camped out in a bedroom in the middle of what seems like a day of endless Zoom calls (celebrities! they are just like us) promoting her new show Taste the Nation, which premiered last week on Hulu. Video chats are an especially unflattering communication medium, but Lakshmi still manages to be a commanding presence. It’s easy to see why she makes hosting look effortless on the show..

While on the surface the conceit of the Taste The Nation might sound like well-worn territory — the questionable idea that food can unite us — the show’s foundational structure is quite seditious. With Taste the Nation, Lakshmi joins the small but growing ranks of POC food travel show hosts like Samin Nosrat, David Chang, and Marcus Samuelsson who are finally being given authority to tell these stories. Like many genres of television, travel food shows have long been dominated by white men. This particular genre tends to evoke the image of the swashbuckling, adventure-seeking, gluttonous, raucous, foul-mouthed white male chef who swaggers around the globe. It’s a trope mastered by the late Anthony Bourdain (someone has yet to do it better) and preserved by people like Andrew Zimmern and Gordon Ramsay.

If it’s not from the approach of the swashbuckling chef, it’s shows like Netflix’s Somebody Feed Phil hosted by Phil Rosenthal, the creator of Everybody Loves Raymond. There is an affable and goofy charm to Rosenthal, who is unceasingly happy, as he travels the globe representing the perspective of the American that is scared of the world. (It’s as if other countries are not just filled with people also just trying to live their lives and feed their families.) Rosenthal admitted he pitched his show in one line: “I said, I’m exactly like Anthony Bourdain, if he was afraid of everything.”

While these shows can be entertaining, there is something very dangerous about the perpetual reinforcement of the white man as the explorer, “discovering” lands and communities that are “foreign and new,” showcasing the narrative he wants to about brown and black people, cherry picking what parts of the culture he was to bring back with him. To put it simply: they buttress a colonialist worldview. These shows, even when done from a place of earnest celebration, only reinforce the idea that non-white, non-Eurocentric points of view, are “the other” and “not normal.” Just look at the names of the shows: Bizarre Foods, Uncharted, Parts Unknown. They all underscore white supremacy. If something is not well known to the white male host, it must not be well known at all.

Padma Lakshmi | Taste The Nation
Dominic Valente / Hulu

A large glut of these male-fronted travel shows, Chang’s Ugly Delicious included, center on the host and the host’s education. It’s about what the host is learning and tasting, and what the host finds interesting and delicious, and that in turn is filtered down to the audience. There is an entitlement built into the fabric of these shows. The title of Somebody Feed Phil, quite literally puts the onus to feed Rosenthal on the people in the places he visits. His meals become the focal point.

It was critical to Lakshmi to essentially do the opposite. The final line of the show’s intro sums up her approach perfectly: “Come with me as we taste the nation.” The framework of the show is not about Lakshmi’s personal discovery journey, but about using her platform to give space to communities to speak for themselves. “I just wanted to be quiet on the show,” she says. “I didn’t matter what I thought. I wanted to be quiet and let these communities lead me, lead the storytelling.” While Lakshmi is a frequent presence on the screen, she is not always there. Some of the most charming and informative moments on the show actually arrive in the form of monologues from community members themselves where Lakshmi is nowhere to be seen. Or you see this use of platform in other small details, like labeling ingredients in their native scripts — Thai, Hindi, Tamil, Chinese, and more. English is not the only language in this country, and Lakshmi wanted to show that.

The food travel show genre historically places too much value in slow-motion food beauty shots and pandering b-roll of “exotic” locales. Sure, there are a few food hero shots here and there in each episode, after all it is a show called Taste the Nation, but it’s clear they aren’t the priority. Lakshmi is more interested in making sure the viewer confronts the deeply ugly and challenging history that makes America the country that it is. (This centering of politics should come as little surprise to anyone who reads Lakshmi’s Twitter feed.) The show takes a head-on approach, not shying away from clips of wars, sounds of helicopters at the Mexican border, and frank discussions about slavery. Lakshmi is not the first person to acknowledge how politics engages with food: Bourdain also made this a priority on Parts Unknown, though he faced criticism for sometimes upholding colonial narratives.

While it’s notable that Lakshmi does not shy away from politics in Taste The Nation, in many ways, politics is inseparable from the black and brown experiences around food. To be able to fully deny or separate these two things, is a privilege that only white male hosts have. To everyone else, these uncomfortable realities are something they must confront daily.

Rosenthal, for example, refuses to include politics in his show. He tells Entertainment Tonight: “I started doing it before the political climate got tense and it was never meant to be a political statement in any way,” he says. “I’m just trying to be a person, right? Just being a person is suddenly political. I just want people to travel because I think if you’re nice at all and open a little bit to other places and other people, you then become an ambassador, just by being nice, just by enjoying your vacation.” Zimmern only recently put politics front-and-center with his new MSNBC series, What’s Eating America. Ramsay could clearly care less. And Guy Fieri’s show continues to fail to acknowledge the politics that shape foodways.

What stands out about Lakshmi’s show, even more than the deployment of gut-wrenching history lessons, is the fact that this show about immigrants is one of the first hosted by a brown female immigrant herself. (Samuelsson, an immigrant, has also hosted a show about immigrant communities for PBS.) It’s a fact that Lakshmi regularly reminds you of — the intro features Lakshmi holding up a photo of her four-year-old self, the age at which she moved to the United States. It’s also one of her greatest powers. There is an ease she has on screen as she moves in and out of communities. The people she visits with seem to connect with her more, trust her quicker. They are more willing to talk about their pain. A Peruvian grandmother in Paterson, NJ says with tears welling up in her eyes, “Your mom was like me,” after Lakshmi shares her own mother’s similar struggles of having to leave a young Padma behind while she built a life in the United States.

It’s easy to chalk up that ease to Lakshmi’s volcanic charisma and laid-back approach. While both of these things are in full effect, there is a bigger force at work: Lakshmi can actually relate, whether it’s to a Chinese-American farmer or an Iranian restaurant owner. It’s what makes it believable when she says things like “I went through that,” when chatting with Thai-American professor Mark Padoongpatt about the struggles of not feeling like you belong fully to any culture. “Each culture presents itself with layers of issues, and I wanted to attack that from the space of my experience,” Lakshmi says. “I am sure that I approached my work differently than a white male chef, someone like Andrew Zimmern, or Guy Fieri, or Anthony Bourdain. I walk into a room with all the baggage of what my life has given me, and that informs the show. I am not sorry about that,” she adds. “That is why my show is different.”

Samin Nosrat, the only other WOC to host a food travel show for a major network or streaming platform, says she had the same priorities when making her Netflix series Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. “What was important to me, was giving people who would never have the chance to be on camera telling their own stories, the chance to do exactly that,” she told me over the phone. “I wanted to make sure that was built into what we were doing. If there was a party scene, I wanted to fill the moment with brown and black people.” Though she is a best-selling cookbook author and a chef with years of restaurant experience, she also wanted to make sure the show was not about her abilities. “I didn’t want it to focus on ’this is how I do it,’ or to demonstrate my own mastery,” explains Nosrat. “I can’t go to someone else’s house and show them what I do. The whole reason I’m here is to find out what they do!”

It’s in stark contrast to hosts like Zimmern and Ramsay who let their opinions lead the dialogue. In an older episode of Bizarre Foods, Zimmern travels to a market in Bangkok to eat a delicacy made from fried worms. “They taste like Cheetos on the outside!” he proclaims giddily. He then waits a beat before adding, much to the chagrin of his Thai host, “But on the inside, they taste like worm vomit!” Ramsay, on a recent episode of his National Geographic show Uncharted, is tasked with preparing a meal for the chief of a Zulu tribe in South Africa. Local chef and expert Zola Nene warns him that the Zulu palate values meat that is well-cooked and foods that are light on spice and oil. Ramsay spends the next scene essentially throwing a temper tantrum because he couldn’t serve a steak medium-rare, and couldn’t add olive oil and extra heat to an tomato-and-onion salsa called Ushatini, arguing that he “knows” doing those two things would “improve the meal.” He spends each episode repeatedly centering himself, playing up colonialist tropes, and constantly questioning and disregarding cultural norms.

Padma Lakshmi | Taste The Nation
Marie Hobro / Hulu

Lakshmi, who got her start as a model, is perhaps best known for serving as the host, and executive producer, of Bravo’s cooking competition show Top Chef for the past decade-and-a-half.Viewers are used to a glamorous version of Lakshmi, dressed in high fashion with sleek hair and a make-up artist on-call. “I have to look good,” she says with a laugh. “It’s like an old marriage. After 17 seasons, you need a few shiny objects here and there.”

For Taste the Nation, Lakshmi was adamant that her look be pared down. “My wardrobe fit into a carry-on suitcase,” she says. “I had four pairs of jeans and a bunch of random shirts and t-shirts. My dressing room was literally people holding up jackets so I could quickly change.” For the most part, she did her own hair and mostly did her own make-up. She wears a lot of ponytails and the same two necklaces in each episode. This was not just out of a desire of wanting a break from people focusing on her appearance (“I spent a lot of my early career being a living Barbie doll”), but because she just didn’t want people focusing on her, period.

“I needed to make myself approachable, and I needed to feel comfortable because I didn’t want to worry about whether my blouse was too low-cut or my skirt was too tight,” she explains. “I just wanted to focus on the people that I was showcasing and I really did not want it to be about me.”

Nosrat also used her wardrobe as a way to de-center herself in Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. “I knew that people were going to say things about how I looked or my body or what it looks like to be a person who looks like me eating food on camera,” she says. “But I had to not dwell on that.” Instead she spent her energies making specific clothing choices — like wearing overalls (which suggest utility and not flash) or a simple white dress — that would help her not stand out next to her guests. “They not only needed to work in the lighting and the environment, I also wanted to be dressed culturally appropriately.” She adds: “I often thought about scenes I’d watched where male hosts essentially rolled out of bed and onto camera.”

The unfortunate reality is that appearance is an added pressure for female television hosts. Men, like Bourdain, were able to just stick to the same uniform without worrying if they stood out or not. Rosenthal, admits to Travel + Leisure, that he packs enough clean underwear for a trip and not much else besides sneakers, shirts, and pants. “You don’t really need to change it up that much,” he says. “Especially if you’re a guy.” Men in many ways have the freedom to wear whatever they want on television, even if it’s culturally offensive. Take Rosenthal for example, on the third season of his show he travels to Morocco. The episode opens with Rosenthal on the back of a camel, struggling to ride through the desert by himself, dressed in traditional white cotton djellaba. There’s no explanation for why he is wearing it (nor why he is on a camel), except as a comedy shtick.

Coming off as culturally offensive is a risk neither Lakshmi nor Nosrat could take. They had to get each episode right becausethere are still so few food travel shows hosted by non-white men. “It’s a miracle I got this shot,” says Nosrat earnestly. “I may never get this shot again. I may never get the opportunity again. So I had to do as much as I possibly could.”

Even for Lakshmi, who has a built in audience of millions of fans and decades of experience hosting television shows, getting the opportunity to make Taste the Nation was an uphill battle. It was a brutal six-month stretch of flying out to Los Angeles from NYC repeatedly for meetings, but no one was biting.

“It was really hard getting this show made,” she says, her face twisting into a worn-out expression on my computer screen. “I am pretty well known in and outside of the food world, across the world. Top Chef is in 60 countries!” Lakshmi says she and her team pitched “everybody,” with one person even sending her a long rejection letter in which they called the show derivative. Lakshmi was starting to lose hope. “I just hit a point where I was like, ‘Okay, this show isn’t going to happen, and someone else is going to fucking get to do it, and my stomach is going to burn.’” Eventually, Hulu called. Still, Lakshmi deeply worries about getting a second season.

Nosrat has also struggled to get another season of a global food travel show off the ground, even though by all metrics, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat was a runaway success and Nosrat’s popularity has only continued to exponentially grow. “Making an international travel show is incredibly expensive,” she says. “I think it’s going to take a lot of work for me to convince anyone to let me do that again.” Nosrat says that offers have come in for her to do home cooking shows, but that is a “fundamental misunderstanding” of what she cares about and is trying to do. “Me being on TV isn’t about me. It’s about being able to push for stories that otherwise wouldn’t be able to make it to the screen.”

Male hosts, especially white male hosts, don’t seem to face this same problem. Although food travel shows, especially of the international variety, are one of the most expensive TV formats to make, networks seem to have little problem green lighting multiple seasons for them. Bizarre Foods, hosted by Andrew Zimmern, has had 13 seasons and a few spin-offs on the Travel Channel, plus a new series on MSNBC. Anthony Bourdain was able to make multiple seasons of Parts Unknown and No Reservations, plus a handful of other shows in his lifetime. Guy Fieri, the populist hero, has done over 400 episodes of Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives on the Food Network. Ramsay is already on the second season of Uncharted, despite all the backlash. And even Somebody Feed Phil is on its third season, even though Rosenthal has zero culinary expertise. Chang was able to get a second season of Ugly Delicious (disclaimer: I made an appearance on the show) and also made the widely panned Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner.

What perhaps is one of the most frustrating aspects surrounding the conversation of food travel shows and who gets to make them, is the question of expertise, White hosts often get their culinary legitimacy from their shows, while non-white host must already have widespread culinary legitimacy before they even get a shot at their own series. These shows have helped to make the white hosts famous, while brown hosts have to be famous to even get a meeting. And even then, it's not enough to get a show made.

Is this why there are so few non-white travel food show hosts? Are there not enough “famous” chefs and cookbook authors of color with something to say? Or is it because we, as a society, struggle with watching black and brown bodies move freely through the world? “White people are taught that they own everything and go anywhere,” said Ta-Nehisi Coates while speaking at an Illinois high school. “To be black is to walk through the world and watch people do things you cannot join in and do.” There is a common stereotype that “Black and brown Americans specifically, just don’t travel,” writes Niesha Davis in Zora. Despite a growing Black and POC travel movement, marketing in the travel industry is still geared towards “seemingly affluent, upper-class White people,” notes Davis. it’s the same people who currently get to host travel shows.

Is it that we struggle to see non-white people on the screen as our guide, or is it something more insidious — that white men hosts are considered to be less risky? “Because it is so expensive to produce these travel shows, the networks are really unwilling to take risks of any kind,” says Nosrat. “The system is inherently racist. And people will just take whatever they can get without challenging the system.”

With a format that is so expensive, It ultimately comes down to gatekeepers, and the people that control the money. Both Lakshmi and Nosrat note that while there is occasionally a person of color in the room, it’s more often than not, fully white. “We exist within a fundamentally patriarchal, racist, capitalist system that is not really going to want to ever be tolerant.” To change this, to change who gets resources, and what stories get to be told, we need to change who makes these decisions. “Otherwise,” says Nosrat, “this is something we will be fighting for all our lives.”

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