Padma heats up: The Top Chef star gets real about eating well, speaking out, and feeling comfortable in her own skin—no matter what the label on her jeans says.
Padma Lakshmi is talking about food, passionately, while sitting at a table in the lobby of a chic downtown Manhattan hotel. Everyone around her is aware of her presence, of course—it’s hard not to notice when the 5-foot-9, glowing-skinned, flowing-haired goddess-host (and exec producer) of Top Chef is in the room—but Padma is so laser-focused, describing the ingredients of her perfect summer salad, that she has no idea the normally cool New Yorkers here are bugging out.
She leans in, talking about "beautiful, juicy tomatoes" and "strong green herbs" and how it’s "so quick and simple—and here’s another easy recipe you can do…" and all of a sudden my mouth is watering, and I start thinking, "Wait, if I hang out with her for another hour, could I actually become a good cook?" Call it the Padma effect.
Since her Top Chef debut 11 years ago, India’s first supermodel (who started modeling at age 21, after graduating from Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, with a degree in theater arts and American literature) has also become an award-winning author (her fourth book, The Encyclopedia of Spices & Herbs, came out last fall) and an outspoken activist, cofounding the Endometriosis Foundation of America and recently becoming an ambassador for the ACLU.
I caught up with Padma, 47, who was just back from filming the 15th season of Top Chef in Colorado, over tea—but sadly, no over-the-top food.
Padma's wearing: Vince tank top ($65; bloomingdales.com for similar). Herve Leger bikini bottom (courtesy of Albright Fashion Library).
When do you feel sexiest?
Right after a bath, or right after a workout, then a bath. That’s why I work out more. It used to be about being a certain size and fitting into clothes, but now with Top Chef, I have clothes in every size in my closet, from a 4 to a 14.
Normally after filming each season, you do a food detox, so is that happening right now?
Yeah, but it’s a more relaxed version now, because I don’t care as much [as I used to]. I don’t need to be a size 2. It’s OK.
What exactly does your detox entail?
It’s no sweets, no red meat, no wheat, no alcohol, no fried food, no dairy except for cottage cheese or low-fat yogurt. But this is a milder version—like, I can fall off the wagon one day a week.
How was this season of the show?
It was OK. I didn’t gain as much weight as I normally do. [I usually gain] 10, 15 pounds—the maximum I’ve gained is 17. This time I only gained eight, because of a couple of reasons. One, I managed to work out more. I got a personal trainer to come to my hotel room. Usually I try to find a gym, and that never works out unless it’s in the hotel. This time I was like, “You know what? He needs to be knocking on my door.” Also, I suffered from altitude sickness, and it sucked. It was nausea and a headache and light-headedness, and I didn’t feel like eating. I had to get through the food on camera, but off-camera I wasn’t eating full meals.
Did you do anything besides work out with the trainer?
I treated myself. I also flew in my Pilates teacher for a weekend. I decided, “I don’t need a new, fancy bag. I have plenty of bags. What I need is someone to help me." So I did that. I have scoliosis, and it’s really good for my back. Also, I have a butt at 47 years old that I’ve never had, because of Pilates. It literally changed the structure of my body.
Is it high and tight?
I don’t know about tight, but it’s certainly higher and rounder! [Laughs]
Are there any workouts you've tried that you're not into?
Yoga. [Laughs] I’m the only Indian who doesn’t do yoga. It’s hard on my joints, but that’s me. I think yoga is great for a lot of people—it’s certainly worked for Madonna. I think it’s also because I’m Indian, and whenever I go to do a class and I hear a Western person say those Sanskrit words, in workout wear, in a context that I frankly don’t associate with those words—because I’m Hindu—it’s just my own thing.
What do you do to ramp up for a photo shoot?
The same thing that I do with the Emmys, which is the diet we just talked about, plus two things a day, like Pilates and boxing or Pilates and weights.
How do you stay motivated when you’re not in the mood to work out?
I just remember that I’m on TV. [Laughs]
Padma's wearing: David Koma top, courtesy of Albright Fashion Library. J Brand jeans (bloomingdales.com for similar).
Besides Pilates, are there any specific moves that changed your body?
The trainer in Denver taught me something that I’m sure lots of people know, but I’ve never done. It’s doing squats, making sure your knees stay over your toes, but you’re up on your toes. You do three sets of 20, or as many as you can, but in between, for rest, you squat against the wall. It’s intense.
When you’re boxing, do you spar?
When I’m in one place for more than four to six weeks I might, so I can work up to it. I don’t get off a shoot and say, “I haven’t been to the gym in two months, time to spar!" But if I’m at home long enough, I’d like to, because it’s different. It’s a bigger workout when you don’t know what’s coming. Being ready for anything burns calories and tightens all those tiny muscles you can’t work out otherwise. Also, women need to lift a lot more weight than they realize. I know that’s been true for me. I only started lifting when I was 27, 28, and it’s very important.
What’s your healthiest dish?
My healthiest dish, and it’s also easy to prepare, is a huge, huge salad. My salads are really serious. [Laughs] I use a lot of funky vegetables and get creative with a lot of nuts, different dried fruits, or apple and mint. Then I always put a protein on top, like fish, chicken, or shrimp. I get really funky with my dressings, too. You can do Mexican, Chinese, Indian, Moroccan. You can change it up and make it different five days a week for lunch or dinner. Then you have a glass of sangria as a treat.
Any good on-the-go recipes?
Plain yogurt, salt, one big peeled English cucumber, a fistful of mint leaves without the stems, and a little bit of cayenne powder. Whiz it in the blender, and you can have a glass of it before you go to a big barbecue or a cocktail party so you have something in your stomach.
I love how you’re always cooking on Instagram, often alongside your daughter, Krishna, who’s 7.
Yes, but I posted this picture this morning of me making pizza with the kids [while I was wearing a bikini], and somebody was like, "Why are you doing this half naked? It’s really inappropriate for you to be in a bikini while you’re teaching children!" And I was like, "We are in a beach house, we had just come in from the ocean, so what? Children don’t have the weird, dirty mind that you do!”
In general, how do you deal with haters?
I try to ignore them. I have to be honest, I’m pretty lucky. I don’t get a lot of haters. I think I’m too small potatoes for people to really swipe at me, and I’m sure that’ll bite me in the butt for saying that, but I just have to ignore it.
Let’s talk about how you cofounded the Endometriosis Foundation of America.
I’m very proud of the work we’ve accomplished so far. I didn’t want the next generation of young women to go through what I went through. I suffered a lot, and I missed jobs because of it, and I wasn’t able to focus during exam time if I happened to have my period, and that’s a big deal. It’s a fact that women are discriminated against in the workplace, and in life, and if you add this ball and chain on top of it at a time when a girl is feeling really vulnerable and developing her self-esteem, it can wreak havoc on a young woman. I just didn’t want that to happen to other people when there is treatment.
How do you talk to your daughter about the current political landscape?
She knows. She went to march with me. We were in the Planned Parenthood volunteer area. She’s very well aware, also because I’ve had to do stuff. She was probably the only 4-year-old who could say endometriosis! [Laughs] I also gave a keynote address for the ACLU earlier this year, and she came with me. She didn’t really understand what it was, but by the 19th time she had heard me rehearse my speech...
What do you do to de-stress after a crazy workday?
I take a bath and I just sit in very low lighting. My bedroom faces west, so I watch the sunset. Quiet, for me, is a luxury.
Padma's wearing: Lisa Marie Fernandez Bathing Suit
Padma's Top Picks
Body must-have: I have a great massage therapist, oh my God. He used to be a Broadway actor and an acrobat. Every other Sunday, he’ll come to the house. And I get acupuncture. Acupuncture saved my life. That was the first person who said, "I think you have some trouble with your ovaries.” I’m not sure how they were able to tell by looking at my tongue.
Health move: I drink a lot of water—three liters a day. I can tell by how much I’m peeing. And I eat really healthy, but I’m not talking about calories. I’m talking about nutrition. I eat as many colors as I can. If a salad doesn’t look colorful, it’s not good enough.
Jeans secret: Jeans are tough. If you [gain] seven or eight pounds, they look bad. I’ve seen paparazzi pics where I’m like, "Ugh, my knees look like sausages. Why did I have to wear such tight jeans?! Why didn’t I just go the size up?” I always tell my girlfriends: I have jeans now in two sizes. Rather than kill yourself to get into the lower size, you look skinnier in the bigger size. No one’s looking at your labels.
Skin-saving products: One thing modeling and being on TV and film sets have taught me is how to travel with all my amenities. It’s like a military operation. EltaMD ($26; dermstore.com) is a great sunblock, and I like Mad Hippie Vitamin C Serum ($63 for two; amazon.com). I like Christine Chin products, specifically the Daily Renewal Refinishing Serum ($69; christinechin.com). I also love the exfoliating mask from Tracie Martyn ($90; skinstore.com).
Savory snack: Beautiful, juicy tomatoes; really good basil, mint, or parsley, or any strong green herb; thick, sweet aged balsamic vinegar; and cottage cheese. Make it in a big bowl and give yourself a thick cracker or rye bread for some crunch. Or crush some peanuts with the back of a ladle in a plastic bag and sprinkle that on top. It’s pure protein, pure vegetables.
Bedside reading: Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay ($11; amazon.com). I know I'm late to the table on that one, but...
Go-to binge watch: Chewing Gum is a great series on Netflix. Picture a skinny, English Leslie Jones. She lives in the projects, and it’s so funny. It’s really out there. You laugh your ass off.
Styling by Karen Shapiro. Makeup by Birgitte for Laura Mercier. Hairstyling by Jeanie Syfu using T3 for Atelier Management. Manicure by Yuko Wada using Dior Vernis for Atelier Management.