Out of the hundreds of meals Padma Lakshmi experienced during her 19-season run on “Top Chef,” one stands out as her favorite.
“There was a great episode with Charlize Theron in Texas [Season 9],” Lakshmi told TheWrap. “We gave the contestants this wonderful challenge, which was to pick a fairy tale and illustrate it in all its wonder, horror, beauty, joy and, of course, deliciousness on the plate. And it was really wonderful because it unleashed such a sense of imagination and creativity and all of our chefs and that’s really what you want to see.”
“I remember that Grayson gave us a black chicken and left the chicken foot on there and it looked so sinister. And it was delicious,” she recalled. “Paul Qui had a bloody handprint in the middle of his dish made of beet juice and all these delicate vegetables and flowers around. He showed that murder can also be something that’s subtle and sophisticated; it doesn’t have to be this big bloody mess. That was a wonderful episode because it just showed you how creative you can be with food and how it stands up to any other creative art form.”
As a former fashion model-turned-TV host, Lakshmi shared her favorite looks from the series as well.
“My very first season we did a breakfast challenge outdoors on the beach in Malibu, and I wore this very ridiculous outfit consisting of a bikini, fur vest, UGG boots and a scarf. And as silly as my outfit seemed, it was really thought out to keep me warm but beach appropriate and kept my hair from flying all over the place. I don’t know that I could wear that outfit today. But it’s such a cute outfit. I was much younger then [laughs].”
“There is a Chinese New Year dinner that we did in Macau [Season 16] where I wear this Paco Rabanne, gold chain metal dress that I love as well,” she added. “I still have one version of it. The other version I actually donated to Housing Works because they have a charity auction every year, much to the chagrin of my longtime wardrobe stylist on ‘Top Chef’ Albert Mendonca. He is a genius and managed to dress me impeccably in spite of my weight going up and down three dress sizes in the course of one season!”
Lakshmi admitted that she disagreed with fellow judges Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons “all the time,” but that’s why there’s a panel and not just one judge.
“You can see on camera the very heated conversation we had in Hawaii, my first season, about Ilan Hall and Sam Talbott,” she recalled. “Food is subjective. I mean, there are empirically correct and incorrect ways to cook certain proteins or clean an artichoke or scale of fish. But beyond that, it is very subjective. And so all three of us and other guest judges are bringing our own perspectives to that judge’s table and trying to do the best we can.”
“If you’re coming from a chef’s perspective, you’re like, ‘Well, yeah, that was more delicious but that was so easy to do.’ If you’re Gail and coming at it from a publishing or food magazine point of view, you might say, ‘We’ve seen such and such dish a million times. I get that it’s a classic, but it’s not on trend.’ If you’re asking me, the host and judge, I am the audience’s representative. And I’m a food writer. And I love to research about food and the etymology of recipes. I don’t care how easy or hard it is to make anything. I don’t care if this dish is as old as time. I just care about what the best execution of said dish is. None of those three perspectives are the same. And none of those three perspectives are inherently wrong or right. It’s why there’s more than one judge on the judge’s table.”
Lakshmi, who announced she was moving on from “Top Chef” in June, has fond memories from every city the show has visited — and one regret.
“I’m sorry that under my tenure at ‘Top Chef’ we were unable to do a season in Atlanta. I think that would have been really interesting. And who knows? Maybe they’ll pull it off in the future.”
Along with the memories, Lakshmi has picked up four Outstanding Host for a Reality or Competition Emmy nods, including Season 20, her last. The show itself has been nominated for Outstanding Reality Competition every year since she joined back in 2006.
“I didn’t want to break the streak,” she said, laughing. “So I was really relieved about that. I was very grateful for the host nomination. We’ll have to wait till January to find out!”
All seasons of “Top Chef,” including the Emmy-nominated “World All-Stars” Season 20, are streaming on Peacock.