Illustration: Chaitanya Dinesh Surpur
Padma Lakshmi’s love for food resonates through her journey as model, actress and host of Top Chef. A prolific writer, her latest books bear testimony to this: Love, Loss, and What We Ate: A Memoir
and The Encyclopedia of Spices & Herbs: An Essential Guide to the Flavors of the World
. Lakshmi, 46, spoke to ForbesLife India about her ties with food1.Getting Out
My relationship with food had a blossoming in my 20s when I was working in Milan and Paris (as a model). I was cooking for myself and I had access to a body of knowledge I didn’t have till then. I was actually experiencing those dishes in their authentic setting. You learn by watching, by tasting, by trying, by failing. I always tell young people that the minute you get any money, even if it’s just a third-class ticket, with a backpack, just go. Go as far as you can, as often as you can, because you’ll come back a more enriched person.
2. Meeting People
I’ve had the chance to meet some famous culinary greats, from Thomas Keller to Alice Waters and Dominique Crenn. They have each inadvertently contributed to my knowledge. I learn things about food every day. But it doesn’t change my basic attitude or philosophy about food. It is one of the two basic things that human beings need to survive. We need love for our heart and we need food for our body. It is also what informs my writing.
3. Watch, Learn
I’ve learnt a lot by watching my grandmother, by seeing how she went about her daily chores and kept our family moving forward on our paths. At any given moment, there were eight or ten of us in the same household. While cooking is a skill, it is also subjective. It has to do with subtlety of perception, with your eyes, your nose, your ears, your touch and your palette. It involves all five of your senses, and I believe a sixth sense, about what goes together. If I have a problem in my kitchen or trouble writing a recipe, I still pick up the phone and seek her advice.
4. A Good Nose (And Stomach)
The first thing I do is find out where the farmers’ market or outdoor market is in a city. The best way is to ask the cab drivers. The hotel concierge will always send you to where all the foreigners go. I ask cab drivers where they eat. I often don’t want to go to a fancy place to eat. I want to go where the locals go. And they go there not just because they can afford it but also because they enjoy that kind of khaana. I’m a big lover of street food all over the world. Sometimes that can be a little dangerous, but I have a pretty good stomach.
5. Telling Stories
The interesting thing about writing is finding the underlying story behind any dish. You can look up any of those recipes on the internet, but I think people are hungry for history and deeper connections with what they’re eating. Most of us cook our best when we’re cooking for others, because we’re waiting for that moment when they close their eyes and say, ‘mm…’ In no other way can you enter someone else’s body without touching them. It’s a powerful thing to be able to do.In this series, we talk to entrepreneurs and celebrities, artists and musicians, about what they need to be who they are
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(This story appears in the Nov-Dec 2016 issue of ForbesLife India. To visit our Archives, click here.)