Friday morning, Insider was invited to go on the set of “Top Chef” and watch how the show is made. Padma Lakshmi, host of “Top Chef,” created a stir when she landed in Louisville and sampled the local food scene this month.
We can’t tell you anything about the next season, who is in it or what episode they were filming, but Insider gleaned a few nuggets from the executive producer, the culinary producer and … Padma!
First impressions: Padma Lakshmi is even more gorgeous in person than on TV, and she’s also amazingly gracious and nice. She was friendly and warm to everyone she met, from the contestants to the guest judges to the media. She gave many interviews and didn’t seem at all put out to talk to reporters, even after a long day filming.
‘It’s been hectic and a whirlwind’
Lakshmi said the filming and the visit to Louisville was going well: “It’s been hectic and a whirlwind, but the first week and a half or two weeks usually are. We’ve done some great challenges, really clever. We have had a chance to explore. We were at The Derby, and we also went to Maker’s Mark. The drive out there is so glorious! It’s like a picture book. I’ve always lived in a big city, so this is the first time I’ve really been out in more of the countryside. And it’s so beautiful. And I guess we’re coming at a good time of year, too. Everything is so lush and green.”
Places she wants to try: “I haven’t really had a lot of free time, so tomorrow will be my first day off since we got here. And, I don’t know, to be honest. But we did tweet out for suggestions, and I could write a directory now, of places to go in Louisville,” she joked. (Lakshmi’s Twitter.)
Places she’s been so far: “I do want to try to taste some of the local fare, and I do want to see where the locals eat. I am excited to browse. I went to have fried chicken at Royals and I went to Feast, but those were quicker things. I don’t have a lot of time, so to sit down and go to a really nice restaurant is a rarity.”
On the size of her plate at Feast: “I don’t eat every bite of everything. When I go to a restaurant, I know the likelihood is that I won’t get to go to it very often, so I do order more. I’m not alone, I’m just with people who want to be private. You’ll see the side of my daughter’s face or you’ll hear the voice of my assistant. Also, chefs send me out a lot of stuff without me asking. I do want to try everything. I will try everything. I’m curious, you know? And I want to share with everybody.”
On how she finds the best local food: “I ask the locals. I want to discover the highs and the lows, in the sense that … I do read and see, has there been a James Beard winner in this city? Or who do I know? I’ll ask Gail (Simmons, recurring judge on the show). Gail is a really good fountain of information about that stuff.
“I’ll ask the locals. I’ll ask someone in their 20s. Even if it’s a PA (production assistant) that we’ve hired from here. Or I’ll ask an Uber driver, especially if they’re immigrants, because every city has its pockets of communities. So I want to go to the fancy restaurant but I also want to go to the truck stop. So, I feel like the truck stop is almost the better discovery. I eat a lot of fancy food on the show, so when I’m not on the show I just want a clean meal that’s just what it is, if that makes sense.”
On the Kentucky culinary scene: “I think Kentucky is about to have a renaissance in the way that Charleston already has. But I think Kentucky is on that path, or Atlanta. You know, American food is much more regional than people realize. And there’s wonderful local specialties and, at least, I didn’t know about them before we started doing the show here.”
Something new she’s tried: That weird dish with bananas and mayonnaise and peanuts? Banana croquettes. When I heard about that, I was like, ‘Mmmm, I don’t know.’ But honestly, it was good. Of course it’s good, it’s sugar starch and fat! I would have never put mayonnaise with banana, but it is just eggs, you know what I mean? It’s been interesting. I haven’t had a hot brown yet. I have to pace myself!”
Kentuckians like meat: “You guys eat a lot more red meat here. You guys are much more carnivorous. I’ve been ordering Indian food a lot.”
Bourbon goodness: “One thing I did try, which I’d never tried before — which makes complete sense — is the bourbon slushie. I had a mint julep bourbon slushie, and I thought, ‘Slushie, really? Come on.’ But, honestly, it’s much better than what you get at 7-11!
“It’s just refreshing, and we were out shooting somewhere, so it was hot and (the drink) was cold. It was beautiful. I don’t know what I want to try. I think I’d like to try Decca. Everyone said that that’s very modern and vegetable-forward, and I’d like to find out what are the (immigrant) communities in Kentucky.”
Lakshmi, who was born in India, asked about the immigrant communities in Kentucky, and was pleased to learn of the large refugee community in Louisville and of Kentucky Refugee Ministries’ and Catholic Charities’ work with refugee resettlement. She was happy to hear that Louisville is accepting.
On immigration: “I recently signed on to be an ambassador for the ACLU for immigration rights and also for women’s rights because I run a foundation for women’s health (she’s the co-founder of the Endometriosis Foundation of America). I’ve got to tell you, regardless of what your politics are … the waking up of fear and hate. Most immigrants don’t leave their home countries unless they need to. They want a better life. They sacrificed so much to get here, that they’re not going to rock the boat. Yes, of course, there are a few terrible people, but they’d be terrible anywhere.”
On what Kentucky has in store after “Top Chef” airs: “Batten down the hatches! For most cities it’s a chance to show how specific and special and unique different parts of this country are. A lot of us haven’t been able to travel. I’m very lucky — I wouldn’t have been able to travel to a lot of these places in the states if it wasn’t for ‘Top Chef.’ Then on the other hand, the reason I think I do the job I do is because I’ve traveled. Travel has been such an important part of my life and my career way before ‘Top Chef,’ and if I hadn’t had the opportunity to travel to all those places and learn about food from all over the world as a model … and I happen to have an interest in food anyway.
“That’s what I think ‘Top Chef’ can do for a city. It allows that city to show to a wider world who maybe can’t come here what you would only experience if you actually were here. I can read about Kentucky, and I can look at a recipe for a hot brown, but you know, I see my job as being the audience’s representative so that when I bite into that banana croquette or whatever it is, that I can have the experience and articulate it and describe it in away that really communicates it to them, and I think that is a skill that’s not different than a recipe. You want to teach someone how to make a dish and you have to describe that when you’re not standing in the room.
“So it’s a chance for Kentucky to shine, to show itself in all of its nuances rather than with a wide brush stroke of just clichés to get down to the more rooty, local things.”