Top Chef's Padma Lakshmi Loves Cooking with Her Daughter, But Parenting a Big Kid Is Bittersweet: 'She's Not Going to Cuddle Me Forever'
It’s not Top Chef or her new series, Taste the Nation. Ten-year-old daughter Krishna is at the heart of Padma Lakshmi’s life. Here, she shares what they cook together, how she stocks their pantry, and what's on the horizon for her family.
“Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. Kit Kat bars. And oh my, Butterfingers,” says Padma Lakshmi, drawing out the name of the crackly candy bar with the admiration that she might accord a prize-winning creation on Top Chef. “Those are probably my favorite.”
It’s months into quarantine, and Lakshmi, who’s been sheltering in place on Long Island with her 10-year-old daughter, Krishna, and Krishna’s dad, Adam Dell, has trick-or-treating on the brain. “We start thinking about costumes shortly after Easter,” she says. “Krishna and I usually coordinate, so I try to lock in a decision by August!” She’s a bit behind schedule, but there’s no question that, come October 31, they will be dressed up and eating candy. “We’ll make it happen,” she says. “It’s our favorite holiday.”
As anyone who’s followed Lakshmi knows, she is a woman who rises to a challenge—and manages to find sweetness along the way. Born in India, she immigrated to the United States when she was 4, the only child of a single divorced mother. Lakshmi has written about being molested when she was 7 and raped at 16, and about how she has suffered from crippling endometriosis for most of her life. None of that kept her from modeling and then acting and finally making her way to Top Chef. She has hosted the show, where she’s respected for her poise and spot-on palate, since season 2 (it’s going on season 18); she has been an executive producer since 2013.
Lakshmi has also authored four books and serves as an ACLU artist ambassador, focusing on immigrants’ rights and women’s rights. She also created and hosted Hulu’s Taste the Nation, renewed for its second season, which has her traveling the country to uncover how immigrant groups shaped American food culture. On the show she’s the funny, sexy, elegantly voracious eater her fans have come to know and love; she also reveals a politically conscious mind willing to dig into the less palatable aspects of U.S. policy and assimilation. It’s a side of Lakshmi that followers on social media see through her impassioned posts in support of justice reform, Black Lives Matter, and the Me Too movement.
Still, above all, Lakshmi takes the greatest pride in motherhood. She has a playful and close relationship with Krishna—a budding musician, sometime video assistant, and impressive junior chef whom she calls Little Hands.
“I’m aware that she’s not going to cuddle with me forever. I’m already mourning,” Lakshmi says. But she’s reveling in the advantages of having a big kid. “The other day I wasn’t feeling well,” she says. “And all by herself, Krishna made a dish of couscous, vegetables, and Sriracha butter that was exactly what I wanted to eat.”
Here, she shares more of the meals and memories that have fortified their life together.
Growing Up on Top Chef
“Krishna is very comfortable on the set. She has her own crew pass and zips around on her scooter. But her favorite thing is to raid craft services when I’m not looking. I try to get the caterers to rearrange the food so that she can’t reach the sugary cereals all the time.”
Krishna’s First Meal Mishap
“When she was about 6 months old, we went to India for her first food ceremony, or annaprasanam. It commemorates the baby’s budding relationship to food. We would be giving her my grandmother’s kichidi, a porridge of rice and lentils, which is a traditional first food in India. But when we were in Singapore on the way to India, I had her in the carrier while I was sitting in a food court at a mall, and when I wasn’t looking, she managed to slurp some beef broth from my spoon! Beef, the most sacred animal to Hindus! I still have anxiety about that.”
Food Rules at Home
“There are a lot of things I’m not strict about, like bedtime, but I’ve always been pretty strict about what she eats. I believe you set a child’s eating patterns by the time they’re 4 or 5, and the best way to get a child to eat healthily is to eat well yourself. We try to keep our diet 50 percent fruits and vegetables, and Krishna knows that I’ll look over her plate. But mainly, I stress balance. Last night we had takeout pizza, and Krishna finished it off with Häagen-Dazs, so for the next couple of days we’ll have to be healthier.”
Back-Pocket Meal Go-Tos
“I always have dal and rice in the house. We make it two or three times a week. Another easy quick thing is a scrambled egg wrapped in a tortilla with raw cut vegetables. And she loves egg salad.”
Krishna’s Latest Cooking Feat
“The other day she FaceTimed me to ask, ‘Mom, how hot does oil have to be to fry chicken?’ I was like, ‘What? That’s too dangerous!’ But she was adamant about doing it, so I walked her through the steps. She had prepared the egg wash, the breadcrumbs, and the flour, and had the paper towels and tongs all ready. She had even salted the breading. When I asked her how she knew how to do it, she said, ‘Mom, I’ve been watching you for years!’ ”
Our Pandemic Pantry
“I immediately went out and got two 20-pound bags of rice and lentils. Krishna loves peanut butter—I admit I do too—so we also got about 12 tubs of regular peanut butter, not the organic kind. And I buy French’s mustard. You can mix Hellmann’s mayo and French’s mustard with some hot sauce and dried dill, and put it on a sandwich. Krishna calls it ‘that amazing sauce.’”
The New Project Krishna Inspired
“I’m ready to publish my first picture book, Tomatoes for Neela. It came to me when Krishna asked for pomegranates in July and I had to explain that it’s not their season here. I guess I’ve always loved books about food. When I was little, I had a fantastic book of poetry called Let’s Marry Said the Cherry, by N. M. Bodecker. I was fascinated by the references to foods I had never seen growing up in India, like watercress and clover. I recently found an out-of-print copy, and it’s as fantastic as I remembered.”
Everything You Need to Know About Padma Lakshmi
Tea is her thing. She drinks 12 cups a day of Wagh Bakri masala chai with a tiny splash of milk.
She'll cook in a hotel room. “If Krishna and I can’t get an apartment while I’m filming, then I bring groceries. We have a hot plate and pans, and we wash dishes in the bathtub. I’m not going to feed her room service for six weeks!”
She was a model, then an actress. She calls playing the tone-deaf singer Sylk opposite Mariah Carey in 2001’s Glitter the highlight of her acting career.
High school was tough. Padma briefly changed her name to Angelique in an attempt to fit in.
She doesn't hide her scar. The one on her right arm is from a car accident she suffered at age 14.
This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's October 2020 issue as “Padma's Greatest Passion.” Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here.