Padma Lakshmi on How Cooking With Her Daughter Inspires Her Storytelling

The host of Top Chef draws on her experiences cooking with her daughter in her picture book about a cherished summertime ritual.

Padma Lakshmi headshot
Photo: Inez & Vinoodh

Padma Lakshmi has a new audience: kids. The Indian-born cookbook author, longtime host of Top Chef, and cover parent for our October 2020 issue just cooked up Tomatoes for Neela, which celebrates food, family, and traditions. Out on August 31, the exquisitely illustrated book follows a girl who cooks with her mom, with a focus on a sauce recipe passed down from her grandmother in India. The characters buy tomatoes from the farmers' market and can the sauce for the winter. ("It's best to have fruits and vegetables when Mother Nature likes to grow them near us," Lakshmi writes.) The concept has been brewing ever since Lakshmi started cooking with her daughter, Krishna, now 11.

Parents caught up with the author while she was filming season 2 of Hulu's Taste the Nation.

Tomatoes for Neela book
Courtesy of Viking Books for Young Readers

How did the book evolve?

When Krishna was younger, I wanted to find an entertaining way to teach her about how various vegetables and fruits grew throughout the year, and why we should eat them in season. So I started telling her a story and built it up over time. That was the basis for the book. My original story even grew to involve a squirrel family, but we didn't have the space for that!

What lessons do you want to teach?

I hope that children come away with a curiosity about cooking and an appreciation for writing recipes down. It's a nice way to teach them about fractions too! And there are recipes in the book—a tomato sauce and a tomato chutney—that kids and parents can make together.

Did you have bedtime faves with Krishna when she was younger?

One of our favorite picture books was Miss Suzy, an imaginative classic featuring a squirrel. We also adored There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly! and Corduroy.

What was your favorite as a child?

I had a poetry book called Let's Marry Said the Cherry, which I can still quote from to this day.

What have you read recently?

Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson, which gives a thorough sense about the origins of racism in our country. I wish I'd had that book in high school.

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's August 2021 issue as "Padma Lakshmi's Recipe for Storytelling." Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here

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