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November 6, 2012 at 9:45 PM

Padma Lakshmi speaks out on ‘Top Chef Seattle’


“A love letter to Seattle and its food scene”: That’s how Padma Lakshmi describes “Top Chef: Seattle,” which premieres Wednesday night.

The celebrity host said in a phone interview this week that she was enamored with her introduction to the “verdant and beautiful” city, probably her favorite location in the nine seasons she’s been with the show (“other than being in New York, which allowed me to sleep in my own bed.”)

Twenty-one “cheftestants” (none from Seattle), along with Lakshmi and judges Hugh Acheson, Tom Colicchio, Wolfgang Puck, and Gail Simmons spent seven weeks filming over the summer, spotlighting city landmarks from Fare Start to the Bite of Seattle.

The city had a reputation for seafood, sure, but Lakshmi said she “didn’t know to what extent the food scene would be so great,” between Pike Place Market (“probably the best outdoor market I’ve ever been to in this country”), Melrose Market with its “rows of beautiful, beautiful cheese” at The Calf and Kid, “insane produce” and seafood that tasted “incredible” even beyond its advance notoriety. Lakshmi said she has never done so much cooking off the set as she did in the corporate apartment where she stayed downtown. (Dungeness crab-chile pasta was a favorite, and she also took advantage of the area’s Indian and Southeast Asian markets for ingredients.)

On a personal level, the city proved surprisingly kid-friendly for Lakshmi and 2-year-old daughter Krishna. An old friend from her Toronto days (Susan Roxborough, executive editor at Sasquatch Books) served as tour guide, marking up a guidebook with recommendations and starting their culinary introduction to the city at the Arabesque pop-up dinners at Mistral Kitchen. Lakshmi and her toddler rode the Great Wheel on opening day, visited the aquarium, and picked berries at Remlinger Farms.

Contract obligations made it hard to navigate talking with fans who frequently spotted her during the filming or off the set. Twitter was alive with reports of her declining to speak or be photographed.

“I tried to keep a low profile, but it was hard. Honestly, I felt so rude, and I’m sure the local natives of Seattle must have an odd image of me, because I was in this very awkward and undiplomatic position of not being able to talk about why I was there,” she said.

“I have a duty, bound by my confidentiality contract, not to talk about the show until it airs, because the show does not work unless there is secrecy around it, otherwise it just ruins the surprise. I take my job very seriously, and so I couldn’t be the way I normally am when I was there filming…”

“I just want the people of Seattle to know, my crew, and especially me, had a great time in Seattle. I love their city. I look forward to coming back. And I really hope they enjoy the season as much as we enjoyed being there…. I hope we’ve done the city justice.”

We chatted about what was left out of the Seattle season, how a celebrity navigates town with a toddler, why Top Chef is like a game show, and how Lakshmi avoids “sprinkling myself everywhere like parsley.” Here’s an abridged, edited version of our conversation. (Want company watching and dissecting the premiere? Tom Douglas is hosting a $20 giant-screen viewing party at 9 p.m. Nov. 7 at the Palace Kitchen, and we’ll be recapping each episode online.)

Q: Was there anything you wanted to include in the show that didn’t make the final cut?

A: One thing that we wanted to do but didn’t, because the season wasn’t right, was the foraging… we would have had to fake it, and we don’t do that. I would have really liked to have done that, and camped out — and I would have liked to go to the (San Juan) islands.”

Q: Do you have input on where the season is filmed, or is that all up to the producers?

A: “I am a producer on the show. For us there are so many moving parts… all the stars have to be aligned, and the budget has to be thought about. We often make requests and suggestions, and I give input, as does Tom (Colicchio), but there are so many things to consider that the producers usually take care of with the network. Most of it has to do with how much it costs to do the show, and where we think is interesting from a culinary standpoint.”

Q: Sometimes in Seattle we get an inferiority complex about how good Portland’s food is. There was a lot of talk about whether a Northwest Top Chef might have been in Portland instead.

A: “I know very little about Portland — I kind of knew the same about Portland that I did about Seattle. Now, of course, having lived in Seattle for seven weeks, I feel I really got to know the town, (and) I don’t think Seattle should have an inferiority complex at all. If anything it’s just on the West Coast, so it’s far from New York, which I guess is the media epicenter, so people don’t get to go there as often.

Q: Is the person viewers see on Top Chef really you, or a persona you adopt for the show?

A: The show is so formatted. In order to do my job well as a host, I really have to facilitate the conversation at the judges table…

“When we’re in the kitchen and I’m giving out the challenge to the contestants, I have to be very businesslike and I have to be very neutral and almost, again, submerge my own personality. Because most people think of us as a food show or a reality show, but the truth is, we are a game show, we’re just a game show about food. And because we’re a game show we’re regulated by the FCC, and the rules that apply to that sort of show to make sure it’s fair.

“I don’t really fraternize a lot with the contestants unless it’s after the whole thing is over — even though there’s no impropriety, we cannot risk any perception of impropriety. I’m purposely very neutral, almost cold, because I have to be very even to all of them. It’s an odd thing. And the reason I speak so slowly and so deliberately when I deliver those challenges is because you at home are only hearing the challenge once from me, and so I don’t get to say whatever feels natural, I get to say what’s been vetted and developed and decided upon not only by our producers but by our network and by our network lawyers, to make sure it’s worded precisely, that everyone understands the challenge, that there’s no misunderstanding…
“If you want to see how I really am, you should look at how I am on talk shows.”
Q: Do you use your Twitter account as a way to get across your own point of view?

A: “I try to… (but) the one thing that Twitter has taught me is that I’m much less interesting than I want to be.”
Q: How did you manage navigating Seattle as a celebrity with a toddler — was it hard to maintain your daughter’s privacy?
A: “I’m always flattered when people ask to take a picture with me — because of all these phones now, no one wants an autograph anymore — I’m happy to take a picture with anybody so long as I look semi-decent. But when I’m with my daughter, I don’t do that… We get followed around by paparazzi and stuff, but I want her to have a normal life. I want her to think she’s special, but not because of mommy, not because of the fact her mommy’s well known. The only thing I can do is hope that people understand, and I say to them, ‘I’d love to take a picture with you normally, but I’m with my family and I want to try to keep it low-key.’ And most people understand… I think those that are like-minded understand, and those who don’t won’t understand, but my kid is more important than what people think of me.”
Q: And does having a toddler change the way you cook and eat yourself?
A: “It doesn’t change the way I cook for myself. That’s the one thing I am very fascist about, is the way I feed my daughter. Krishna’s never had any baby food at all. in her life. Even in Seattle or Texas (where the last season of Top Chef was filmed), we cooked, whether we were in a hotel or a corporate apartment… if we have to, we cook with a hot plate, and if we have to, we wash dishes in the bathroom sink, but she has had homemade food, fresh food, since day one.”
Q: Tell me about having dinner at Canlis when you were here.
A: I wanted to go, just because it was such a Seattle institution, and it was wonderful. I met both the parents (Chris and Alice Canlis) and the brothers (Mark and Brian) and their daughters-in-law, and met the chef there (Jason Franey), who I think is really brilliant, and is doing a lot to modernize the menu while still being respectful to its history and tradition.”
Q: I see from Twitter that you support different philanthropic causes. How do you decide how to divide your time?
A: “I mostly concentrate my philanthropic efforts in two categories. One is children and one is in women’s health. I started a foundation called the Endometriosis Foundation of American with my surgeon after being diagnosed with the illness at 36. After suffering for 23 years with the disease, I think my own personal experience galvanized my frustration and propelled me to speak out about a very personal and intimate issue. I didn’t want women or young girls in my daughter’s generation to go through what I went through…(I also support) Keep A Child Alive, for which I’m a global ambassador…to get children with HIV in India and Africa nutrition, medicine, a roof over their heads, and everything else they need to survive… I try to focus all of my efforts with those two organizations, otherwise I’m just sprinkling myself everywhere like parsley.”
Q: And, how do you make time for anything when you’ve got a 2-year-old at home?

A: “Every day is different. I’m lucky in that Top Chef is seasonal and filmed all at once, so I can do that quickly and then be with my child. I’m pretty much a stay-at-home mom when I’m not doing Top Chef, but there are things that take me away, like meetings or my culinary company – I make a line of teas and spices called Easy Exotic which we predominately sell online and at (the Home Shopping Network), so I do have to travel to HSN headquarters. She comes with me, she loves it there…but it is hard. I don’t have any secret formula, I’m figuring it out as I go.”
Top Chef Seattle photo courtesy of Bravo



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