She started out as a model, tried her hand at acting, and is now a celebrated cookbok author. Emmy-Award winning host and producer of Top Chef, Padma Lakshmi is a force to reckon with in the culinary world, especially in the New York City, where she lives. She provides a definitive dining guide to NYC in a candid conversation. By Aindrila Mitra
It’s a sunny morning in New York City. The crew is waiting for the ‘food goddess’, Padma Lakshmi, at the Millennium Hilton New York Downtown, located opposite the Freedom Tower. When she breezes through the revolving doors on the dot of 8 am, guests present in the lobby can’t help but do a double take—it’s a mix of adulation, awe, and familiarity. After all, she reaches every home in America (and elsewhere) with her immensely popular TV series, Top Chef, which is now in its 16th season. Through the course of the day, she reveals herself as a passionate traveller and ardent foodie, even insisting on shooting alongside a food cart since that’s the sine qua non of NYC dining. Excerpts:
What strikes you about NYC?
Padma: I emigrated to New York when I was just four years old [Padma was from Chennai, but she was born in Delhi]. I grew up as a latchkey kid on the Upper East Side when my mother worked as a nurse at Sloan Kettering. I also lived in Elmhurst, Queens, and went to Catholic school for a few years. What strikes me most about New York, and one of the things that I love most about it, is that there are cultures from all over the world represented here, co-existing simultaneously. It is truly a melting pot and, I believe, representative of what the best of American ideals can be. You can come here with the dream of anything you desire, and forge your own path toward making that dream a reality.
NYC is a great city for emigrants, especially Indians, because there are a lot of Indians already here. There was a huge boom in the 1970s, and the recent tech boom has brought even more. A lot of those people have found their way into management positions and now have the capability to hire and create new opportunities for Indians here in America. What people don’t realise is that most Indians in the US have come here after 2000. For what it’s worth, Indians are also the most affluent minority in America.
Which are your favourite neighbourhoods in the city?
P: I’m a Downtown girl, but I’ve lived all over the city. I’ve always been drawn to the Gramercy Park area [the park is one of only two private parks in NYC], because there are many great restaurants there. I’m also partial to that area because some of my favourite Indian grocery stores are nearby!
Any hidden gems in the city that a traveller must experience?
P: Honestly, you can find anything you’re looking for in New York City. If you want to attend a dance party in an old church, head to Brooklyn. The Laurie Beechman Theater is great for dinner and a drag show. Inside the pristine marble lobby of Le Parker Meridien Hotel is a hidden, no-frills restaurant called Burger Joint that serves the best burgers, fries, and shakes. Step into the unassuming phone booth inside Crif Dogs in the East Village, and watch the wall slide back to reveal a cocktail lounge called Please Don’t Tell.
Most Broadway shows also have a lottery, which you can enter to win discounted tickets. And with museums, you can pay what you wish. Anything you could possibly want to do, there is an outlet for in New York. You also don’t really have to go to a fancy restaurant for the best food; some of the best I’ve had has been off the food trucks parked along the avenues.
Which are your favourite eateries in the city?
P: I love Indochine—it’s an institution at this point, and always reliable. Some restaurants I’ve been to lately that I have really enjoyed are La Mercerie, [Chef Floyd Cardoz’s] The Bombay Bread Bar, Loring Place by Chef Dan Kluger [located in the heart of Greenwich Village], ATLA, and Lilia— known for its Italian menu [including woodfired seafood, handcrafted pastas, and classic Italian cocktails].
Your top recommendations for first-time travellers to NYC?
P: Ride the Staten Island Ferry. It’s free, and gives great views of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Catch a live performance, whether it’s on Broadway, at the Opera, or a jazz set in a nightclub. Visit any of the museums. The MET and MoMA are my personal favourites. Go to Top of the Rock, and bask in the glory of the Manhattan skyline from up above. Go shopping at Bergdorf Goodman, and then go across the street to Central Park and enjoy a hot dog with lots of relish and mustard.
And where would you recommend we stay?
Your favourite destinations around the globe?
P: Italy holds a special place in my heart. That’s where I spent most of my 20s, and where I started working in live television. Paris is another place where I spent a lot of time working as a model, and a place I now love showing to my daughter. Bali and Ibiza are great for beach getaways. I think Mexico is wonderful, as I’ve gone there more than once to film Top Chef. And Cuba as well, because I shot my first movie there 20 years ago, and I will never forget the warmth and friendliness of its people.
You’re a chef, author, actor, brand ambassador—what do you enjoy doing most?
P: I’m actually not a chef! I’m a food writer, and my first love will always be writing. [Padma has four books to her credit—Easy Exotic: A Model’s Low-Fat Recipes From Around the World (1999); Tangy Tart Hot & Sweet: A World of Recipes for Every Day (2007); Love, Loss, and What We Ate: A Memoir (2016); and The Encyclopedia of Spices and Herbs: An Essential Guide to the Flavors of the World (2016)].
Lately, I have most enjoyed spending time with my daughter [Krishna], who is eight, and using my voice and platform to teach her and others to advocate for things that truly matter.
Who inspires you?
P: I think [the late] Anthony Bourdain did more for the genre than anyone else in recent memory. He so accurately and succinctly highlighted the greatest parts of each culture/ location he visited. Ruth Reichl has also illuminated some of the best cuisines from different parts of the world, and [she] really goes in deep with her research and writing. Paul Bowles was the ultimate travel writer and someone I admire greatly. I highly recommend reading his book Travels.
Things you’d advise people to carry when they travel.
P: Make sure you pack Vitamin C. I carry it with me everywhere! Flying dehydrates you, and airplanes recycle their air frequently. So, to avoid getting sick, I make sure I’m loaded up on Vitamin C and electrolytes. I also take a thin shawl and a sleep mask.
PADMA’S TOP PICKS:
Egypt, Japan, and Thailand.
Pulses—beans, legumes, lentils.
Italy. We went to the Amalfi coast—ate well, drank well, and played a lot of backgammon.
Things you always carry
Vitamin C, Christine Chin moisture mask sheets, cute socks, and Odomos mosquito repellent.