Padma Lakshmi on the New Food Revolution

Please note: This transcript has been automatically generated.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Hey y’all, it’s Brittany. I honestly cannot believe that it is March 2021, to be clear. Has a whole year really gone by since the start of this pandemic? I mean, I know that for me and maybe for some of you, this time last year, I was a little distracted with all of that fear and anxiety. I didn’t take the time to properly acknowledge what this month, specifically March 8th brings, International Women’s Day. 

I want to correct that especially because as we’ve been discussing, women around the world are suffering disproportionately from this pandemic psychologically, physically and economically. Paying attention to the issues of women, cisgender and transgender, nonbinary people, all of those folks who don’t benefit from gender privilege. That’s an issue for all of us to care about because the facts are clear that what happens to us affects our entire households, communities and actually the entire planet. No matter how much we’ve been ignored, we have never been and never will be irrelevant. So here’s to an International Women’s Day in the middle of Women’s History Month in the middle of a pandemic that women, femmess and nonbinary people are navigating every day with grace and power and fortitude. We are UNDISTRACTED. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham On the show today, Padma Lakshmi, I will be talking to the Top Chef and Taste the Nation host about the political nature of food and why she wants to break bread with those who are completely different from her. 

Padma Lakshmi I want my show not for people who think like me honestly, but for people who vote red. And, you know, while people won’t talk to you about religion or politics initially, they will talk to you about food. So it’s a great entry point. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham That’s coming up, but first, it’s your “UNtrending News”. 

Activists on Chicago’s Southeast Side have been on a hunger strike for a month to protest against environmental racism in their neighborhood. So in early February, three organizers vowed to go without food until the city stops a metal shredding facility from moving into the largely Black and Latinx community that’s already struggling with environmental pollution and high rates of asthma. Numerous others have since joined the hunger strike. Here’s what one of the protesters, Yesenia Chavez, has to say. 

Yesenia Chavez I will be on a hunger strike. I’m pretty nervous. I don’t know what all is 

going to happen to my health, but I do know that the toxins that will be released by this company will be polluting our lungs and will be directly affecting the health of our community. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Mayor Lori Lightfoot says that she and her team are reevaluating the move, but hunger strikers have called her lackluster response, quote, “insulting.” Injustice happens by a million different local, seemingly small decisions every single day about who gets tax abatements and zoning permissions, which companies are allowed to move where and which communities get protected and which ones don’t. We’re talking about this nationally because of courageous actions locally. And I guarantee you there are hundreds of similar actions happening right now, right where you live. So support local groups that watch out for this kind of stuff so they don’t have to starve just to get us to pay attention. 

Y’all may have heard about an Ohio mom, Shaina Bell, who was arrested for child endangerment last month after she left her two kids in a motel room so she could go to her job at a pizza restaurant. Thankfully, Shaina has since received an outpouring of support. 

Shaina Bell A lot of people are saying hurtful things, but a lot of people are also being there for me. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham As her story went viral, parents from around the country began rallying around her and her family, empathizing with just how hard it is to balance childcare and working, especially in a pandemic. Now, a fundraiser to provide Shaina with permanent housing has raised over 165 thousand dollars. Listen, parents are struggling right now, especially women of color and incarceration is not the answer. Shaina’s story is yet another reminder of how important it is that we get stimulus checks to parents right away. At this point, these aren’t stimulus checks, they’re survival checks. And it also makes a good case for the Marshall Plan for Moms, an idea proposed by Girls Who Code CEO Reshma Saujani, where the government would pay mothers 24 hundred dollars a month for their unpaid labor at home, because it is labor and it does matter. And finally, in the department of happy endings, former Georgia Senator Kelly Loeffler has been ousted as co-owner of the Atlanta Dream. And guess what? 

Renee Montgomery I am now the co-owner of the Atlanta dream and I’m so excited. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham  Basketball star Renee Montgomery has replaced her. So Renee Montgomery, who is Black and queer, retired from the WNBA last summer to focus on social justice activism. And now she is the first player to become both a team owner and a league executive. As you may recall, Loeffler, a Trump-loving Republican, criticized the WNBA last year for dedicating its season to social justice. 

News Reporter She asked the commissioner to scrap plans for players to wear warm up jerseys reading “Black Lives Matter,” and say her name. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham  Players on her own team as well as our girl Sue Bird, then publicly campaigned against her in this year’s historic Senate race. Y’all remember those “Vote Warnock,” jerseys that they wore? Pure trolling. Well, Loeffler lost to Raphael Warnock, and now she’s also lost her co-ownership of the Atlanta Dream. Sorry, not sorry. The league announced that the team is being sold to a three member investor group, which includes Renee Montgomery, who won two WNBA championships during her time with the Minnesota Lynx. So congrats to Renee and to all of the players who’ve been standing in the gap for social justice on and off the court. This sounds like the dream indeed. 

Coming up, I’ll be talking to Padma Lakshmi about the status of women and people of color in the food world. And we’ll be talking about Kamala Harris. That’s happening right after this short break. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham And we are back. So, my guest today is probably best known as the long time beloved host of the Emmy-winning TV series Top Chef

Padma Lakshmi Everything that the American cuisine is today is because all these different people in different cultures contributed to it. Oh, my God, it’s such a flavor explosion. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Y’all, Padma Lakshmi always brings it. Season 18 of Top Chef will be returning next month. And I am so hype about it. But that’s not all that she has on her plate. Last summer, Padma debuted her new show, Taste the Nation, which highlights the food stories of immigrants and people of color across the country. She’s also a UN Goodwill Ambassador and an ACLU Artist Ambassador. The truth is, Padma has always infused her work with politics, whether on TV or in her various offscreen activist roles. So with International Women’s Day fast approaching, I wanted to ask Padma about the status of women in the food world today. And let me tell you, she dished. 

Padma, it is such a pleasure to be talking to you. Thank you so much for chatting with me. 

Padma Lakshmi  Thank you for inviting me. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Happy International Women’s Day, it’s coming up this Monday. How will you be celebrating or acknowledging this day? 

Padma Lakshmi You know, I — I think I’m just going to spend it with my daughter. She’s going to be in school, obviously, and then we’ll probably do something after that, after school. Sometimes I like to try and get her to watch a documentary. It doesn’t always work but you know, she’s pretty with it and cool. Just recently, for example, she was working on a Civil Rights Project, and her task was to learn all about Nina Simone, which I thought was pretty cool. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Oh, yeah. 

Padma Lakshmi You know, I think at our house we try not to wait until March 8th, you know, we try to have every day be Women’s Day in this house. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham I want to keep talking about this, but before we do, I have to talk about your onscreen work because I am a legit super fan of Top Chef. Like, I’m not one of these fakers out here. I’ve been watching from the very beginning. I watch every season. I pant for it to come back on. And I’m really excited about this forthcoming season. You all’s newest season will be premiering soon and you’re headed to Portland, Oregon, a fantastic city. I know that one of the things that is unique about Portland is that it has a history of Pan-African cuisine. 

Padma Lakshmi That’s right and we cover that. And it was a joy to taste all the different cuisines and see how our chefs interpreted them. So much of African American food that was brought here from West Africa is still very much prevalent in American cuisine. For example, if you look at red rice from the Carolinas, it is so easy to see that it is the descendant of jollof rice in Nigeria. And, you know, every African country makes it a little bit differently. But, you know, we tend to forget those roots and we tend to forget those skills that Africa — enslaved Africans came here with. And so, this episode was really meaningful to me. I think it’s going to be a great season. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham  You’ve been hosting the show for 15 years, since season two. And I know that you all have been very intentional about working to be ever more inclusive and having a diversity of chefs. I wonder what you think about the progress of the larger food world. Have you observed the status of women chefs and chefs of color and chefs from marginalized backgrounds? Have you seen their status change over the years? 

Padma Lakshmi  I have seen it get better for women. I think finally, with the reckoning that we all had last summer, that bled into every profession, thankfully. And so we’re seeing it now with African-American chefs as well, but not as fast as I personally would like. The problem is that in every industry, positions of power are held by white males. And the food industry is the most male dominated industry we have, save for maybe the military. You know, people aren’t as aware of the names of female chefs. Female chefs don’t tend to get as much attention. We see this all the time, but that is changing. People are starting to know these women. You know, Suzanne Goin, Barbara Lynch in Boston, Dominique Crenn in San Francisco, you know Danielle Soto-Innes is here in New York. I mean, those are just a handful. But for so long, it was really the men who dominated the food industry. And also it’s because they’re also promoting and mentoring the people who are nearest to them. And this is a big deal. Like, I want them to go into different high schools and not everybody wants to go to college right away or colleges or culinary schools and dig for people who don’t look like them, who are not their gender, who they can show their craft to. Because I personally think it makes you a better person to have different people working with you, and it makes the kitchen culture a lot better as well. And for a long time, men really dominated the kitchen and resisted females coming in and taking positions of leadership. And now on Top Chef sometimes you’ll hear me say, “This dish is so beautiful. It’s — it’s so feminine.” And for me, that’s a huge compliment. That means attention to detail. That means not just having a big leg of lamb on the — in the middle of the dish, but having some real subtlety and thought to what we’re eating and some creativity. And I always think that regardless of what realm you’re in, whether you’re in media or music or food, having a plethora of diverse voices makes whatever product you’re all working together to make much more interesting. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham I mean, I think about this so often, right? You’ve helped really redefine what a chef looks like, as have so many of the other people that you’ve just named. But really, we’ve seen home cooking, right. The cooking that we deemed to be done by women in their home, by people of color, by indigenous folks in a way that is undervalued while we elevate chef cooking. And like you said, that’s usually done by European white men. 

Padma Lakshmi  Yeah, it’s really interesting to me that you know, most of the cooking in the world is done by women and often by people of color in the community when those households can afford to have domestic help. But most of the professional food world is dominated by men. And I think that’s because there’s commerce involved. And that’s why, because if you control the money, you control the environment. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham  And that — the pervasiveness of that desire for control, that patriarchy that, like you said, infects everything, including the food and restaurant world. I mean, I think especially in the wake of Time’s Up, we’ve seen a lot more conversations about injustice in the food world. You know, the serial harasser, male restaurateurs, the undervaluing of women of color by big media brands, debates over cultural appropriation by white food critics. I mean, these are some of the conversations that are being more fully elevated. What effect do you think this kind of moment of reckoning is having on the industry? 

Padma Lakshmi I think it’s wonderful. I think it’s very painful for a lot of people. But I also think it’s necessary. It’s an opportunity for us to see where we have gone wrong and how we can do better. I think that everything that’s happened with chefs being called out for sexual harassment, with editors who have been called out for appropriation and not really being inclusive in very, very prominent food magazines, all of that was very necessary. All of that are the long tendrils of this movement that we saw. And I think that you know, it can only get better from here because, look, I’m an Indian woman, okay? My culture has been using turmeric for five thousand years. Now, all of a sudden, turmeric is so trendy and you’re putting it in margaritas and you’re using it in all your recipes and at Starbucks and all of a sudden — good, good on you. I’m glad. But don’t pretend like you discovered this wonder ingredient. It takes one sentence in a magazine article or in a recipe in a book or in a conversation about saying turmeric is something that’s been used since ancient times in Hinduism, in India, it’s over five thousand years old. In the West, we’re just discovering it, and I just recently discovered it and I’m so excited to put it in this soup for you. It just gives credit where credit is due. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Yeah.

Padma Lakshmi I think those of us who have felt like our food and our traditions have been co-opted by white editors and white chefs. It’s not that we think you should stay in your lane because obviously we don’t want to stay in our lane either. I want to share my food with everybody. It gives me great joy when I see other people cooking Indian food. I just want them to give credit where credit is due because that is also educating the person you’re cooking for or writing for. To me, that’s not that hard to do and it also makes you look smarter because you would be smarter. That’s a smarter way to act. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham  Yeah, there’s a very clear difference between appropriation and appreciation, and I think you very clearly spelled it out for folks and you’re also continuing to do that with your work. So we know Top Chef and we now also know Taste the Nation, your series on Hulu that you host. It aired last year, and I’m really excited that it’s coming back for a second season because I think it does a really brilliant job of showcasing the complex issues present in the cities that you visit. I’m wondering how much you see food journalism as a form of political activism. 

Padma Lakshmi I mean, look, Taste the Nation is a political show, it’s just the food part is just it’s buy cover. Right? That’s just the excuse to get people to watch. And it’s the language that people are used to hearing me speak on television. But I really do think food is very political. Anything that we need for survival is political. And I wrote my show not for people who think like me honestly, but for people who vote red. Because if I can get them to see the people that they normally want to put in cages as human beings, it becomes harder for them to condone that family separation. And you know, while people won’t talk to you about religion or politics initially, they will talk to you about food so it’s a great entry point. But there’s nothing more political than the food we eat and the bread we break together. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham One of my favorite episodes to your point, was the El Paso episode. And you talked about what Mexican cuisine was like before somebody Columbused it. Before European colonization shifted the actual taste that we experience, who has access to food, how these inequalities and these injustices manifest on your table. 

Padma Lakshmi Most people don’t — they know more, much more now than they did 20 or even 10 or five years ago, because they’re curious and it’s sort of aspirational to know where your food comes from. But you need to also know not just the small shi-shi farm that it comes from. You need to know that tomato was picked by a farm worker who probably makes less than minimum wage. You need to know that the food you’re eating is not just random, that it comes to you because of a whole bunch of people made a whole bunch of decisions. And the fact that your flautas are made with flour tortillas and not corn tortillas and called taquitos, that’s a political subject. And that’s because of colonization. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham And it’s a system wide problem in all the ways from how food has been colonized to now, if we look at the impact of the pandemic, what is happening not just to restaurateurs, but to food service workers and the independent restaurant industry. I know you’ve been a really outspoken advocate about this because some of these restaurants and workers have just been crushed by this pandemic. So what’s one thing that you really want people to know about the situation for these small, independent restaurants right now? 

Padma Lakshmi  I don’t think a lot of them are going to make it. And, you know, when you’re looking for that cheapest dinner because you’re struggling also, I get it. But you have to understand that the margins in the food industry are very low. And it’s a horrible problem. I mean, the restaurant industry is a very diverse industry, not at the top, but certainly at the bottom and the middle. If you look, for instance, I live in New York City. If you look in the back of any restaurant kitchen, it’s all brown and Black faces. Those people are living hand-to-mouth. And anything that we can do to help them puts money back into the economy. Restaurant business keeps literally communities afloat. It is the second largest private employer. And it’s the farmers and the truck drivers and the people who work in the produce wholesalers, all of the people. It’s a supply chain from who pulls that turnip out of the ground to who brings your plate of hot food out from the kitchen. And in between those two places, there is a multitude.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham A multitude that deserves our attention and respect and support. 

Hopefully we’ll be turning the corner on how we are handling this pandemic soon. Given that we’ve finally got a new administration that are not saviors, right, but are certainly a departure from what we had. Which actually makes me want to ask you about now Madam Vice President Kamala Harris. Obviously, she’s the first woman, the first Black person, the first South Asian to become vice president. And your family is from the — actually the same city in India. So what did her swearing in mean to you? 

Padma Lakshmi It was surreal Brittany. I never thought in my lifetime I would see a woman of color, never mind Indian, just a woman of color or woman be vice president. You know, it is just — it’s a very visceral, emotional moment. It almost defies words, I think, for every little girl and boy, it’s very important to see that. Just as it was very important to see Obama be sworn in twice. You know, it’s very important to see Warnock, the Reverend Warnock be sworn in. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Yeah.

Padma Lakshmi You know, all of these firsts that happen every day. It is a very, very important thing because I actually think the country will be run better if half the people running it are women, and half the people running it are not white at least. You know, I think there would be more equity. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham I’m just wondering if it made you reflect more on your own journey in this country, you know, challenges and triumphs you faced as a young girl or a woman of color, especially in your industry. 

Padma Lakshmi Yeah, I mean, I can’t tell you how many times young women who are Indian or Black or Mexican or whatever come up to me when I’m hailing a cab and say, “I grew up watching you on Top Chef and you were the only brown face I saw in food for a long time.” I mean, there were a few, but not in a long running, you know, leadership position where you’re actually hosting the show. And especially Indian they’re like, “I didn’t see any other Indian people except for Apu, you know, in The Simpsons or it’s always like a cab driver or a terrorist.” It’s good, it’s important for people to see themselves in government, in business, in the media, in literature, and music. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Everywhere, right? That’s the point, everywhere. 

Padma Lakshmi  Even myself. I’m not kidding. I was like I never thought we would elect somebody like that. And the fact that we did actually put some bounce in my step to think, well, maybe I can do something I thought I couldn’t do. It gives you hope. It gives you promise. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham It gives you a role model and shows you a path. 

Padma Lakshmi  Yeah. I am not of the belief that somebody has to come from where you do and look exactly like you to be a role model. If that were the case, I would have no role models. But you know, when I was in high school and I would come home from school and I would watch Oprah every day, that gave me a lot of promise. It gave me a lot of hope. I saw this woman being herself, being strong, but also compassionate and having the show and seeing the show grow. And as I grew, seeing her power grow and it helped me to see Oprah. I’m not African-American, but she was a huge influence in my life. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham  Yours and mine both. Is there a particular perspective that you are hoping Vice President Harris, as a woman and as a daughter of immigrants, will bring to her job? 

Padma Lakshmi  We are all shaped by the experiences we have had as we walk through life. And it was very powerful in that first debate when she corrected Joe Biden and said, “You know, I was on that bus in Berkeley, I, I was bussed to my school. And so the thing you’re talking about, I know firsthand.” You know, that’s important to feel things firsthand. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham  And in your mind, what do you think they need to be doing, especially in light of the pandemic. Unemployment, childcare, home schooling, joblessness, you name it, it’s a massive issue. So, these folks take their perspective into the halls of government. What do they need to be doing for women right now? 

Padma Lakshmi  I think you need to solve the childcare piece of it. I think what we saw during the pandemic is that women had to remove themselves from the workplace because the family didn’t have childcare. And it usually falls to the female members to do that. And so we need to, again, bring women on to equal footing so that they can compete. And we also need to respect the women again, usually immigrants who do take care of the childcare for those of us who work. We have to pay them equitably and give them benefits so that their own families are taken care of. And you know, Kamala, her sister actually had her niece very young. And so she has seen very directly how important that childcare piece is. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham  Before I ask you this last question, out of curiosity. So let’s say we were having a victory dinner, and we got all of these things accomplished that you just walked through and in comes Madam Vice President to sit at the head of the table and you were the chef. What would you cook for Kamala? 

Padma Lakshmi  Oh, I would cook South Indian food. This tamarind rice, which I actually made on my Instagram because I know she loves that dish. I would make all very traditional, very simple vegetarian South Indian food. Dosas, sambar which is basically a lentil with tamarind. Rasam, which is — which we featured on episode three of Taste the Nation, which is just like a really clear tomato broth, that is our version of chicken soup. All the things. And I would make her a Jamaican jerk chicken because I love jerk chicken myself and I’m very good at making it. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Well slide me a plate. Will you do that? 

Padma Lakshmi I would love to.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Just like set one to the side for me please. Before I let you go, we’re looking ahead at International Women’s Day. You’ve already spoken about your daughter. Are you feeling like she’s going to have enough role models to help show her a path? How are you feeling about the road ahead? 

Padma Lakshmi  I’m feeling positive about the road ahead. You know, as human beings in evolution you can go a step back and then you can go a step forward and go two back like that. But if you look over the long arc of history, there’s no better time to be a woman than today. So you have to take comfort and pride and hope and you know, encouragement from that. As easy as it is, and there are many reasons to get down, it’s shocking how many ways we are not equal to men with laws, with opportunities, with education, in the athletic world, what people get paid, in any sector of our life that you could possibly think of. But today, where we stand in our own history, we are better off. So that is all the motivation one should need to put one foot in front of the other and keep fighting. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham And keep fighting, and eat good food on the way. Padma, I’m so grateful to you for everything you’re doing out in the world and for spending a little time with us. It’s been so great to talk to you. 

Padma Lakshmi  My pleasure Brittany

Brittany Packnett Cunningham  Padma Lakshmi is a TV host, producer, food expert and advocate for immigrant and women’s rights. Season 18 of Top Chef will premiere April 1st. “There’s nothing more political than the food we eat and the bread we break together.” I totally agree with Padma that food is political because, well, of course the personal is political. And I appreciate that she’s leveraging food to talk about all the things that matter most. It’s a great entry point. Who doesn’t like to eat? I definitely do. And like Padma said, once you sit down to dine, take the time to learn more about where your food comes from. That’s the politics of it all. And we can’t ignore it just because we’re on the consumption end of the supply chain. There is an entire system from farm workers to cooks and waitstaff and restaurants to the chefs we celebrate. And it’s true, we need more equity in that industry as a whole. When it comes down to it, food is a story of how we survive and how we thrive. So here’s to building bigger, more expansive tables where all of us can feast. 

Well, now that I’m fully hungry, that’s it for today, but never for tomorrow.


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Thanks for listening. Thanks for being. And thanks for doing. I’m Brittany Packnett Cunningham. Let’s go get free.