As the location for the current season of Bravo’s fabled Top Chef reality cooking competition, our state has officially earned bragging rights as a foodie destination. TOPS Louisville Editor Christine Fellingham visited with host Padma Lakshmi on set to hear her thoughts about food, travel and the Bluegrass State.
By Christine Fellingham | Photos by Smallz & Raskind/Bravo Media
It's not as hot in a Top Chef kitchen as it looks on TV; it’s hotter. On one sweltering June day, a handful of local reporters including this editor from TOPS, visited the local set of the legendary reality show. From first glance, the studio is a stunning temporary tribute to our state. The refrigerators are housed in a kind of kitchen paddock. There’s a bourbon wall, of course, and reclaimed wood trim. But as you get closer, the sweltering temperature and humidity add even more of a touch of local authenticity. It hits you hard as soon as you walk onto the set.
With dozens of sparkling Monogram ovens all preheating at once (“we want the chefs to be able to use any equipment they want,” explains Padma), everyone milling about looks a little wilted. Everyone, that is, except the queen of culinary cool, host Padma Lakshmi, who strides into the Kentucky-themed space in above-the-knee suede boots and a body-skimming dress looking supernaturally radiant and not quite as moist as the rest of the crew.
She tapes a few lines with the definitely more drenched guest judge Art Smith. They flub a few, crack up and quickly correct themselves. In person, Padma is imposing but fun, unflappable but approachable, and she seems to come with her own perpetual spotlight.
When she walks into the control room to watch the takes, she turns to speak to the guest gathered on folding chairs. It’s mostly a mix of journalists and YUM employees; the Quick Fire challenge is a KFC-inspired fried chicken cook-off. Everyone is transfixed as she tells the story of her first, chance meeting with Muhammad Ali.
“I was living in Los Angeles and I had just finished boxing practice,” she says. “I was driving east on Santa Monica and I stopped at Holloway Cleaners. It was one of those places where they do the dry cleaning there on the premises. I’m standing at the counter and I hear the door open and the little chimes jingle and all forty people who were behind the counter busily working, ironing, steaming all stopped what they were doing and stared. So much so that I just turned around to see what everyone was staring at.... He was moving pretty slowly by that time, from Parkinson’s, and he got close to me and I was just stuttering... I mean the only other person I’ve been so starstuck with is Mother Teresa. That’s the only other person, but it’s a totally different experience... and he said, ‘I love you too.’ Anyway, it was a very brief exchange, but it was very powerful. I met him a couple of years later at a charity event and, by that time, he couldn’t speak, but you could tell that he loved people and he loved to be around people. It was in his eyes. It was always mesmerizing to be around him.”
Padma is a woman who effortlessly combines beauty with substance and, when I sat down with her for a private conversation later in front of her trailer, she seemed to appreciate those same qualities in our state, which she was visiting for the first time in her life.
We were settled into comfy upholstered chairs on the “front porch” of her airstream, which was part of a little trailer village the cast and crew create inside the gigantic rented industrial space. Daughter Krishna has her own tiny trailer next door and there’s an astro-turf town green with lawn games; it’s a little slice of Americana in the middle of a vast cement and metal structure.
Padma relaxes into the throw pillows and asks an assistant to bring a ‘big thing of ice water with vitamin C powder,” which, honestly, sounded pretty tempting after the hours spent in the sweltering kitchen. While it’s been a long day, she is completely gracious about adding an interview onto the end of it.
Did you do any research before your first trip to Kentucky?
“Well, I mean I’ve never been to Kentucky, but I’ve been interested in Muhammad Ali’s life all of my life. So that’s why I knew so much about his history here and the best pieces of filmmaking about his career. The William Kennedy film is not to be missed, by the way.”
How do you immerse yourself in each new location?
“I like to know a little bit about the place I’m going, but that’s not just about the show. I’m a natural born nomad and the reason that I have the career in food that I do is because of my love of travel and my having traveled a lot as a model. So, I’ve had the opportunity to travel to many more places than the average young person does through modeling. When I travel, the first place I go is a local farmers market or spice market— whether it’s the Yucatan in Mexico or Marekesh.
I am first and foremost a writer and I’m very interested in food and how it connects people because to me food is the connective tissue for all of us and our cultures. If you think about any big milestones that we have as a society, whether it’s a birth, a death, a power lunch, a courtship, it’s all centered around food. So, I’m fascinated by it, as a way to understand a culture. Since we’ve been here, I’ve been eating out with Krishna (her daughter, 8) at local places. We’ve had a lot of barbecue… but a lot of healthy food. A lot of farm to table. It’s been delicious.”
Is your daughter, Krishna, an adventurous eater too?
“She actually has always been a great eater. But, speaking of Kentucky Fried Chicken, we do make fried chicken. We will do breaded chicken cutlets, but we use my recipe: buttermilk and cayenne in the crust mix and green mango powder. It gives you a little tartness. But she’s a great eater. She was actually even a better eater when she was three and hadn’t gone to school yet.”
You brought her with you. Does she travel with you often?
“She has gone home now for the last week of school. But she’s a very good traveler and I take her with me whenever I can. I have a little bag I pack that’s light enough for her to carry by herself with little tiny containers of playdough. She has a little water color set and I even cut the paper up— that thicker card stock paper— and tell her to make greeting cards for everyone. She’s not a whiney kid. A lot of times, if we’ve been sitting on a long flight and we get up to leave at the end, people near us will say, ‘Oh my god, there’s a child sitting behind me? I didn’t even notice.’”
How possible is it for you to have a normal dining experience while you’re traveling?
“Well, we call ahead. I think it’s fair to call ahead. Plus, I want to get a good table! Sometimes we walk in and stand in line, which is weird because they don’t like me to wait in line, but I don’t want people who’ve been in line to feel like ‘What the heck?’ if someone offers to seat us.
I think it is possible to have a normal experience if they don’t know who I am. But if it’s in a restaurant environment, people figure it out. So I know how to go incognito. I don’t wear makeup, I wear a ponytail, I put on glasses and then I usually go unnoticed.”
You have some news besides the new season—a collection for MAC cosmetics!
“Yes. It’s already out. It’s great. As a brown skinned woman, there weren’t a lot of colors that worked for me when I was modeling. I would take my own foundation and mix colors. So, I wanted to bring a collection of makeup that actually looks good on dark skin and light skin as well. I’am very proud of the collection for brown-skinned woman. Makeup doesn’t look the same on our skin like it looks in the pan. I wanted the return of color on the skin, and I’m very proud that it does look good on all complexions. We’ve had an incredible response just on social media. It’s been very gratifying.”
Your makeup collection and the steamy conditions on the set lead me to wonder what you do to keep your skin looking so flawless.
“I don’t wear a lot of makeup when I’m not working. What I usually do is I only use a little concealer where I need it. As we age, you don’t want to pack on the makeup. Plus, I wash my face a lot, and I also steam my skin.
Even when I’m in a hotel like I am now, I will ask room service to bring me a huge pot of hot water or a carafe of hot water for tea and I’ll ask them for a big, deep fruit bowl or stock pot. I’ll just put the hot water in the bowl with a few drops of tea tree oil. Then I’ll take a towel and hold it over my head and the bowl and I’ll steam with the tea tree. After that, I tone my face, throw ice water on it and it closes my pores.”
You mentioned in the control room that you can tell a lot about a chef from his work station. How?
“You can tell a lot about a chef from their station. For instance, there have been times when I’ve walked into the stations of the first quick fires of the season and I see a huge mess. I know that that chef isn’t going to make it far, because it’s their work ethic. It’s your respect for the ingredients. I understand that they’re in a rush and all hell breaks loose and I don’t expect them to keep a neat and tidy kitchen but when it’s a complete mess, that says something.”
You can be pretty direct with the chefs about their food.
“When I ask my girlfriend how I look, I want to know. I don’t want her to hurt my feelings, but she won’t be doing me a favor if she’s not truthful. I try to be as helpful to them in my commentary as I can, and I think it’s a real testament to our show that we have had more genuine captains of our industry make it, than any other reality show, even American Idol. Stephanie Izzard has made a huge impact in Chicago. We have Richard Blais, Kevin Gillespie, Ed Lee in Louisville. We’re going to go to Milkwood tonight.” (One of Ed’s places.)
What has impressed you most about Kentucky?
“How warm and friendly everyone is here. I love how everyone is so incredibly welcoming. I think people are genuinely super-excited to have us here and they are genuinely nice people.
I’ve also really been enjoying the natural beauty. I’ve always lived in a big city, so this is different for me. Driving from Louisville to Lexington, the landscape is just stunning. When I drive around just outside of the city limits, I always hear the song ‘America’ in my head. I understand what it means. It’s just this beautiful vista, with rolling hills, the paddocks with horses, the cows, sheep. It’s like stepping into a children’s book. It’s very idyllic for me.”
What surprised you about Louisville?
“I didn’t expect the diversity I’ve found in Louisville. It’s really great. That’s one thing that struck me. I thought it was really surprising and unexpected.“
Top Chef Kentucky Spoiler Alert: The Scoop on Season 16
By now, diehard fans have already started watching fifteen talented chefs compete against each other in our home state and, yes, right here in Lou. The first episode aired last month, on December 6, but it’s not too late to tune in and catch plenty of local footage and cameo appearances by local luminaries as contestants zip around our stomping grounds in their BMW X2 Sports Activity vehicles.
The cast travels between Louisville, Lexington and Lake Cumberland before heading abroad for an epic showdown in Macua, China. Here are just a few of the local hotspots highlights from their time here: