YORK — If you ever happen to interview Padma Lakshmi,
do yourself a favor and let her pick the location. That
way, you might just find yourself enjoying a piping hot
plate of spicy orecchiette at an unassuming East Village
trattoria while the former model converses in fluent
Italian with the restaurant’s owner.
anyone who’s watched "Top Chef," the popular
Bravo competition series that has introduced a
generation of American TV viewers to phrases like sous-vide
and mise en place, it should come as no surprise that
Lakshmi, 45, would turn a standard interview into a
may be more unexpected, particularly given Lakshmi’s
glamorous but inscrutable TV persona, are the
revelations in "Love, Loss, and What We Ate: A
Memoir" (Ecco: 336 pp., $26.99). She writes with
candor about her romances with author Salman Rushdie and
billionaire Teddy Forstmann, her struggle with
debilitating endometriosis, and the acrimonious legal
battle for custody of her daughter, Krishna, now a
spirited 6-year-old who tagged along with her mother to
the interview. The memoir, which Lakshmi will discuss
April 9 at the L.A. Times Festival of Books, also delves
into childhood traumas, including sexual abuse, the car
accident that resulted in a 7-inch scar on her right
arm, and the rootlessness that arose as she shuttled
back and forth between America and India.
so long, the only thing that people have known of me or
seen me in is ‘Top Chef,’ That’s a very slim and
narrow picture of me to have," said Lakshmi, taking
a generous forkful from her plate of rigatoni swimming
in Amatriciana sauce — white sweater be damned.
"As I enter the next phase of my career, I’m
looking forward to making a living from something other
than my likeness or image on TV. As a woman, I wanted to
address certain issues that had been on my mind. As a
feminist, I don’t think people talk openly about body
image and self-esteem and being a brown girl in a white
author of two previous cookbooks and an occasional
contributor to outlets such as Vogue and Harper’s
Bazaar, Lakshmi had originally set out to write a guide
to healthful eating. That idea was quickly dashed when
she realized her dietary philosophy could be summed up
"in three sentences." Instead, Lakshmi decided
to write something more personal that would appeal to
readers even if they didn’t know her as the lady from
advice from an editor friend, she said, "What if
you write the kind of book that you would love to
"Love, Loss, and What We Ate," Lakshmi has
attempted to emulate her favorite writers, M.F.K.
Fisher, Mary Karr and Joan Didion — no small feat, as
she acknowledged with a laugh. "The problem with me
is that I feel I have really good taste in books."
Also influential was Judith Moore’s memoir, "Fat
Girl," which she calls "raw and real."
wanted to write a proper book that would be respected,
so people wouldn’t say, ‘She’s a cookbook writer,’"
Lakshmi said, shrugging bashfully, "They would just
say, ‘She’s a writer.’"
throughout the book are stories of food, most of them
far removed from the haute cuisine she regularly samples
on "Top Chef." There’s the kumquat and
ginger chutney that comforted her in the dark days after
her separation from Rushdie, the cream cheese and
ketchup sandwiches she ate as a homesick child newly
arrived in America, and kichidi, a simple lentil and
rice stew she lived on while nursing her infant
book’s title began as a joke between Lakshmi and her
friend, the late Nora Ephron, who’d often ask how
"Love, Loss, and What We Ate" was going — a
reference to Ephron’s stage play "Love, Loss, and
What I Wore." It stuck.
seems to live by Ephron’s credo that "everything
is copy." The four-year process of writing the book
came amid an intense period of extremes that began in
2006, when Lakshmi was hired to host "Top
Chef." The series became an Emmy-winning hit, but
her booming career put a strain on her marriage to
Rushdie. Another source of tension in their union was
her long-undiagnosed endometriosis. The condition made
sex painful for Lakshmi, dampening her libido, and
Rushdie felt rejected. They divorced in 2007.
co-founder of the Endometriosis Foundation of America,
felt it was vital to include such intimate details given
her advocacy work. "How could I hope to raise
awareness about a disease if I myself wasn’t willing
to speak openly about it and how it very directly and
deeply affected my life?"
has not read Rushdie’s 2012 memoir, "Joseph
Anton," which portrays her as a moody narcissist.
In her account, he comes off as wildly insensitive and
self-involved — at one point he calls her "a bad
investment" — but also charismatic and brilliant.
has a right to his side, as do I," Lakshmi said,
gingerly wiping the corners of her mouth. "The
truth is I’m the one who left him. I think he was very
hurt, and that pain often metastasizes into anger."
began to date another powerful, much older man, IMG
founder Forstmann, but — somewhat remarkably, given
her endometriosis — became pregnant with daughter
Krishna by venture capitalist Adam Dell, whom she’d
been seeing intermittently. A tabloid-friendly legal
battle with Dell ensued, in the midst of which Forstmann
was diagnosed with brain cancer. He died in 2011.
the trattoria, Krishna came over and begged for a trip
to the playground, and Lakshmi confessed that writing
about the custody dispute was the most challenging.
"I hope that my life is never that intense
again," she said.
there is more to the memoir than Lakshmi’s turbulent
personal life. She also writes lovingly of her mother
and extended maternal family in India. Her parents
divorced when she was a toddler, and with her father out
of the picture, Lakshmi was raised by her mother in New
York and later La Puente in the San Gabriel Valley.
Money was tight, and Lakshmi spent most summers with her
mother’s family in Chennai in southern India. In one
particularly evocative chapter, she recalls napping on
the cold marble floor next to her beloved grandfather,
known as KCK, and running to the local
"all-in-one" store to fetch him cups of ice
of her goals, she said, was painting "an accurate
picture of what middle-class Indian life is like,"
to go beyond the "mysticism and poverty."
move to the West Coast after her mother’s second
divorce was difficult for Lakshmi, who was frequently
mistaken for Mexican, and as a teenager temporarily
changed her name to Angelique in an attempt to fit in.
Over lunch, she credits her teachers at William Workman
High School, where she was an honors English student,
with instilling in her a love of literature — high
school staples like "A Separate Peace,"
"Catch 22" and "Metamorphosis."
theme emerges in the pages of "Love, Loss, and What
We Ate" of a beautiful woman determined to prove
her other merits. She writes of the "imposter
syndrome" she experienced alongside chefs like Eric
Ripert on "Top Chef" and of the panic that
often overcame her on posing for photographers on the
red carpet with Rushdie: "I was captured being what
I most feared I would become: an ornament or
because of this nagging self-doubt, Lakshmi hasn’t
read any of the reviews for "Love, Loss, and What
We Ate." For now, she says she’s simply enjoying
the "liberating" sensation of having
(metaphorically) bared all.
nothing anyone can say about me that I haven’t said