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'Top Chef' host Lakshmi loves food, hates reality TV



Published: Thu, October 19, 2006 @ 12:00 a.m.



When the show called, the model/actress said she was intrigued about hosting.

LOS ANGELES TIMES

NEW YORK -- Padma Lakshmi had a confession to make.

"I hate reality TV, I have to tell you," said the new host of "Top Chef," Bravo's reality cooking competition, leaning over the table at a busy Manhattan restaurant on a recent afternoon. "I think a lot of it brings out the worst common denominator of the human spirit."

But the Indian-born model and actress, perhaps best known for being married to Salman Rushdie, is satisfied that Season 2 of "Top Chef" won't contribute to the decline of modern culture. The reality series pits 15 up-and-coming chefs against one another in an intense culinary contest.

"At the end of the day, it's about the skills," Lakshmi said. "I think it's very compelling seeing someone trying to be really good at their job, no matter what that job is."

About the show

"Top Chef," from the producers of the zeitgeist fashion competition "Project Runway," premiered last spring and was the top-rated cable food show among young adults. As with "Runway," its popularity was fueled by the contestants' raw ambition along with the inevitable kitchen drama that ensued as they raced to out-cook one another.

This season, which kicked off Wednesday, the producers brought in prominent chefs such as "Kitchen Confidential" author Anthony Bourdain and Le Bernardin's Eric Ripert as guest judges. The presence of culinary superstars helped ease Lakshmi's doubts about wading into the reality TV genre.

"They're all people that I really respect foodwise, so I think in that respect, it's a very high-caliber, high-brow food show," she said. "I was very pleased about that, because I didn't want it to turn into some kind of schlocky reality piece of fluff that I would feel embarrassed about."

The 35-year-old is acutely aware of the challenges of cultivating a career in the public eye. Ever since she began dating and subsequently married "Satanic Verses" author Rushdie, 23 years her senior, the New Delhi native has had to endure a constant media spotlight on their relationship.

Dealing with spotlight

When asked how she deals with the persistent interest in her marriage, Lakshmi sighed, a slight hint of annoyance clouding her lilting accent.

"I just have to do my own thing and try to steer people away from it," she said. "I had my own identity before I met him and a successful career."

Lakshmi had already published her first cookbook -- "Easy Exotic: A Model's Low-Fat Recipes From Around the World" -- when she was introduced to Rushdie at a party in New York in 1999.

"I've always loved to cook," said Lakshmi, as she delicately munched a grilled cheese sandwich. "Food is very sensual. It's so integral to the daily fabric of our lives that it has a lot of emotional context."

So when Bravo approached her about hosting "Top Chef" last year, she was intrigued. Scheduling conflicts forced her to turn down the role in the first season. It went instead to Katie Lee Joel (wife of singer Billy Joel). But when it came time to tape the second season, producers decided they wanted a host with more culinary knowledge and called Lakshmi again.

"Padma is the perfect fit for this show," said Bravo president Lauren Zalaznick. "She is an absolute food fanatic, and she is both very intelligent and very emotional about food. I think she's a magnet, both by her intellect and looks."

Ever since she was spotted by a talent scout in a Spanish cafe as a college student, Lakshmi's striking appearance has drawn attention. A long scar winds down her arm, the result of a car accident when she was a teenager -- a blemish she refuses to hide or get airbrushed out of photos.

On "Top Chef," Lakshmi brings a certain gravity to the role of host. She intensely debates the merits of each dish with judges Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons. At the end of each episode, she tells the losing contestant solemnly: "Please pack your knives and go."




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