Why Padma Lakshmi Left Top Chef

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There was a collective "nooooo!" heard 'round the internet in early June of 2022 when Padma Lakshmi announced she would no longer be the host of "Top Chef." Lakshmi hosted the highly-rated reality cooking competition for 19 seasons and was a critical force on the judging panel alongside Gail Simmons and head judge Tom Colicchio. When Lakshmi broke the news of her departure via Instagram and the platform then known as Twitter, the general consensus was that picturing "Top Chef" without her felt impossible. Immediately, there was talk of who could fill the iconic host's shoes. The other matter in question was: Why did Lakshmi decide to leave?

When she announced she would no longer be hosting "Top Chef" Lakshmi began her statement by saying the decision was made "after much soul searching," so it appears that stepping away was not something she did abruptly. Lakshmi made no secret that she wanted to make room for other endeavors, but the multi-faceted host — who is also a writer, model, and activist — made having her hands in many different projects at once look so effortless, it was easy to assume she would always approach her career this way. Here we're taking a deeper look into Lakshmi's legacy on "Top Chef," where she's headed in the future, and what ultimately led her to say goodbye to the show she helped make such a lasting success.

Because 17 years at a job is a long time

"Top Chef" debuted on the Bravo network in 2006, but as you might recall, Lakshmi did not host Season 1. Katie Lee originally held the job — however, in an interview with Entertainment Weekly's "The Awardist" podcast, Lakshmi revealed that she was offered the gig right off the bat. Scheduling conflicts meant she had to turn down hosting the first season, but after that Lakshmi says, "They came back for the second season and said, 'Are you free now?' And I said, 'Sure.'"

For the next 17 years, Lakshmi hosted "Top Chef" for 19 seasons and helped the show become one of the most culturally impactful reality competitions on TV. Each season, Lakshmi and fellow judges Gail Simmons and Tom Colicchio saw the cheftestants undergo a string of supremely difficult challenges and provided a discerning mix of critique, guidance, and insight. In an era inundated with reality competitions, "Top Chef" stood out. 

Lakshmi, who also served as executive producer, had a lot to do with the show's success. She epitomized charisma, commanding the room with a firm, articulate judging style that was perfectly juxtaposed with her lighthearted nature. At judges' table, Lakshmi and Simmons personified beauty and brains while Colicchio took a no-nonsense "I've been in your shoes" approach. They made viewers think they could taste the food with their eyes. As effortless as it seemed, Lakshmi wasn't willing to do the job forever — even though we would have liked her to.

She has another show

In recent years, "Top Chef" has done a lot to highlight regional cuisine in a personal way. Each season is filmed in a different U.S. city, and this format is an opportunity to educate the cheftestants and viewers about locals who are making a difference in their community through food. In many instances, this involves shedding light on immigrants' stories, adding a layer of emotional depth to "Top Chef," where many competitors are immigrants themselves. Lakshmi took this aspect of "Top Chef" to the next level in 2020 with a show all her own called "Taste the Nation."

In "Taste the Nation," a Hulu original, Lakshmi travels all over the country to learn about the people and places where immigrants, indigenous tribes, and many more are keeping the vibrant culture of their homeland alive in the kitchen. She addressed Iranian stereotypes over kabobs in Los Angeles and went crabbing with the Gullah Geechee of South Carolina's Lowcountry. She visits people's homes, to share memories, cook, laugh, and sometimes cry.

After all, it's personal. Lakshmi immigrated to the U.S. from India when she was four and was raised in the culturally diverse neighborhoods of Elmhurst, Queens and later the La Puente area of Los Angeles. As an ambassador to the American Civil Liberties Union, a staunch human rights activist, and a storyteller, Lakshmi's aim with "Taste the Nation" is to enlighten and inspire. The result is uniquely Lakshmi. "Taste the Nation" is now in its third season.

Filming two TV shows on location was too much

It's physically and mentally taxing to film two shows simultaneously, but even more so when both are filmed on location. Alas, this was Padma Lakshmi's life for the past few years. As she explained to Variety, hosting "Top Chef" and "Taste the Nation" required Lakshmi to be on location for eight months a year. "And when I wasn't on location, I was in pre- and post-production for both my shows. ... It was just exhausting and untenable for me to continue that way."

Lakshmi's feelings of burnout are understandable. She spent the bulk of 2022 filming Season 2 of "Taste the Nation," which wrapped in July of that year. By August, production was starting on "Top Chef" Season 20. The landmark season was the first to be set completely abroad, with most of the episodes taking place in London before the finale in Paris. In a professional sense, the whirlwind of filming has certainly paid off. For her final "Top Chef" season, Lakshmi snagged an Emmy nomination (her 16th!) for Outstanding Host for a Reality of Competition Program — and she has made no secret about really wanting to win this time. Meanwhile, "Taste the Nation" won Critics' Choice Awards for Best Culinary Series in 2021 and Best Show Host in 2022, plus a 2022 James Beard Award in the Visual Media, Long Form category.

Leaving the show at a high point is more appealing

"Top Chef" is a culinary competition that only the most elite chefs in the country can survive, and many who have competed on the show have gone on to do big things. While speaking to "The Awardist" podcast, Lakshmi admits that the cutthroat nature of the show's earliest seasons had "a little bit of that Lord of the Flies element" and briefly referenced a drunken hazing incident that occurred during Season 2. In the subsequent seasons, Lakshmi and company made sure that "Top Chef" was about the food.

"Top Chef" is still an intense show, but now it's for the right reasons. There's the $250,000 grand prize, of course, but there is also a focus on the backstories of the competing chefs. It's been called the best cooking show on television, and Season 20 was one of the most poignant. It featured all-star chefs who had competed on the show's many international spinoffs, plus some fan favorites from the American seasons. In the finale episode, Lakshmi sits at an elegantly decorated dining table and tears up. "I'm so proud of all you guys," she says.

In a conversation with Vanity Fair, Lakshmi admits that halfway through Season 20 she knew she would leave. She calls the decision "bittersweet" but likes the idea of leaving the show at a high point and is confident that good people are at the helm of "Top Chef."

The new host has her seal of approval

After the initial shock of Lakshmi's announcement wore off, the question on everyone's lips was who could take her place. By the time Lakshmi left "Top Chef," her reputation was that of an icon. How do you replace an icon?

Not easily. The names of previous contestants who were beloved (and enjoying fantastic careers) got tossed around. Lakshmi thought Melissa King, Carla Hall, or Kristen Kish could host. She also approved of Kwame Onwuachi or Gregory Gourdet taking over. In the end, it was Kristen Kish who got the job.

Lakshmi celebrated the news with a tweet that read, "I'm so proud of you @KristenLKish and am over the moon that you'll be taking over for me on @BravoTopChef!!! I'll be rooting for you and our whole crew next season. Congratulations!!!" Kish, who won Season 10 of "Top Chef," didn't have much time to prepare. Season 21 began filming in the summer of 2023 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Despite an impressive resume of hosting gigs, Kish has opened up to the press about the looming anxiety she battles while doing the job. In hopes of assuaging her nerves, a vase brimming with white lilies and roses greeted Kish in her dressing room, along with a note from Lakshmi: "Break a leg. I'm so proud of you kiddo!"

It's time to prioritize her personal life

Lakshmi cited the desire to focus on her docuseries "Taste the Nation" as one of the primary reasons why she left "Top Chef," but there's also the fact that she just wants to have a personal life again. As host of "Top Chef" for 17 years, Lakshmi has said that it was a huge part of her professional and personal life, and now she's ready for that to change.

Her daughter Krishna is 13 years old now. When she was little, Lakshmi recalls Krishna sitting on a producer's lap watching from the sidelines as "Top Chef" was being filmed. In the present tense, Lakshmi wants to slow life down a bit so that she can be at home more throughout Krishna's teenage years.

As for her love life, well, Lakshmi says it could use some improvement. She's spent so many years surrounded by coworkers that it hasn't been easy to make time for a little romance. Lakshmi says she's open to having a relationship again and it appears that there might be one in the works. In late November 2023, People Magazine reported that Lakshmi had begun dating Kenya Barris, creator of television shows "Black-ish," "Mixed-ish," and "Grown-ish," but it was still very new.

Top Chef may not have been the intellectual pursuit she is after

Before being the host of "Top Chef," Lakshmi was already carving out a space for herself beyond the screen. She had written two cookbooks centered on international cuisine. As her media presence grew, Lakshmi used the platform to challenge herself creatively and intellectually.

She has been hesitant to call herself a writer in the past, but she most certainly is. In 2016, Lakshmi released her memoir titled "Love, Loss, and What We Ate," an eloquent yet intimate account of growing up as an immigrant from Southern India and her path to the spotlight. Lakshmi calls penning her memoir the high point of her career so far — not "Top Chef." The truth is, "Top Chef" was always a fraction of Lakshmi's ambition. She released another cookbook, "The Encyclopedia of Herbs & Spices," the same year her memoir came out. "Tomatoes for Neela," her first children's book, was published in 2021.

Lakshmi's work as an activist has reached impressive heights as well. She has served as Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations, leading a vaccine equity campaign called #AShotForAll, and she received an Advocate of the Year award from the United Nations Correspondents Association in 2021. She regularly speaks at high-profile functions like the Milken Institute's Global Conference, where she advocates for human rights and feminist causes. When she received the Time 100 Impact Award in 2023, it had little to do with "Top Chef."

She has had to answer for Top Chef controversies in the past

When you work on a production as sprawling as "Top Chef" for as long as Lakshmi did, there are bound to be some bumps in the road. Although the reality show's past controversies have nothing to do with Lakshmi's actions, she bore an obligation to publicly address these situations in the aftermath.

Take, for instance, the incident that occurred in 2014 when "Top Chef" filmed in Boston. The show used nonunion employees that year, resulting in a violent extortion attempt by a local Teamsters union. Four Teamsters surrounded a van Lakshmi was riding in and made a series of verbal threats to her. She wound up testifying against them in federal court.

After Season 18 wrapped in Portland and Chef Gabe Erales took the win, revelations about his life behind the scenes came to light, including that he'd been fired from his executive chef job for sexual harassment. This prompted Lakshmi to call for the matter to be "investigated & the network should consider its best action," via Twitter.

Then there was Houston. "Top Chef" was slated to film there in 2021, but public outcry ensued, urging Bravo to boycott setting the show there due to new legislation on abortion in Texas. Lakshmi was compelled to respond. She posted a string of tweets, including one that began: "Texas is in crisis and tweeting 'boycott TX' when Texans haven't called for that, isn't it."

The show's format doesn't allow Lakshmi to show viewers her full personality

If you haven't noticed by now, Padma Lakshmi is way more than a pretty face. She didn't always get the respect she deserved because of it and spent her first year hosting "Top Chef" being dismissed in print as "Mrs. Salman Rushdie." As "Top Chef" progressed, viewers came to understand that Lakshmi did know about food. At Judges' Table, she held her own beside Colicchio's straightforward analyses and Simmons' literary descriptions of texture and taste. She recalls being instructed to be no-nonsense, almost monotone when judging the cheftestants' offerings ... similar to the style of another competition show airing on Bravo back then, as she mentions in "The Awardist" podcast.

In its infancy, "Top Chef"' was designed to mimic the format of "Project Runway" and it did, right down to the Judges' Table. Like "Project Runway"'s Heidi Klum, Lakshmi served as the knowledgeable model and host. Colicchio was the executive chef with real-world experience — the Michael Kors role. Simmons had the power of print behind her as an editor at Food & Wine Magazine; "Project Runway" had Marie Claire's Nina García.

Lakshmi came into her own on "Top Chef," but even before leaving, she maintained that viewers don't see her full personality when they tune in. The show centers around the competition, and Lakshmi, with her playful quips and unflappable poise, is just one part of that.

She's maintained that some of her reasons for leaving are complex

Between Lakshmi's initial statement via social media and the press talks she gave thereafter, the phrasing she used when describing why she left "Top Chef" was consistent ... and a tad ambiguous. In her statement, Lakshmi said that it was "time to move on" and repeated this sentiment in interviews. In publications like Variety, Vanity Fair, and New Beauty, Lakshmi pointed out that "there were other complex reasons for leaving 'Top Chef,'" but she didn't "have time" to get into them during interviews. What was she referring to?

Lakshmi isn't the type to churn the rumor mill, yet fans couldn't help speculating about what quantified these complex reasons. The chatter on Reddit quickly turned to possibilities that Lakshmi and Tom Colicchio weren't exactly the best of friends. While this remains unconfirmed, Colicchio gave an interview to Esquire in July 2023 that not only revealed that Lakshmi hadn't told Colicchio directly that she was leaving but also suggested that he saw her exit as an opportunity to switch up the judging format on "Top Chef." He said, "I've been doing the show since Day 1 ... I have some ideas."

It does not appear to be about money

Contract disputes have caused prolific TV hosts to walk out the door in the past, however, this does not seem to have contributed to Lakshmi saying goodbye to "Top Chef." Nevertheless, Lakshmi's position as host and executive producer made her feel like the central force of the show. If she feels she wasn't financially compensated fairly, she hasn't talked about this in the public eye.

Lakshmi generally got more screen time per episode than her fellow judges due to heading up Quickfire challenges alone — most often with a celebrity guest. She would announce the parameters of the maxi challenge to the cheftestants before taking equal part with Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons in the tasting and judging (though Tom Colicchio has long been introduced as head judge). That means that she technically had to put in more hours at the office than Colicchio and Simmons, and at the end of a long workday, time is money.

According to celebritynetworth.com, Lakshmi was paid around $50,000 per episode, although that number may have increased in later seasons. Colicchio and Simmons' "Top Chef" salaries are unknown, but Lakshmi has the highest net worth of the three judges at an estimated $40 million.

She wants to prioritize passion projects

Padma Lakshmi is an activist and a storyteller, so expect her future projects to be more like "Taste the Nation" and less like "Top Chef." Take a look at any interview she's given within the last few years, and you'll see her touch upon topics like gender equality and the immigrant experience. A "Taste the Nation" cookbook that includes the recipes that are profiled in each episode of the series is set to hit shelves in 2025.

She's also not afraid to get political, taking her convictions beyond social media posts and picket lines (though she can be found there, too). After being diagnosed with endometriosis at age 36, Lakshmi cofounded the Endometriosis Foundation of America in 2009 and continues to be an advocate for awareness and treatment of the condition. The isolation she felt while trying to find proper treatment is a large part of what inspired her to always be an advocate for those who struggle to have their voices heard.

Lakshmi understands that food is political too. Accessibility to fresh ingredients and food education for children are areas she would like to see change for the better in America. Lakshmi says she has some scripted projects coming up (including a guest spot on the Netflix animated series "Big Mouth"), but food and paying homage to the food traditions of cultures all over the world, especially those that have been marginalized in the past, will never be far from her heart.