Padma Lakshmi On Her Favorite Ingredient, What Makes A Good Meal, And Top Chef - Exclusive Interview

Padma Lakshmi has solidified herself as one of the foremost authorities on food. According to the star's personal website, Lakshmi started off as a supermodel before breaking into the culinary world. She found an audience on the Discovery Channel and Food Network as the host of a variety of shows where the personality cooked food from around the world, and later went on to author a handful of cookbooks and essays that received awards and commendations from a variety of organizations.

Lakshmi truly became a household name thanks to her hand in establishing "Top Chef" as a household name, serving as the host and executive producer on the show for a ton of seasons. She also expanded her range by creating "Taste the Nation" on Hulu, all while continuing to do charity work in the name of fighting endometriosis. Lakshmi sat down with Mashed for an exclusive interview and delved into her world of food, showbiz, and much more.

Lakshmi's collaboration with Maison Boursin

[Tell us a little bit about your collaboration with Maison Boursin.]

Everybody's been a little reluctant to go back to entertaining, and Boursin and I are partnering up to encourage people to do that and to show them easy ways that they can throw some food together, but also entertain and  feel a little less stressed out, a little more relaxed. We're doing an event in June that you can go to ... [if you] go on the Boursin website, you can have recipes and tips. You can also reserve, if you want to get tickets to come to the event in New York City, but even if you live anywhere in the U.S., there'll be stuff there all year long.

It's a nice way to say, "Hey, I know we're all feeling out of practice and we want to be with our friends and family, so let's put out some recipes and some tips," and also remind people, frankly, that this is a great thing to have in your fridge at all times, because you can throw a pasta together, you can throw a beautiful salad together. All you do is roast some figs and then put them with some greens. It's a really great ingredient, and it's the kind of ingredient that you put on a charcuterie board — very simple pasta, cheese and pepper.

Lakshmi's ideal party spread

What makes a really good party spread?

A good party spread has a mix of savory and sweet, spicy and briny, and it also needs a lot of texture. You need different toasted bread or crackers or different things that have texture, [and] also nuts. I like nuts because they're buttery and creamy. I love a handful of Marcona almonds, and then I love to reach for roasted figs, and then I love to reach for something fresh, like a cold grape. You also want weird things in there, like different funky chutneys to smear with.

That's also why I like Boursin, because it's good on its own, and you can do everything, [like using] it on your toasted bagel in the morning, or you can actually do stuff with it, like you can crush nuts that are salted and spiced and then roll the Boursin in it, for example, and dot your board with that, which is a little bit interesting, but easy to do.

The number one ingredient Lakshmi can't live without

When it comes to either entertaining or cooking on your own, is there one particular ingredient that you found that you can't live without?

Wow, it's hard to say just one, but a nice ingredient that I've been using a lot lately is pomegranate molasses. You can get it at Middle Eastern stores or online. I like to have that, and I even sometimes will drizzle that all over the Boursin. It's beautiful. It's sticky and tiny, and then you have this crumbly creamy texture of the Boursin. It's really versatile [and] can go sweet or savory.

How did you end up discovering [pomegranate molasses]?

I've known of it for a long time. In college, I had Persian friends. I love the way their mom cooked. I have it in my pantry. I use it in salad dressings or drizzle. It's great because it's tart, but sweet, and almost like balsamic. I first fell in love with Persian cooking when I was young, and then in doing "Taste the Nation," I had the opportunity to go and be with the community in Los Angeles there, and I remembered how much I loved it.

I also judged the Piglet prize, which is a really cool cookbook prize. I had tested all the recipes, all these Persian recipes from one of the finalists we featured on "Taste the Nation," and she reminded me of how wonderful this ingredient is. I love it.

The struggles of writing a cookbook

What are the challenges when it goes to creating a cookbook or judging a cookbook?

When you're writing a recipe, whether it's for a cookbook or anything else, you want to make sure that the person you're writing it for can make that recipe when you are not standing in the room. That's really important. You really have to stop and think about the steps and almost do them yourself, at least in your mind, as you're writing them. That's very helpful [and] important

Some of the challenges are to describe. It's the same as when I'm judging food on "Top Chef." You want to be descriptive, so that your criticism, whatever it is, is productive and helpful, it's constructive. You want to be able to describe things well. Words are so much a part of what I do, innately. I'm a writer first, and I'm also an avid cook, and that's why I'm a food writer, but those things are separate. Being a good food writer, you really have to think about that. It can get wordy, like I am now.

How Top Chef influenced Lakshmi's approach to food

How did your experience on "Top Chef" end up influencing your palate and the way that you approach food?

It's not so much my palate, but it's also an education on understanding that there are empirically right and wrong ways to cook meat, or what the different temperatures of proteins do to the flavor, and things like that. My palate serves me on "Top Chef." I think that's my greatest strength in "Top Chef," because I'm not a chef, so I'm there as a food writer. I feel like the audience is representative — like they're relying on me to describe what that experience is, because you can't really taste it. You can see if there's a beautiful dress or hear the voice, but for food, you can see that it looks good, but you're really relying on us to convey that.

We touched on it a little bit too, but what defines a great meal for you?

A great meal is one that's connected to the people you love and making memories. The reason why food is such an occupation for us as human beings is not only because we rely on it for survival, but also because it's so connected to our emotional lives. That's why food occupies the space it does in our society.

The food Lakshmi couldn't live without

If you could only eat one food for the rest of your life, have you ever thought about what that might be?

Oh my God. You know, I got to be honest. I hate questions like this, because they're really hard. I would like to say dal and rice, but I may have to say Squinto pizza. I love their thin crust pizza, and they have these little pizzerias ... probably even yogurt rice. I'm South Indian, so for me, that's my comfort food.

Along those same lines too, do you have a fast food order?

When I'm not in the mood for cooking, but when I'm in LA, I will enjoy a burger. I have more burgers on the West Coast.  I have a no onions, extra pickles...

Is it an In-N-Out kind of deal, or is it anywhere?

It's not just anywhere. It's either In-N-Out, but I also like Astro Burger's garden burger, the one on Santa Monica Boulevard, not the one on Melrose. The one on Melrose is okay, in Los Angeles, but the one on Melrose by Paramount uses soy mayonnaise, which is good, but more tart ... You can tell I'm a burger geek when I'm in LA

Where Lakshmi would like to take Top Chef

Thinking about your future plans and what's coming up for you, what is going to be next for you on your horizons?

I'm in production right now with "Taste the Nation," and then I'm hoping to have a nice summer with my daughter, and then I'll go back to work on "Top Chef," and then I'll work on the cookbook, and then I'll rest.

Is there anywhere particular on "Top Chef" that you'd like to take the show to, in terms of locale, that you haven't gotten a chance to do yet?

Oh my gosh. I'd love to go so many places. I'd love to go to London. I'd love to go to so many places. There's so many places to go.

Why London in particular?

It's easier for us to do production in a country that speaks English, and London is closer than Australia, and I'd need to get home to Krishna. I have friends in London, and London is a great city. I used to live in London.

How Top Chef changed Lakshmi's view on cooking

When you were on "Top Chef," it opened your eyes to certain ways of preparing food or certain ways that the industry works. Do you remember if there were any particular moments where things kind of clicked into place in your mind, or moments when you had that realization?

No, not necessarily. It was listening, and being around chefs as our judges, and Tom, and that whole milieu. I worked in a restaurant in college, but not in the kitchen. Understanding that it is a different task from just making dinner for your friends, running a restaurant requires a military sense of timing. You have to get any number of ten dishes on the same plate, at the same time. They all have to be hot. They all have to be exactly how they were the last time this client came to your restaurant. It's awe-inspiring, and the margins are very low for that business. Learning that whole side of food production in our society is super interesting, and for me, a valuable experience.

Out of anybody living or dead, if you could have one chef cook for you and cook a special meal for you, who would it be and why?

My grandma, who passed away recently. She's not a chef, but she taught me how to cook, and I'd love to eat one more meal with her.

Make sure to check out Lakshmi's collaboration with Maison Boursin. New episodes of "Top Chef" air Thursdays on Bravo at 8:00 p.m. ET.