Padma Lakshmi on Holiday Entertaining, ‘Top Chef,’ and Her Biggest Party Pet Peeves
Padma Lakshmi has had a lengthy career modeling, writing, and acting, but nowadays she’s perhaps best known for her lengthy hosting gig on Bravo’s Top Chef, which recently returned for its 14th season. Lakshmi is currently working on promoting Patrón tequila, and we had the opportunity to chat with her about hosting holiday parties and spending 10 years with Top Chef.
The Daily Meal: What does your ideal holiday party look like?
Padma Lakshmi: Most of my parties, but especially holiday parties, tend to be relaxed, open-ended, and lively. I have friends and family from so many different walks of life that it’s difficult to tailor a sit-down dinner or structured celebration. People’s schedules during the holidays are especially hectic, so I pride myself on having gatherings or events that are low maintenance, for me and my guests, so they know they can pop by whenever, whether it’s popping by between other events for just 20 minutes, coming early and staying late until every drop is drunk.
What are some tips and tricks you recommend for those looking to entertain this holiday season on a budget?
A cocktail party is a great way to go. People just want to get together and are often grateful to not have to stay for a long dinner. You can make simple hors d’oeuvres. A grilled cheese can be a fancy hors d’oeuvres if you slice it into nine little pieces and put them on toothpicks. Also, a great thing to do on a budget is a tree trimming party, so everyone brings an ornament so you don’t have to spend much decorating your house.[related]
What foods do you usually avoid eating or serving at holiday parties, and why?
My pet peeve is a dish that has a ton of raw onion, garlic, or scallion in it. There’s nothing worse than having to slowly back away from someone because of being able to tell what they’ve just consumed. Avoid greens that get stuck between people’s teeth. You want to create an ambiance where people want to come closer together.
Are there any special dishes that you always cook for Christmas/holiday dinner?
I always make a classic turkey for Christmas, and begin cooking it the night before. When others go to midnight Mass, I start my turkey, roasting it low and slow. In the morning, when my daughter wakes up to see what Santa brought her, I look at how my turkey came out. This also takes the stress out of cooking on Christmas Day, and most importantly, usually leaves enough turkey leftover to make pot pie, which we’ll eat until about New Year’s Day.
What’s the biggest faux-pas someone can make at a holiday party, in your opinion?
I think people sometimes forget themselves when they’ve had a few drinks too many, and often wind up saying something inappropriate. The worst is when they’re speaking too loudly or gossiping about someone who’s actually in the room or asking incredibly personal questions, and they think they can’t be heard, but they obviously can.
What should fans of Top Chef look forward to this season? I hear you all head to the Patrón Hacienda…
That was the most exciting episode of the season for me! I’ve traveled many times to Mexico, but visiting the Hacienda in Jalisco was a special treat. First of all, you arrive through rolling fields of blue agave, which is stunning as the sun sets against the Mexican sky. As you go through the gates, you see a beautiful European-style villa that transports you to another time. The people could not have been nicer, everyone from the men who man the kiln to everyone working at the house themselves. You can tell these people take great pride in handcrafting this glorious product. There’s a great sense of community and the atmosphere is warm, fun, and festive. I personally met more than 100 employees at Patrón.
What was the biggest surprise visiting the Patrón distillery, and what tips did you learn about tequila?
My biggest surprise was that they still make the tequila the old-fashioned way, 100 percent by hand, which is quite astonishing when you think about what a big brand Patrón is. It’s amazing how many dozens of peoples’ full effort goes into the making of a single bottle of Patrón.
How do you think the show has changed since you first came on board? The filming/judging process, the level of talent, etc.
I will say that over the years, the level of talent on Top Chef has risen and risen, not only because we are the gold standard for food TV shows, we have earned the respect of every major chef in the country and indeed the world. I think we all function as a very tightly knit family that comes together once a year and puts the show together. When you’ve been working with people for a decade, you develop a shorthand, and one positive outcome of this is that we spend less time at the judges’ table.
How do you think Top Chef has affected dining/restaurant culture at large?
I think there are a whole lot of chefs now sending out amuse bouches that never before thought they needed to! Our show has made the average restaurant-goer incredibly knowledgeable and analytical about the food they are served. So, they too are quite articulate in their assessment of chefs’ abilities.
What might Top Chef viewers not realize about the filming process?
They may not realize just how many people are behind the camera, making sure everything runs smoothly. A 43-minute show takes three days to shoot and countless hours afterward to edit. I think people would be surprised to learn how much of the footage ends up on the cutting room floor. We have 15 cameras going at once, and our editors are incredibly skilled at finding that juicy needle in the haystack of footage that makes it into the final episode.