Padma Lakshmi on Appropriation and Discrimination in Food Media

The prolific chef’s new show, Taste the Nation, aims to give credit where it’s due: American cuisine’s immigrant roots.

Padma Lakshmi, photo courtesy of Hulu.

Long before the reckoning that’s currently underway in food media, there has been a pattern of systemic discrimination in the industry.

This year, the conversation surrounding who gets to make certain cuisines and who is acclaimed for their contributions to the culture only seems to have gotten louder. Earlier this year, there was the feud between Alison Roman and Chrissy Teigen (and Marie Kondo). Before that fiasco, many chefs of color and restaurant customers alike called out restaurants around the U.S. for disregarding the history behind certain types of cuisine and adjusting the recipes (and presentation thereof) to be more “palatable” to (often white) restaurant-goers. And on top of that, there are plenty of stories about discrimination in the kitchen, too.

Now, at magazines like Bon Appétit, current and former employees of color are talking about their experiences working in what they describe as a toxic, bro-centric culture where they were discouraged from writing about more ethnic cuisines. Additionally, many of them were paid less than their white colleagues.

Clearly there is a discussion to be had about race and food—particularly in the United States. That’s where Padma Lakshmi‘s timely Taste the Nation comes in. The 10-episode series, which will be released via Hulu on June 18, is the prolific chef’s visual project chronicling reflections on food, identity, and the immigrant experience in America.

Lakshmi has been a mainstay in the industry for two decades, appearing in your home as a host on Top Chef, writing four popular cookbooks, and traveling the world to develop recipes of all cuisines. With the upcoming Hulu series, she aims to give credit where it’s due: to American cuisine’s immigrant roots. She spoke to W over the phone to discuss the industry-wide reckoning, being political on social media, and cooking with her daughter.

Considering all of the drama and discourse around food media the past couple of months, it seems like your show couldn’t have come at a better time. How long ago did you start working on it?

I first thought of it as a cookbook idea because I was doing work with the American Civil Liberties Union on immigration issues, and I became an artist ambassador for them on both immigration issues and women’s issues, specifically women’s reproductive rights. Shortly after the election, there was so much going on with banning immigrants and talking smack about them that I felt I had to do something. To me, immigrants seem like a huge asset to this country and a renewed source of energy, creativity, economic growth, labor, different technical skills, everything.

Because my work is in food, I thought a natural extension of what I was doing with the ACLU would be to do a book on those immigrant recipes. If you look at the most exciting parts of food in America, it’s coming from immigrant communities. Nobody was really talking about that. Everybody has been talking about “New American” cuisine for the last 20 years, but “New American” cuisine just seems to be that it’s very white, very established chefs using ethnic ingredients to spice up their French-centric food. Most Americans can’t eat like that regularly, that’s a very small demographic of urban, upwardly mobile professionals. Food is becoming very fashionable and very trendy. It’s also fetishized like fashion. It seemed, to me, we were dissociating food from its roots.

It can be very easy for some people to divorce those two when they get their recipes and information from the same few places that may not necessarily give enough historical and cultural context to the recipes, which is what Taste the Nation does for audiences.

I wanted to go back to the origins of that food which was so popular across the country, and I wanted to give credit to the source because I didn’t see that happening, just like I didn’t see it happening in a political sphere, nationally with the rhetoric that was coming out of Washington with the Muslim ban and so many other things happening at the border. I saw it happening in food, too—the cultural appropriation of food happened left and right. I was trying to find a new book project, and was also developing a TV show with my producing partner and I had shown him the research I was working on for the book. He thought we should merge the two. I filmed it a year ago, all through last summer as well as in the fall and winter. Luckily, I was able to finish all of the principal photography before the end of the year.

Your show asks a lot of questions, one of them being, what is American food? It seems like everyone has a different answer to that, but there’s also the question of assimilating into American culture while simultaneously keeping your roots alive, which you address in the third episode called “Don’t Mind If I Dosa.” Is that a question you find yourself dogged by?

I’m not dogged by it, but I am very conscious of it. I think it’s okay to adapt a recipe that you like to your own taste for your own family. When you’re in food media and you tout recipes that you’ve obviously gotten because you’re inspired by other cultures, the problem comes when you don’t give credit to that. I’ll give a very easy example. Turmeric, from my culture, has been around for 5,000 years at least, and it’s just become cool in the last decade because of skinny white girls. The truth is, until skinny white girls who had enough money to go to a nutritionist who probably has a Ph.D. and came here for grad school from India anyway—I’m obviously grossly generalizing—but my point is, it seems like until a millennial white person discovers it and it’s new to them, and they get all excited about it, and they’re able to propagate it on social media or in their writing in major magazines and newspapers, it basically doesn’t exist.

The truth is, we’ve known about this stuff for thousands of years. It’s not that people of one culture cannot extol the virtues of things from another culture—on the contrary! I have built my career for the last 20 years doing just that. The problem comes when you don’t give the credit. It would be very easy for said millennial white person to just add two sentences to their copy, or the headnote in the recipe, saying, ‘This is new to me, but it’s been around for 5,000 years in certain cultures. I discovered it because of this or that, and I wanted to bring it to you in an easier form because maybe you don’t have all these other Indian ingredients in your kitchen but you can still get the benefits of this.’ That would take away all of the sting of feeling like we’ve been stolen from. It’s not much different than being an ally.

Could your show be a way for people to interrogate their own biases when it comes to understanding what makes up American cuisine?

I’m not finding fault with bringing to light things from other cultures; I want people to do that, especially in American media, because things from all over the world have contributed to our collective American culture. That’s what I’m trying to say in this show. I’m trying to say that the very things that some of us are threatened by, or being encouraged to be afraid of by this government, are the very things that we should celebrate, delve deeper into, and encourage. From fashion to music to art to writing to cooking—any medium that you see—it would be monotone and stale without the different influences that have been poured into all of these disciplines. That’s why, to me, American pop culture has traveled the world.

In the past few days, there’s been a breakthrough in the conversation surrounding race and food media, propelled by the people of color who work in those spaces and have been opening up about their experiences with racism, whether that stems from being told that more “ethnic” recipes just won’t hit with readers or not receiving the same pay as their white counterparts. As someone who is so prominent in food media, what do you make of this conversation happening right now?

I think it’s a long overdue conversation. I have been on TV in this country for a long, long time. My first show on the Food Network was literally 20 years ago. Since then, I’ve done documentaries and what a lot of people know me for is Top Chef. But even I have problems getting noticed in any of these major publications. And that’s not an accident. When you’re sitting in our shoes, it disgusts you to have to come to that realization because you don’t want to revert to that. You want to think that there’s something you can do to change that, to improve your own position, because you’ve been taught that by your family, that all you have to do is work really hard. That’s been the American dream peddled to immigrants, that anybody can come here and work hard and have an equal shot no matter your last name or the color of your skin or where your family is from. Well, yes and no. That turns out not to be so true. If you don’t know what these invisible barriers are, it’s easy to get frustrated.

It’s never been more clear that it’s a structural, institutional problem from the top down, and the conversation needs to continue.

I’m glad those people spoke up when they did. I’ve always felt this sinking feeling that there’s some invisible force working against me and I haven’t been able to pinpoint what it is. It’s like, this undertow in the ocean that you’re swimming in and can never get the upper hand of, and it’s frustrating. Those people at Bon Appétit were finally fed up. I think the picture that they saw was the last straw. But to me, honestly, what was worse was the pay discrepancy. That is, first of all, really shitty, and I think Condé Nast has a big problem they have to fix immediately, or else, of course, we’ll fix it for them.

During quarantine, and especially in the last few weeks of turmoil, what’s the activity that you’ve turned to most often for comfort?

I’ve been cooking a ton. I always complain that I don’t have enough time to read. That’s my guilty pleasure, to have time to wile away reading—and I read slowly so I need a lot of time. [Laughs.] But I haven’t been able to concentrate, so I haven’t been able to read or write anything of substance. Here and there, I’ve been tinkering, but it’s hard. Cooking has been a salve. It’s also been great to spend unstructured time with my daughter and cook with her in a way that I may not have had a chance to do in the last year because of filming two shows and working on a book as well.

Have you watched anything that caught your attention?

I watched a film called Crime + Punishment. It came out a couple years ago on Hulu and I highly recommend it because it’s so relevant to what’s going on right now. It’s about 12 officers in the New York City Police Department that spoke up and talked about how they were encouraged to meet quotas so that they could increase funding to the police department, even though quotas were deemed illegal in the state of New York in 2010. They were retaliated against. They loved part of their jobs, which is helping people and keeping their neighborhood safe, but they were being encouraged to target the weakest members of society—black and brown males from 14 to 21 years old. You heard story after story of these teenage kids—like, seniors in high school who should have been going to class or basketball practice, get arrested seven times, and have to spend time in jail. Then the charge would be dismissed because there was no evidence or basis for their arrest. Imagine how stressful that is to a black teenager, and how he’s got to explain to his coach why he wasn’t at practice and he has to try to buy time for why he didn’t do his math homework, and then he’s got to see how he’s going to concentrate on just being a kid in school. Plus the huge emotional and financial stress that that puts on his family.

It’s a perpetual thing. You can see how systemic issues relate to what’s happening now, and they’ve been going on for the last several decades. There are more black men in the U.S. prison system than there ever were in bondage in slavery. Looking at those kinds of issues and really understanding the origin, the source of what they’re talking about, I watched that a few days ago. I found it so illuminating, hard to watch, heartbreaking, and necessary for me to view just to understand how big this issue is.

When you do find time to read, what sort of books have you gotten into?

I started reading Alicia Keys’ memoir. I have known Alicia for a really long time, gosh, at least 15 years. I have helped serve as an ambassador for her Keep A Child Alive Foundation, so I’ve seen her really grow up in the last 15 years. I also finished a book called The Ungrateful Refugee, which I highly recommend. It’s about the refugee experience written by a very talented, lyrical writer, Dina Nayeri. It reads like a novel, but it’s nonfiction. It really crystalizes the experience of what it’s like to be a refugee in our world today. She is of Persian descent, her family fled Iran and went to Italy and then America, and it’s a beautifully written book. She’s such a fine writer that she could be writing about anything. I’ve personally gifted the book to six different people.

You’ve used your platform to amplify other voices, and have been political on social media for many years. I also remember you hosting a comedy show benefit at the Bell House and realizing you’re also really tapped into the alt Brooklyn comedy circle. Who are some people right now you think are funny?

About the comedy show, I can’t take total credit for that. The Vulture guys approached me because they saw a tweet I posted, when I was pissed off that The Comedy Store would give Louis C.K. another platform when there were so many great comics, who were of color, queer, women, or all three, that were really funny. I’ve been to The Comedy Store a lot, and a lot of my friends are comics who I’ve known for years. I’m not a comic myself, so when they approached me, I thought it was a great way to raise some money. I had help picking out those people, but a lot of them just came from that tweet. I love Ali Wong, she’s on an episode of Taste the Nation. We go to Chinatown with her. Leslie Jones is also someone I like. Bowen Yang, who hosted with Matt Rogers both of those comedy shows. It was a fun way to galvanize people and entertain them and also inform them. I like when there’s a Venn diagram of educating people, being gratified in your own work, but also having a good time. You can be serious about your work but you shouldn’t take yourself so seriously, because you can get further with a spoonful of sugar sometimes.

You’ve let people into your own kitchen a little bit by sharing some recipes on Instagram. Who else do you like to follow on social media?

I’ve been doing a lot of cooking videos and people seem to like them. People are used to me talking all the time about really fancy food on Top Chef, but obviously that’s not how I cook or feed my family or eat in my own home, so it’s nice for people to see a different side of me on Instagram. Some Instagram accounts I love are Munroe Bergdorf—I’m a big fan of hers and she’s done some really useful things with her own platform. There’s also Rachel Cargle, she’s a real force. I love Jaboukie [Young-White]! I just kind of discovered him from Twitter a while ago, and then I saw him on Trevor Noah’s show. Twitter, by the way, that is how I discovered Bowen Yang, and now we’re friends. Ashley Ford is great, too.

You mentioned that you’ve known Alicia Keys for a while, and I have to wonder if there’s been any music that you’ve listened to in the last couple months that you’ve found really comforting? Or if there’s a soundtrack to your cooking?

I have been listening to a lot of old school R&B from the ‘80s because it reminds me of a more idyllic time in my own childhood. Obviously, I am a product of the ‘80s, so a lot of The Gap Band, Dazz Band, Deniece Williams, and Chaka Khan. Those kind of people have just uplifted my mood, especially when I cook.

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