Originally Published in The Daily Beast
Marlow Stern - June, 2020
I’m an immigrant—and I’m not alone. Padma Lakshmi opens each episode of her new Hulu series Taste the Nation with that mantra, and it’s one that’s powering the food author and TV host during the Trump administration’s all-out war on immigrants, from the “Muslim ban” and separating children from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border to the recent suspension of immigrant-worker visas through 2021.
“I find this disconnect between the policies that are made in Washington and how they actually affect people on the ground,” says Lakshmi. “I think it should be a requirement for each of these lawmakers deciding on immigration policy to embed themselves in these communities and see what life is like, and see if these people pose as much of a threat as they think they do.”
With each episode of Taste the Nation, Lakshmi has done just that—planting herself within a community to learn more about its inhabitants through their food. Whether it’s Mexican-American folks at the border or South Carolina’s Gullah Geechee, the descendants of West-African slaves, Lakshmi’s mission is to shed light on the real things that make America great.
The Top Chef host and bestselling food author was drawn to this pursuit by none other than Trump, whose xenophobic policies run contra to everything she holds dear, having immigrated to the U.S. from India at the age of 4. She currently serves as an ACLU ambassador for immigrants’ and women’s rights, and is the co-founder of The Endometriosis Foundation of America, having been diagnosed with the disease at 36.
“My role is to say, hey, we really need to pay attention to this—whether it’s the rights of immigrants (or the glorious food they bring to this country), or women’s health, or women’s reproductive rights,” she says.
The Daily Beast spoke with Lakshmi about the state of the restaurant industry amid the pandemic, whether restaurants should reopen, and why white chefs need to give credit where it’s due.
Taste the Nation is one of the first of these shows to feature a woman of color as its host. What does that mean to you to have reached this summit in a food world that is so dominated by white men?
I’ve been wanting this for a long time. But to be fair, there is Samin Nosrat who hosts Salt Fat Acid Heat, so I’m not the first. For a show of this kind I am, I guess. It feels great. I started twenty years ago, and this is a long time coming. I’ve been waiting to create my own show and it’s a game-changer to do your own material.
Sexism is so baked into the food world. It’s always baffled me, as someone who enjoys food, how it’s run by white men given that women have historically done more cooking.
That’s how the patriarchy works, man. It’s the most male-dominated white industry you can find. Even though the professional food world is the second biggest private employer in this country, it is very white-male dominated. But so is every profession, right?
The immigrant experience is front and center in Taste the Nation. Was that focus inspired by Trump’s anti-immigrant stance and the xenophobic atmosphere he’s fostered?
It was totally because of that. Shortly after the election, I started getting really involved with immigrant rights and immigrant issues with the ACLU, because within what felt like days of his presidency, he institute the Muslim ban. And forced separation at the border existed before but not in this way, and not as widely, or as intensely, or as cruelly. If you look at who donates to his campaign, it’s also the private prison system. The show is a direct result of my work with the ACLU on immigrant issues, but I’ve been thinking about these things for a long time. These are the kinds of foods that I’m interested in, because to me, they’re the most exciting corridors of the American culinary scene.
Was it informed by your own immigrant experience? It’s easy to feel like an outsider as a person of color in America.
I always felt like an outsider looking in. There was a club that had an invisible membership that I couldn’t unlock, and I think most immigrant kids feel that way, and most people of color feel that way. But I got tired of people talking about what “real” American food is. “Real” American food is what Americans are really eating, and that’s not meatloaf and mashed potatoes. They may eat that too but it’s actually tacos, shawarma, General Tso’s chicken, pad thai, burritos, poke, hummus. That’s not American! You want to know what’s really American? What Native Americans traditionally ate, and that’s “The Three Sisters” dish, which contains corn, squash, and beans. That’s what’s indigenous to North America.
In the El Paso episode, we meet a Syrian-American restaurant owner who claims to love Mexicans yet supports Trump. How do you reconcile those two things? And does it then feel futile to try to reach someone like that?
To me, Maynard Haddad is indicative of millions of people across this country who separate their political views from their daily personal and professional lives. Like, “I’m against immigration but of course I like Lee sitting across the cubicle from me from China.” Well, Lee is going to be sent home because his H-1B visa is going to be revoked, and the only way you can stop that is by not voting for Trump! There’s such a disconnect, and it’s also very complex. People are layered and compartmentalize their lives. In that moment obviously I disagree with him, and obviously every bone in my body wanted me to say, “That is hogwash! How can you vote Republican?” But that man has been sitting in that rocking chair in that very spot for 63 years, so nothing I say to him will change his worldview in one afternoon. And had I attempted to take him to task, I would have gotten a lot less from him. He is who he is and it’s not my job to change his mind. It’s my job to show the audience at home that you know these people, you walk among them, and we all have our versions of Maynard Haddad in our community.
Tony was a friend and I’m more influenced by Tony’s writing, actually. That show that he did for years and years was a show based on him and his personality, and nobody else can do that show, and I don’t want to do that show. This is not a journalistic experience, this is my view of the world, and that’s the perspective of a woman of color working in—and living in—a white man’s world. I’m also a mother, and in my show we talk about family because to me family and food are very connected. You’re not going to see me swashbuckling all over the world biting the heads off chickens because that’s not who I am. Twenty years ago, I did a travel and food show called Planet Food, which is probably more similar to Tony’s show—except with better hair. And I say that with all the love, admiration, attachment, and affection to Tony.
I’m curious what changes you feel should be made in the food world to combat racism, because there is this classic image—and it’s a troubling one—of a white chef commanding a kitchen filled with people of color doing the grunt work.
That’s the case in 90 percent of the restaurants in New York City. I think we should start early. We should reach out to schools that are predominately African-American and encourage the students to go into the culinary arts and even expose them to the fact that that could be a career. I think culinary schools in this country should teach African-American cuisine, because that is actuallyan American tradition rather than the same six sauces you learn that are from 300 years ago in France. And I think that all these powerful white chefs at Michelin-starred restaurants should seek out young men and women who are African-American—but also other ethnicities—and they should mentor them rather than just another white guy. Go out of your way and realize, “I want someone different working under me,” because those people are going to make your food more inspired and interesting. When you see what New American cuisine is in this country, it’s usually some white chef doing Frenchified food but with bells and whistles from different cultures, like sumac, or turmeric, or yuzu, but never really giving the culture that that food comes from any credit. Your ingredients aren’t innovative. They’ve been around for hundreds and hundreds of years. You’re just discovering them now.
I think that makes it easier for them. You don’t have to do the work of taking that extra step and embracing someone from a different culture. People think they need these ambassadors and you know what? I don’t think they do. They really don’t. I’m not saying that you can’t write about or cook food and ingredients from other cultures—if I said that I’d be a hypocrite—what I’m saying is, you have to give credit where credit is due. All it takes is a few lines before the recipe in a newspaper article, magazine or cookbook of: “I love yuzu. I first discovered it at my favorite sushi joint X, and they told me it was a Japanese citrus fruit, they showed me the bottle, and then I got a bottle, and pretty soon I wasn’t just using it in my Japanese raw fish preparation, I was using it in salad dressing.” That’s all you need. Nobody is telling you to stay in your lane. I’m saying the world is a delicious place full of different and exciting flavors, and we should all be able to enjoy and sample all of those flavors regardless of where we come from or the color of our skin. But I’m saying that you have to give credit where it’s due. And that’s what Taste the Nation is about: going to the source.
We have entered Phase 2 in New York City with the restaurants reopening with outdoor seating. Do you feel it’s safe? And what safeguards should restaurants be taking right now?
You know, I’m not a restaurateur or chef—and never worked in that capacity in a restaurant—so I think I’m going to leave it to the experts, because there’s been a lot of misinformation and I don’t want to add to that noise. There are a lot of chefs that are working to create a body of protocols for chefs to use. You have to use your own sense about it. The problem is, you don’t know how safe anybody else is, and how diligent they are about their quarantining or how close they’re getting to other people or if they’re wearing masks, and that’s a problem. It’s going to be a big adjustment. I don’t think we can go from 0-100 right away. We need to take baby steps. We can’t undo all the hard work we’ve done over these last three months in getting the numbers down, and you see that already happening in over half the states in the country. I’m working with the James Beard Foundation to help the restaurant industry, so if people want to learn more about how they can help restaurants they can go to https://www.jamesbeard.org/openforgood.
You said you’re not a restaurateur but I’m curious if you’d one day want to open a restaurant? Is that a dream of yours?
No. [Laughs] I know too much about the restaurant business. The margins are too slim and…I don’t want to work that hard. I worked hard on Taste the Nation, which is a very personal project for me and I’m so happy to do television and my writing. I consider myself a food writer first and foremost, and I know what I’m good at. I’m good at writing books and doing TV shows, and I do not want to run a restaurant at all. [Laughs]