PLAYBOY: How can you eat so much as a judge on Top Chef and look the way you do?
LAKSHMI: I’m lucky. I have a fast metabolism, I’m tall, and my digestive tract is ironclad and can really take a beating. Having been a model for 15 years, I also know a thing or two about how to dress if I’ve put on a few pounds. And I usually gain between 10 and 15 pounds over six weeks each season. Then I spend 12 weeks working it off. But it’s worth it. When the timer goes off and the food is ready, I’m really excited to eat.
PLAYBOY: How is the show different this season?
LAKSHMI: Of all the seasons, this one was the easiest and most relaxed for me. The people of the Pacific Northwest were very welcoming. The terrain around us was lush, and the seafood was amazing. Seattle has some talented young chefs. Top Chef continues to surprise me as far as being a phenomenon. I lucked out.
PLAYBOY: Has the show made you a better cook?
LAKSHMI: Absolutely not. I can cook, but I’m not a chef and I don’t want to be. I never aspired to run a restaurant. What I am is an excellent taster. I have an incredibly sensitive palate, which is why I can do what I do. If you saw me chop an onion, you would be highly unimpressed. But if I taste a dish, I can usually replicate the ingredients. And if I kissed you, I could probably tell what you had for lunch.
PLAYBOY: You temptress! Your contestants must fall in love with you constantly.
LAKSHMI: Well, you know, everyone has a little crush on their fourth-grade teacher. It fades. But because this is a game show, the chefs are not allowed to talk to me unless it’s on camera. It’s an FCC thing. Honestly, I don’t know a thing about these chefs while we’re shooting. I don’t know their last names. I don’t know if they’re married or gay. I don’t care. But if an innocent chef tries to chat me up, a producer will walk up and say, “Please step away from the judge.” Where’s that guy in my daily life?
PLAYBOY: Do you get hit on a lot?
LAKSHMI: I guess so. I don’t even realize it most of the time. A lot of men get frustrated with me, actually, because I am like a guy. Honestly, I’m like a truck driver trapped in this body. I don’t want to be your best friend. I don’t expect you to give me a birthday card or send me flowers. I don’t need fancy trips. You could take me across the street. Don’t get me wrong. That stuff’s nice, but I am a physical and sensual person. I love to be held. I love massages. I’m just not a Hallmark kind of gal.
PLAYBOY: You do realize that makes you even more attractive, right?
LAKSHMI: We always read in self-help books that men should listen to women and talk about their feelings. I suspect there’s some truth to that or they wouldn’t keep publishing these books. Psychologists make a killing training men how to be more understanding. It’s just not what I need to be attracted to someone. I want someone who’s a challenging adversary, who can tease me and get away with it, who can flirt and make me think and laugh and blush. But there’s an art to that. You either have it or you don’t.
PLAYBOY: And the sex must be good.
LAKSHMI: Yes. But sex is good when the attraction is good. It’s not a technical skill. If my mind is engaged, the body will follow.
PLAYBOY: You were married to Salman Rushdie for three years. Did it bother you when people said, “I don’t get this relationship”?
LAKSHMI: It didn’t, because comments like that came out of ignorance. If you saw us together you would know exactly why we were together. Now there is somebody who has great wit and is a great flirt. I don’t regret a day I spent with Salman, but it was tiring. He has a big life, and it only got bigger when we were together. I’m happy to have stood next to him holding his hand, but we were in very different parts of our lives.
PLAYBOY: At the time, he was winning literary awards and you were known for your modeling career.
LAKSHMI: I was doing other things too, but yes, from modeling bikinis in Seychelles to skiwear at Timberline, I did it all. Fortunately I avoided the fast life that’s often associated with models. Having grown up in an Indian home, I’m quite conservative and risk-averse in many ways. I would have been too embarrassed for my mom and my grandparents in India to read some salacious thing about me. But having said that, I was also lucky because my mother instilled a really healthy attitude about my body. She taught me that the female form is one of the most beautiful, natural shapes on earth.
PLAYBOY: Was it hard posing nude for the first time?
LAKSHMI: Yes, it was. In fact, I canceled on Helmut Newton at first. And no one ever canceled on Helmut. I got cold feet. He called to book me again six or seven weeks later. This time he said it wasn’t going to be nude—just topless. He said I could put my hair in front, which I did. What he was most interested in was my scar.
PLAYBOY: That scar on your upper right arm is a result of a car accident when you were 14. How do you feel about your scar now that you’re an adult?
LAKSHMI: It’s a mark of survival, and I definitely think it made me who I am. Beautiful girls are a dime a dozen, and everybody wants to work with a photographer like Helmut. It was the scar that made him notice me. He loved my scar, and by extension he made me think differently about myself. All of a sudden it was something to celebrate or at least not to be ashamed of. Everything in life shapes you.
PLAYBOY: Why did you decide to move on from modeling?
LAKSHMI: The thing is, beauty is no accomplishment on its own. It’s what you do with it. Have you ever met a girl and she’s really pretty, but then you talk to her for 15 minutes and she’s not that pretty anymore? She’s kind of boring. Or else you’ll meet a girl who’s okay-looking but makes you laugh and says something saucy. Suddenly her beauty shines through. A lot of people I see in magazines or on TV bore me. I don’t ever want to be boring. I want to do something. I want to be someone who stimulates people in their thinking or viewpoint. If you watch Top Chef on a very surface level, it’s just a reality show. It’s a competition about food. But if you actually watch the show, it’s really serious—about the food, about mastery, about people vying to be the captains of their industry. Being passionate about what you do is never boring.
PLAYBOY: And yet you co-starred opposite Mariah Carey in Glitter, one of the greatest “worst movies” of all time. What made you do that?
LAKSHMI: Oh, the money. Had Steven Spielberg called me with the script to a modern Citizen Kane, I’d have done that, but as an actress starting out, you don’t get to choose. The thing is, it was fun. What’s important to know about Mariah Carey is that nobody can sing the way she does. Watching her close up is like swimming alongside Michael Phelps at the Olympics. Girl’s got some lungs.
PLAYBOY: Speaking of lungs, we read somewhere that you require three sports bras while jumping rope. Urban myth?
LAKSHMI: Oh, that. I think sports bras have improved a bit since I said that in Vogue or somewhere. But it’s an odd thing. A regular bra doesn’t work alone, and sometimes I need more support, so I’ll put a sports bra over it. And I like to have a runner’s tank top over that. It’s my cross to bear, I guess. Sometimes I think I’m one of the last women with real boobs.
PLAYBOY: Quick-fire challenge: What’s a dish every man should know how to cook?
LAKSHMI: A beautiful roast chicken. The key is to leave it on a dinner plate in the fridge for 24 hours uncovered. Really wash it and dry it inside and out first, and then let it sit so the skin dries out—just like in Chinatown. Then I put it on my counter to temper it. You don’t want to put a cold chicken in a hot oven. Inside the cavity I put a quartered orange, garlic cloves, rosemary and bay leaves, and some black peppercorns and sea salt rubbed inside. Then I tie it tight. On the outside I just rub on some pink Himalayan salt. Put the whole thing in an oven at 450 degrees for about 45 minutes, turning it down to 400 as it browns. The last 15 minutes I do a spread in a bowl: a stick of butter, two tablespoons of honey and a teaspoon of cayenne whisked together at room temp. I just slather that all over and let it cook for the last 15 minutes like that. It’s heaven.
PLAYBOY:Is it true you once ate a testicle in Spain?
LAKSHMI: I did try a bull’s testicle, yes. It wasn’t terrible. I’m an omnivore. Part of being good at my job is trying everything at least once. So in that sense I am adventurous. I’ll eat anything. I have no food snobbery.
PLAYBOY: Who’s your favorite chef?
LAKSHMI: Eric Ripert never gets it wrong. Of all the chefs I’ve met, his palate is the most incredible. It’s sophisticated and highly manipulated, yet it still feels light, almost feminine in how delicate it is.
PLAYBOY: How are men different from women in the kitchen?
LAKSHMI: Of course I’m generalizing, but I think when men cook it tends to be an event. I don’t mean professional chefs, but I think men can sometimes cook as a statement. It’s like, “I’m making this food for you. It’s an accomplishment.” Whereas when women cook, they do it as a service: “I’ve produced something that I hope you’ll love and I hope is comforting, nourishing, yummy, sensual and decadent.”
PLAYBOY: Have you ever run into Rachael Ray in a dark alley?
LAKSHMI: No. I think she’s really nice, and we don’t have a beef. With all these channels, there’s room for all of us. If you like catfish noodling, there’s a channel for you. But TV food personalities aren’t interesting to me. Bobby Flay, I’m sure, is a great guy, but I don’t watch him. I don’t watch Iron Chef. I don’t even watch Top Chef, to be honest. It freaks me out sometimes how obsessed people are with the show. I appreciate the audience, certainly, but there seems to be no middle ground. Either they’ve never heard of the show or they’re obsessed. I’m somewhere in between. What I love about Top Chef is it doesn’t define me.
PLAYBOY: How do you want to be defined?
LAKSHMI: I don’t want to be beholden to anyone or anything. I have my daughter and the people I love in my family. But what I value most is freedom. This may sound lame, but when I first came to this country I was four years old. I flew alone as an unaccompanied minor on Air India. In those days, you made a million stops—Cairo, Rome, London and then New York. I’m sure my mom got me a cheap ticket since we were broke. But I remember wanting to be like those airline hostesses. They were so glamorous. They wore these beautiful saris. They had these big bouffant hairdos and little Samsonite beauty cases. They got to travel the world and were independent and did whatever the fuck they wanted. They didn’t answer to anybody. They knew what was important in their lives, and they had the opportunity to see the world and do what they wanted. That’s what I wanted, and now that I say it, I guess that’s what my life is. I can’t really complain.
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