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.