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.