In her new show, Taste the Nation with Padma Lakshmi, the longtime Top Chef host and executive producer seems most at home when she’s peering over the shoulder of someone who’s cooking, her eyes taking in each part of the process, her hands unafraid to reach for a taste of an ingredient, spice, or sauce. Throughout the Hulu series, Lakshmi uses food as a springboard to bring to light the intricacies of America’s many cultures, from the border town of El Paso, Texas, to the German roots of Milwaukee and the Indigenous communities of Arizona. Each episode is a snapshot of immigrant life, something Lakshmi herself is familiar with: At four years old, she left her grandparents’ home in India to join her mother in Queens, New York. As she makes her way across the country, Lakshmi explores notions of displacement, belonging, adaptation, and community all through the lens of food, creating a diverse portrait of Americanness and the many identities that comprise it.
Q: How did your individual perspective, as a woman of color and an immigrant, shape the show?
PL: That is one thing that was very important to me: I wanted this to be my point of view because I didn’t see my point of view reflected in major media. I saw my point of view on food reflected every week on Top Chef, of course, but all the travel shows that you see are mostly hosted by white men, and my show is hosted by a brown woman. You see my hands all over it. You can see the shift in perspective. You also see that the show is being hosted by a concerned mother who grew up in very similar circumstances to these, for the most part, blue-collar, middle-class immigrants.
Q: One theme of the show is how personal our relationship to what we eat is. Did that feel like a new approach to talking about food after Top Chef?
PL: I spent over a dozen years on TV analyzing food, dissecting food, being super clinical about it, and there’s space for that, but at the end of the day, I wanted to do something different. I didn’t want to see food devoid of its context. I wanted to do something that was emotionally more resonant because people have very deep emotional connections to food, and you don’t see that on most food programming. I also wanted to show examples of all these different communities and different people. Just because you didn’t come here on a plane or boat, and your grandfather did, does not make you more American than a Thai grandmother. And just because your skin is white doesn’t give you any deeper claim to this nation than her.
Q: Was there a concern that approaching some of these marginalized communities might seem exploitative?
PL: That was very important to me because I’ve watched an awful lot of that kind of programming. I wasn’t interested in translating the stories of the people I interviewed; I was interested in helping them tell their own stories as they saw fit. When you feel vulnerable, it’s harder to open up, especially when you don’t know the person and there’s a camera in your face, which is why we specifically tried to shoot wherever the subject felt comfortable: in their kitchen, in their backyard, in their Toyota, wherever it made sense. Because this show is not about me. It’s about them. I wanted to show these stories that are all around us, all over the country. They’re just as important, as valuable, and as American as the 5,700 sitcoms you’ve seen with only white people.
Q: Did you discover anything about America in a broader sense during filming?
PL: The news is pretty dire on a lot of fronts in our country, and all you have to do is open your phone to get demoralized, for lack of a better word. But when I was filming and meeting all of these compelling people across our land, I felt a great sense of hopefulness. I felt shored up by the resilience of the human spirit. I know that sounds corny, but it’s true. It’s not impossible to resolve some of these issues. We just have to have the gumption and the fortitude to actually do so.
Q: Is there a particular moment from Taste the Nation that has stayed with you?
PL: My favorite episode is the Thai episode. I wanted to do that story because I wanted to show that America does have a history of welcoming people to this country. I wanted to show that there is a magnanimous spirit in American history that we should remember and reinvoke.