If you don’t know Padma Lakshmi from her activism or for her award-winning cookbooks and memoir, chances are you definitely know her from Bravo’s reality cooking competition show Top Chef. The Indian-born multihyphenate has been its host for 13 years now and sends aspiring chefs home with the famous catch phrase “Pack your knives and go.” This season—the show’s sixteenth!—takes place in Kentucky, where the 15 ambitious chef contestants will battle it out for the top prize. Ahead of its premiere tonight (December 6) at 9 :00 P.M. Lakshmi answered Glamour‘s Big Questions, below.
What is your full name and where does it come from?
My name is Padma Lakshmi. Padma is Sanskrit word for lotus. It is also the flower that blooms in stagnant water. And my last name is Lakshmi, which is normally a first name in India. In Hinduism it is the goddess of prosperity and abundance. It’s my mother’s middle name that I took because I wanted to have my mother’s last name.
What is your idea of true happiness?
Wow. I guess my idea of true happiness is when you feel content and productive and useful. And not that you need to have everything great happen to you every day, but that you feel like you are living with purpose in your life as a mother, in my profession, and in my romantic and platonic relationships as well. In my memoir, Love, Loss, and What We Ate, I actually talk about this in the beginning. I used to ask my grandmother, who is a huge mentor to me, about happiness. And she would always say that happiness to her was not a noun, but a verb. And that if she felt like she got everything done that she needed to do, then she went to bed happy. That she was content that she went to sleep more accomplished than she got up that day. I think my definition of happiness definitely aligns with that.
If you could come back as one person, real or fictional, who would it be?
I would come back as myself, but knowing everything I know now. My life took such a twisty and turn-y path that I didn’t have a lot of the knowledge that I needed to do things in a straight line, so I wound up doing a lot of things the long way or the hard way. So I don’t really think I need to come back as anybody else, but I would love to retain the knowledge and the wisdom I’ve gained from this life into the next one.
What do you consider to be the greatest invention of all time?
Motherhood. My assistant would say coffee.
What do you think is the worst one?
Some days I think it’s the Internet, but I know that it is also really good…. I think high-fructose corn syrup is probably the worst invention.
What is your most irrational fear and where does it come from?
My most irrational fear is sugar. I am always afraid of eating too many sweets because I’ve had a lot of cavities and I’ve had eight root canals in my life…. Every time my dentist says he has to see me again, I feel like I am being called to the principal’s office.
Would you rather be able to stop time or speed it up?
I think I’d rather stop time. I don’t want time to speed up. I have an eight-year-old, and I’ve seen how much she’s developed and grown from one year to the next. And I sound like every silly parent, but I look at her and I think, Why can’t you be three again? I also sorely miss people I have lost. I wish I had a little bit more time with my grandfather, who was also a big influence in my life. I wish I had more time with one of my lovers who passed away seven years ago now.
How do you stand up for what you believe in?
You open your mouth and you have your convictions be bigger than your fears. I first found my voice when I started talking about endometriosis almost a decade ago. It was really hard to do that, but I thought that any embarrassment I’d have talking about my body or my vagina was smaller than the issue of all of these millions of women suffering in silence and not getting a proper diagnosis. The needs of the next generation of young women superseded my own personal embarrassment of talking about my period or this icky disease.That was the first big leap in a journey that’s taken me now to immigration rights, and the U.N., and the ACLU, and different things like that. Find something you’re really passionate about that you know is wrong in the world that you can set right. That will vanquish any fear you have of stepping in to speak about it where others won’t and maybe have not yet.
You’re stuck on a desert island and can bring only three things. What are they?
My daughter, a tooth brush, and survivalist Bear Grylls, who was in that show called Man vs. Wild. I think that’s a good mix. A toothbrush, my kid (with lots of books in her book bag), and Bear Grylls.
Never have I ever ____ .
Never have I ever tried acid or LCD because I’m scared that my imagination is already overactive when I’m sober. Is that lame? I’d be like one of those kids you saw on the after-school specials. I am anxiety averse.
What advice would your 18-year-old self give to you now?
Try once in a while to enjoy the success you’ve always wanted because sometimes when you get the success you always crave, you don’t have the time to enjoy it. You’re so busy maintaining the success or chasing the next thing. You really want to stop and say, This is a moment where I’ve actually got a lot of things I didn’t have in my twenties and I am really thankful.
If you were on a dating app, hypothetically speaking, what would your opening line be?
“High-maintenance but definitely worth it.”