Padma Lakshmi on 'Taste the Nation: Holiday Edition' and Filming 'Top Chef' in Houston (Exclusive)
By Stacy Lambe
Not long after Padma Lakshmi’s docuseries, Taste the Nation, debuted on Hulu in June of last year, it was renewed for a second season. But given the amount of time it takes to produce a stylish 10-part series exploring various immigrant food cultures, the host tells ET, “We had so much love and support and really great enthusiasm for the series and season 1 that I didn’t want the trail to go cold.” So, they decided to release a 4-part, festive-focused installment just as the country settles into the holiday season, which she says “is really fun.”
While speaking with ET, Lakshmi teases what’s in store for the Holiday Edition, how her work on this docuseries has influenced what she’s doing as the longtime host of Top Chef, and filming the upcoming 19th season of the reality competition in Houston, Texas.
When it comes to the focus of the four new episodes -- Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year and Thanksgiving -- Lakshmi says it was all about tying it into what’s happening in the rest of the 2021 calendar year. “We wanted to do something that was more timely,” she says. “These are the holidays people are celebrating in the fall and winter. So that’s really how we started.”
Of course, this isn’t your average take on these holidays, with Taste the Nation focused on specific cultures tied to each occasion, like going to Miami to celebrate Cuban Christmas or spending time in Martha’s Vineyard with the Wampanoag Nation as they deconstruct the narrative around Thanksgiving. For Hanukkah, Lakshmi tours the Lower East Side of New York City where many Jews first settled in America, while the finale sees her headed to Koreatown in Los Angeles, California to celebrate Lunar New Year.
As a result, all four episodes see Lakshmi tasting delicious-looking recipes while sharing stories about certain traditions and what it means to be American. But the standout is “K-Town Countdown,” where the host learns how Koreans ring in the future while honoring the past during Lunar New Year.
“It was fun to learn about a cultural holiday I had no reference points for,” Lakshmi says, adding, “It was a wonderful way into Korean culture because it shows you what’s important and the values of that particular community and that’s exemplified beautifully in the customs of Korean New Year.” And those include everything from the setting of the altar to sebae, which is the deep bowing to the eldest living family members. The episode also shows that Korean food is more than kimchi or barbecue.
What really hits home are the conversations Lakshmi has with RuPaul’s Drag Race alum Kim Chi, pop star Eric Nam and chef Yoonjin Hwang. All of them open up about the anti-Asian hate and discrimination that they’ve experienced before and during the coronavirus pandemic. It’s an unexpected heavy turn in an episode about celebrating a communal birthday. But that’s what Taste the Nation is all about. “Our show is really about culture and people. The food is just the Trojan horse,” the host says.
“Food is the key to getting us into these communities to talk to them in a real way and hear from them firsthand what’s on their mind,” Lakshmi continues. “As you can imagine, it’s very much on the minds of Koreans and we’re going to K-Town. This used to be South Central L.A., right? We needed to talk about the history of the place as well. And so it was very obvious from the start that we needed to tackle this, even though it was an episode about the holiday.”
And ignoring what’s happening in the real world is something that Taste the Nation or even Top Chef can’t do. During the more recent seasons of the reality competition, issues like immigration have become more openly discussed topics on the show, with many contestants now encouraged to tell their food journey.
While promoting season 18, which was set in Portland, Oregon, Lakshmi said the shift in storytelling was crucial to showing who these contestants are. “Not only their professionalism and creativity, but also where they’re coming from, what their philosophies are, and how they handle pressure.”
When asked if her work on Taste the Nation has influenced her approach to Top Chef, Lakshmi says, “I hope that my experience as a human being holistically influences my work as a whole, too.”
“And of course that means that my work in one corner of my universe is going to affect it in another,” she continues. “And on a larger level, it’s also just what’s in the zeitgeist. And Top Chef is a very zeitgeist-y show. So, we are evolving with the times.” And if they hadn’t, “we would have perished.”
Instead, Top Chef just wrapped filming season 19 in Houston. While Lakshmi says she doesn’t have much control over where the series goes from season to season, she was actually really excited about the franchise’s return to Texas, which didn’t include the metropolitan area during the state-themed season 9.
“I know what a diverse community Houston is. There are Persians here. There are a lot of Indians, a lot of Nigerians, a lot of Caribbean folks, a lot of Vietnamese. So, I really thought it was a cool place just because of the diversity. And it would give us a chance to explore all different kinds of cuisines,” the host says, while noting it was a location she had been exploring for Taste the Nation.
“I had been looking into Houston for Taste the Nation for a while. And so, when they told me I was coming for Top Chef, I was excited that it would give me a chance to just be here for a while and beat the bushes and see what’s going on.”
One of the things happening currently, making any city in Texas a somewhat controversial choice, is the government’s attempt to restrict voting rights and push through an anti-abortion law. “Of course, it’s a very fraught time to be in Texas, but the local community of Houston is very excited that we’re here and we don’t think we should penalize the local city of Houston for what the state of Texas is doing.”
While longtime fans await the return of that franchise, they can dig into Lakshmi’s newest one when Taste the Nation: Holiday Edition debuts Nov. 4 on Hulu. Because, at the end of the day, what sets this apart from a lot of food programming currently on television is the way she’s trying to “give respect to the context of these foods and respect to the meaning that they serve in the culture,” Lakshmi says. “And I think that’s really important to do.”