I expected a book about Padma Lakshmi to be fascinating, and it was. She’s interesting to me for a few reasons. She hosts one of my favorite series, Top Chef, a show that somehow avoids the dumb theatrics and contrived plots of most reality shows. She’s from India and has lived and worked in numerous countries. She was married to Salman Rushdie.
And, superficially, she’s gorgeous and sophisticated and always seems put together. So one of the most interesting things about this book was reading about her insecurities and challenges. On TV she never seems to sweat, although she doesn’t seem completely fake either. In the book, she talks about how insecure she was, starting out on Top Chef. She had a cookbook and a modeling career but didn’t have the culinary credentials of the judges on the show. She was similarly insecure being married to Rushdie, an internationally-acclaimed writer.
Like many celebrity memoirs, this isn’t the most amazingly-written book I’ve read. The book jumps around a bit in time which made it hard to follow sometimes. But I find that’s often the case with memoirs; it’s hard to tell one’s life story linearly. Sometimes she goes on way too long about things, like food (her story of feeding her child Indian food for the first time was mind-numbing).
But she’s honest, direct, and has a writing style that kept me interested. I really liked reading about food and how it connects her to family and her Indian culture. I would have liked hearing more about Top Chef, but she covers a lot in this book. She begins with her marriage and divorce, then backtracks to her childhood. She talks about being a foreigner and a “brown girl” in the U.S. and being sent to live with relatives in India. She writes candidly about her struggles with endometriosis, a condition many women suffer from that few doctors apparently know about. She has since become a leader in trying to draw more attention to this debilitating condition.
I did like this description of Top Chef, where she describes the Quickfire portion of the show as being very much as it appears on television:
The process is rapid fire: Bite, bite, bite, pause, adopt inscrutable facial expression, spew a vague comment that gives nothing away, and repeat. After a while my stomach begins to feel like a restaurant Dumpster.
This will sound strange maybe, but I’ve always been drawn to her because of the large scar on her arm, a scar she never seems to cover up. On the show she wears these gorgeous sleeveless dresses. Seeing her scar makes me happy – not that she has one, but that it’s never hidden. It reminds me of my own scar: the one that runs from my right knee down my shin, that I’ve had since I was fourteen. Our stories aren’t that different — both of us were in serious car accidents as teenagers, both of us had multiple surgeries, both of us have scars that ended up worse than they were supposed to be. I don’t pay a ton of attention to my “Frankenstein leg” but I’m always aware of it. So I appreciated that she wrote about her scar. She thought she wouldn’t be able to model, but a famous photographer taught her that the scar makes her more human, and so it does.
I saw a few reviewers on Goodreads who said they really disliked Lakshmi after reading this book. I wasn’t one of them. I felt she was honest about the things that have gone her way – successful career, gorgeousness – and the things that haven’t gone her way – divorce, painful medical condition. I appreciated her perspective as someone who had to go back and forth between two continents as a child. She’s beautiful and she’s used it to make a living, but she doesn’t go on and on about her appearance; it’s simply an advantage she has. And if she hasn’t made great relationship choices, I’m not going to judge her for that. To me, she was quick to point out when she was wrong.
Okay, so she’s no Bryan Stevenson. But at least with her work on endometriosis, she’s used her success to make a difference in people’s lives. And I have to feel she has something to do with keeping Top Chef so good all these years.