“Please pack your knives and go.” Padma Lakshmi has been saying those six words for the past 10 years on Bravo’s popular cooking competition series, Top Chef.
With the newest installment set in Colorado, the Encyclopedia of Spices and Herbs author, 47, is once again joined by fellow longtime judges Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons, in addition to Graham Elliot, returning for his second season to taste amazing food by talented hopefuls vying for the coveted title.
Here, Lakshmi opens up about what fans can expect from season 15 and what keeps her coming back year after year:
Us Weekly: There’s a good mix of talent and characters this season. What did you think of this crop of cheftestants?
Padma Lakshmi: I really liked the diversity we were able to find. You never know what you’re going to get. You never know what they’re going to be like in the kitchen. We have soul food through an Amish lens. We have Vietnamese American food, which is something different of course than actually Vietnamese food from Vietnam. And then we have a couple of local chefs from Colorado. We have one chef from Alaska. I don’t think we’ve ever had someone from Alaska, so that was cool. I love the diversity. I think it makes for a rich competition. And I hope, from the viewers’ point of view, it also gives you more information about different types of cuisine.
Us: Tell me about filming in Colorado. Did you have a favorite dish out there?
PL: I didn’t have a favorite dish, but I do have a favorite ingredient, which probably won’t come as a surprise. I loved all the peppers there. That was a surprise to me. I didn’t know Colorado culture had all these peppers. It was a joy to go to the store on the rare occasion that I did and see all of that. I don’t really cook that much, but we do cook in our hotel with a little hot plate because I don’t want to eat room service — nor do I want my daughter to eat it. So we wind up making really basic things. I will steal an onion or potato from set sometimes (laughs). And come home and have some mashed potatoes or something. Because after you eat all that rich food — and it is very rich because they want to win — you want to have something really simple.
Us: It’s so rare that a long-running series still has basically the same judges. You, Tom and Gail have that great chemistry. Is it easy for you guys at this point?
PL: We do certainly have a shorthand when you have colleagues you worked with for years, but I do think the reason the show works well is because we understand our roles. We also are rolling in the same direction to make the show as good as it can be. That is our No. 1 priority. We are like a little family. Not just Gail and Tom and I, but all the people behind the camera you don’t see. My producers work really hard and when you’re working that intensely, elbow to elbow, you do become close. It is easier now. We used to take a lot longer at judges’ table. When I had the baby and we had to deal with my nursing schedule, all of a sudden we found a way to have things run a little bit tighter. The best thing that happened to our schedules, inadvertently, is the birth of Krishna (laughs).
Us: This season, we will see some familiar faces on Last Chance Kitchen. Did you have a horse in the race?
PL: I can’t really root for anybody, but the ones that return, I do hope they do well because they’ve been on the show before. They should know how things go and be able to manage their time. Hopefully they gained experience in how the kitchen works in the time they have. I don’t root for anybody. I’ve really become close and attached to some contestants, but I honestly root for the best dish. I hope that my fellow judges will see what I see in a particular dish. Or it will be obvious who should go. You just want to see them do well. Not only for the show, but for themselves.
Us: Contestants can get pretty emotional when they get feedback from the judges. Is that ever tough for you? Do you ever feel guilty?
PL: I don’t feel guilty because I would be doing them a disservice if I didn’t give them honest feedback. It’s that thing where … well, it’s much more serious because it’s on national TV. But when you ask a girl friend, “How do I look in this?” You want an honest opinion. You don’t want somebody to let you do out there and look bad. I don’t think they want me to go out there and say, “It’s all great.” Then they’ll continue to make mediocre food and they won’t get really far. I alleviate some of the sting — both for the contestant and for myself, I hope — by being constructive in my criticism. I’ll never say, “I really didn’t like that.” I’ll say, “I thought it was spicy. I thought it didn’t have good balance. I thought you could have cooked the eggs more. I think you could have done something more interesting with those flavors.” I want to be constructive so that if they don’t take home the win, at least they take away some information that will be useful for them. And the best contestants we’ve had over the years are able to internalize those insights immediately and are able to put them back into the food the very next challenge. And they do better for it.
Us: You’re 15 seasons in. What keeps you coming back?
PL: I’m very lucky. I have a great job and I have a job I truly enjoy. I feel like I was born to do this job. Even before I was paid to do it on TV, I would naturally sit around and talk about food all day long. My family is one that is planning dinner while they are clearing plates away from lunch. It’s a very happy coincidence that it’s an extension of what I like to do anyway. I’ve very thankful for that opportunity. So that’s what keeps me coming back. I realize how lucky I am.
Top Chef airs on Bravo Thursday, December 8, at 8 p.m. ET.