Padma Lakshmi to women entrepreneurs: 'Be a little more pushy than feels gracious'

The "Top Chef" host shared her Know Your Value moment and chatted about her work to support female businesses, the worst career advice she’s ever gotten and her guilty food pleasures.
Image: Padma Lakshmi
Padma LakshmiCharles Sykes / Bravo

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By Rosie Colosi

Everyone knows Padma Lakshmi has found incredible success as a food expert, host of Bravo’s “Top Chef,” model, actress and best-selling author.

So you might be surprised to learn that Lakshmi, even recently, has experienced moments of self-doubt.

Lakshmi, 49, told Know Your Value that she always wanted to have a book about spices and herbs but wasn’t initially sure that she should be the person to write it.

“I always wanted the book I wrote to exist in the world,” Lakshmi said after an event with Stacy’s Pita Chips to celebrate female entrepreneurs.

Even though she had already written three successful books, Lakshmi doubted her ability. “I thought: ‘I’m not a scholar. I’m not 75 years old. I haven’t worked in a food lab.’ There were a million reasons for me to think, ‘What business do I have?’” she recounted at the event in New York City.

Padma Lakshmi attends the inaugural "Stacy's Rise Project" event on Nov. 4, 2019.Eugene Gologursky / Getty Images for Stacy's Pita Chips

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Her “Know Your Value” moment came when she realized that the information was out there — she just had to take the time to research it. “I had to advocate for myself in my own head,” she said. “It had less to do with talent and more to do with knowledge.” The resulting book, "The Encyclopedia of Spices and Herbs: An Essential Guide to the Flavors of the World,” was published in 2016.

Besides overcoming moments of self-doubt, Lakshmi chatted with Know Your Value about several topics, including her work to support female businesses, the worst career advice she’s ever gotten and her guilty food pleasures.

Paying it forward

Though she’s busier than ever this year, Lakshmi has been lending her voice to causes she believes in. She’s an ambassador for the ACLU, a co-founder of the Endometriosis Foundation of America, and a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Development Programme. Most recently, Lakshmi joined forces with Stacy’s Pita Chips to launch a funding and mentorship project for female-owned, food-related businesses.

“We need to change the game for the next generation and the generation after that,” said Lakshmi at an intimate luncheon for the finalists. Last year, only 2.3 percent of the total capital invested in venture-backed startups in the U.S. was given to female-founded companies. “We won’t really have equality if we don’t ask and fight for it ourselves.” Altogether, Stacy’s Rise Project awarded $200,000 to five different female entrepreneurs, along with guidance and encouragement.

Sharing advice

After her extensive travels as a young model, Lakshmi began hosting travel and cooking shows, eventually leading to her 13-year run on Bravo’s “Top Chef.” Lakshmi shared her advice for young entrepreneurs, urging them to “push against the open door. As young people we have one idea in our minds about how we want our career to go, and sometimes there are opportunities that come along that are adjacent to what you want to do.”

Lakshmi advised the finalists at the event to “know what you’re good at, have the humility to find other people who are good at what you’re not and then empower them to do their job for you ... Nobody does anything alone.” She also told them to "be a little more pushy than feels gracious."

Lakshmi told Know Your Value the worst advice she’s ever received: “Don’t give up on your dreams.” Her dream would have been to be a rock star, but she laughed that no one would want her to sing. Instead, she suggested, “Have two or three dreams and be pragmatic about it.”

Guilty pleasures

When asked if she had any culinary guilty pleasures, Lakshmi enthusiastically replied, “Let me count the ways!” Though Lakshmi doesn’t indulge in much junk food, she can recall “every good pizzeria south of 30th Street in Manhattan.” She’s also partial to In-N-Out cheeseburgers and Carl’s Jr. Western bacon cheeseburgers. She loves thin, crispy french fries dipped in au poivre sauce, which is traditionally served with steak. Even so, she said she hasn’t ordered a steak dinner since the '90s, and she has been waging an uphill battle for “Top Chef” to have an all-vegetarian season.

If anyone can make that happen, it’s Lakshmi.