Padma Lakshmi says creating 'Taste the Nation' was a game changer: 'As a brown woman in Hollywood, I have not had that opportunity before'

Padma Lakshmi.
Padma Lakshmi in Taste the Nation. (Hulu/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Padma Lakshmi says her Hulu series Taste the Nation, which follows her as she travels the United States to learn about food and culture in different cities, was intentionally created to target viewers who aren't as familiar with diverse cultures.

"It was actually created for people who don't think like me, and live in parts of the country where there's a monoculture," the host and executive producer said at the 2024 Simmons Leadership Conference at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston on Wednesday. "It was born out of my work on immigrant rights with the ACLU. Rather than getting on my soapbox, and being overt in my preaching, I'd rather show than tell."

Lakshmi always wanted to helm her own show. Getting the opportunity to do so wasn't so simple.

"As a brown person, a brown woman in Hollywood, I have not had that opportunity before," Lakshmi said. "And it was a game changer." Once she finally got the chance to design her own show with her own material, Lakshmi said, she "never wanted to go back."

"It took me a long time in Hollywood to get that privilege to create a show and do it exactly like I wanted to," she continued. "Making all the decisions, every bit of it, with a lot of help from my partners."

That doesn't mean it's always easy. As the mother of a 14-year-old, Lakshmi said navigating a work-life balance is really hard. That said, she recognizes she's fortunate to have help from her nanny, Tashi, who previously served as a paratrooper in the Indian Army.

"I would not be able to do or have the career that I have without really great, solid help. I want to just acknowledge Tashi, who is like my platonic housewife. But her job description is actually 'nanny.' Even though my daughter is 14, Tashi ain't going nowhere."

Even with her achievements, Lakshmi was honest about what's missing from her life.

"I'm the happiest I've ever been, but I don't have a social life," she said, noting that she spends her evenings catching up on reading she needs to do for upcoming projects, which include a new book she's working on. "It's hard to have work-life balance, and I know that my male colleagues don't get asked enough about this."

Long before she was a food writer or hosted Bravo's Top Chef, Lakshmi was a model. She quickly learned how "demoralizing" the industry was and how it "messes with your personal worth." She also saw how her differences became her greatest strengths.

Padma Lakshmi.
Padma Lakshmi at the 75th Primetime Emmy Awards in January. (Gilbert Flores/Variety via Getty Images)

"One very lauded photographer viewed the scar on my arm as actually something that was an asset, rather than something that can impede me from getting work," said Lakshmi. "It taught me how arbitrary our notions collectively of beauty are. Even though it was in an industry that was totally based on that, it allowed me to divorce myself and not take it personally, and know that these things are just what we as a society decide them to be, and they should not have that much impact on your life."

Today, Lakshmi is advocating for younger women who may not have the opportunities that she did.

"For me, that's how I pay it forward. That's also how I get my kicks — by pushing my weight around, the little weight that I have — for other younger women whenever I can," Lakshmi said. "Any time you get a little, itty bitty of power, it will turn you on so much to wield it for others."