Padma Lakshmi has had a busy year between wrapping up the fourteenth season of Top Chef in Charleston and releasing her newest cookbook, The Encyclopedia of Spices and Herbs: An Essential Guide to the Flavors of the World. At a dark Manhattan speakeasy, Lakshmi and I sip on the Patrón cocktail she developed while she dishes on unforgettable parties and a very unexpected gift for your host.
How did you choose to focus on spices in your new book?
I didn’t choose spices. They chose me! I was born in India to a family of women who loved cooking. The first smell I remember is the smell of spices roasting in my grandmother’s hot iron wok. I’ve grown up around them, so they’re just second nature to me. I’m from the same part of India where most spices originally come from—turmeric, ginger. They’ve been a part of my existence since before I could spell.
I love spices because they’re the thing that change your food from being ordinary to special. Think about it. Every culture has chicken and vegetables—Chinese stir fry, chicken fajitas, chicken cacciatore, chicken tagine, chicken vindaloo, chicken pot pie. What makes those dishes all different? It’s the spices. If it wasn’t for the spices, it’s just chicken and vegetables. You can’t be a good cook if you don’t understand spices.
Tell me about what we’re drinking. There’s turmeric in it? I feel like turmeric is pretty trendy right now.
It’s not trendy to me! I’ve been using turmeric since I was born. It’s ubiquitous in India, to all our cooking. It is having a moment. So I thought, sure, why not use something that is part of my heritage that is having a moment in American culture right now. It has turmeric, ginger, lime juice, mint, and a splash of tangerine juice. It’s not too sweet. It’s important to be mindful of your guests not waking up with a hangover the next day. (Laughs).
You recently visited the Patrón hacienda to tape this season of Top Chef. What was that like?
It was great. I mean, I didn’t really know what to expect. I guess I expected a factory. They told me they grow the agave there. They distill it. They package it. They do everything there, so I didn’t expect it to be such a beautiful, warm, inviting place. It couldn’t have been more beautiful. You go through the gates, and the house is this beautiful gothic style architecture with balconies and archways—you know those old Spanish villas. I don’t think they built it that long ago, but it feels like it was built 100 years ago. All of a sudden you feel like you’re in a Marquez book. You feel like you’ve stepped out of an Isabel Allende novel. It has a House of the Spirits feel to it.
Everyone there is really nice. I think they employ over half the town. I have to tell you that everyone I met—and I met over half of their employees—everyone was smiling. When I went to find out how the agave is turned into what you’re drinking, the farmers were happy, the guys chopping the big balls of agave, they’re happy. It takes like 60 people to make one bottle of Patrón. I had no idea! I think they also have a church there. I think it’s nice the way the owners of Patrón have thought about the wellbeing of their employees. I think if that was just for show, I would’ve found out. I spent two days there, and then a day and a half with the show. I really got into the culture of the hacienda. Everything is hand done, and this day in age, it doesn’t have to be.
Do you entertain a lot during the holidays?
I entertain a lot all year round, but yeah, I have a couple gatherings. My entertaining tends to be very loose and relaxed. If the hostess is relaxed, the guests are relaxed. I try not to make it stuffy. I try to keep in mind how busy everyone is, and how everyone has to run home from work and put their kids to bed and do all of that. I try not to start a party too early, but I do start it early enough that people don’t have to get home at like one in the morning and feel like it took up half their day.
I have a child, so children are always welcome at my parties. I never want someone to have to decide between coming to hang out at my house and being with their kids. I always give them that option. It’s a holiday for them too! The holidays are about spending time with your family.
What type of parties do you normally throw?
I usually throw buffets. I do have sit down dinners, but they’re more like dinner parties throughout the year. For the holidays, I have a buffet because people can come for a little bit and then leave or come back. It’s a little more loose, and people feel like they can stop by. If you have a sit down dinner, then you can only talk to the person on your left and on your right. And if you’re late, you feel really awkward because you come in and people are already eating. But at a buffet, you can take what you want. You can mingle.
How do you enjoy the party if you’re the host?
Make 75% of your menu ahead of time. Don’t kill yourself. No one is there because…well, maybe some people are there because you’re an excellent cook, but most people are there because they want to spend time with you. The only thing I save until the last minute is usually putting the dressing on salad or ripping up the herbs which can oxidize and get black. Unless you’re making guacamole, don’t wait to do anything.
Don’t be afraid to ask your friends to help. It also gives the guests something to do. If you want to break the ice and start conversations, get two people that don’t know each other to make the salad together. People appreciate that. They want to talk to other guests, but they feel intimidated.
What would you want to receive as a hostess gift?
I think a bottle of wine is not a good idea for a hostess gift. There’s always this awkward moment as a hostess, where I’m not sure if you want me to open that wine, and it’s just one bottle, and I’ve got ten people here, and maybe it doesn’t go with the other wine I’m serving. But I don’t want you to feel offended if I say thank you and put it away. You know? If you’re buying wine, if you can afford it, buy two bottles of the same wine. Or buy a bottle of Patrón. Bring a nice bottle of something. Some people who want tequila can enjoy right away, but that gift is going to stay in that person’s bar cart for a while. That’s a nice, solid gift.
And I have to tell you the truth, I think my book would be great. (Laughs). Because if they’re hosting a dinner party, they like to cook. This is about every spice in the world. It’s a reference guide, so it’s not “oh, I hope she likes Mexican food or Thai food.” This is something that will last in his or her kitchen and be useful to them.
If you’re going to a place where you know the host or hostess, like if they’re a reader, you can go to a used bookstore and find a first edition of something or even an old vintage copy of a magazine. Once, for a birthday present, I found a Playboy magazine from the 60s which had a pictorial of not only Brigitte Bardot but Vanessa Redgrave, and an article in it by Alan Ginsberg. I found it outside of Lincoln Center. This guy had a sheet with all these vintage magazines. I bought 2 or 3 and kept them, so when I need a last minute gift, it’s a cool item. It’s nice to have those kinds of gifts that aren’t gender dependant or size dependant.
Who did you end up giving that to?
My ex-husband. I didn’t forget his birthday, but I thought, “this is a juicy present.”
What makes an event great?
You can serve hot dogs and potato chips out of a bag. You can do what most French women do, which is buy everything and just throw out the packaging. That’s totally acceptable. The point is you’re taking the trouble to open up your home. If you have a good guest list. You always want to have a few loud mouth funny people. You also want to have two other people who are a more reserved. If everyone is shouting, that’s awful too. You want a mix. I was at a party once where I saw Kate Moss talking to Henry Kissinger, and I thought it was the best party I’d ever been to! You know? You want whatever your own universe’s version of that is in your own circle of friends and family. You don’t need to worry about fancy recipes and good china. Of course you want your home to be beautiful and you want people to feel like you fussed over them, but really, you want the company to be good.
What was the best party you’ve ever been to?
The best party I’ve ever been to was on Liberty Island. It was on August 2nd, 1999. It was for the opening of Talk magazine thrown by Tina Brown. That was the party where I saw Kate Moss talking to Henry Kissinger! I also met my husband there that day. But there was everybody. There was Demi Moore. There was Madonna. And there was no electricity there, except for generators. So you had to actually walk around. You couldn’t just sit back and people watch. You didn’t know who anyone was until you got 3 feet away from them. So people were very open. They would just say hi to whoever because they didn’t know enough to put their guard up. There were blankets and pillows everywhere on the lawn. There were fireworks. Literally Martin Scorsese was having a hot dog with Julia Roberts. I mean, I’m making those two people up, but I’m sure they were there. (Laughs).
Again, it’s the people. I don’t remember what I ate. All I remember is all these people were there, and they were talking to me. Tina Brown is the best hostess that I have ever met in my life because she understands that. She knows that it’s about people. A party is about people. Nothing else but people.