It's easy to want to hate Padma Lakshmi. The "Top Chef" host and former model is so effortlessly beautiful it hurts. On top of that, she's not afraid of going up a few dress sizes while filming her Bravo television show. And she counts some of Hollywood's top celebrities as regular dinner party guests.
But her Instagram account, filled with pictures of herself laughing in a white T-shirt and chowing down on greasy barbecue and other taboo diet foods, reveals a woman who believes that life and food are all about balance. Because obsessing about your diet is so not sexy, she says.
Her laid-back approach guides everything from entertaining (she likes to serve simple meals like spaghetti, salad and vanilla ice cream) to losing weight after giving birth (it took 13 months).
Lakshmi, 44, has had a few unexpected flops at dinner parties, but says she simply rolls with it. The ice cream maker stopped working at a party she was hosting for Vanity Fair magazine a few years ago, so she served the ice cream base as chocolate soup. "It was delicious," she said in a recent telephone interview.
Through trial and tribulation, she's accumulated some basic entertaining advice. For example, don't experiment with new recipes, she warns. People are coming over for the company, not the food.
For the guest list, try to strike a balance between people with matching and contrasting interests. And no matter who else you invite, director Joel Schumacher and actress Susan Sarandon "are always good for a hoot."
"They will liven up any dinner party. Joel is a fantastic storyteller, which is why he's such a great director," Lakshmi said. "But he's also a good talker and Susan is fun and irreverent and unpredictable and has a great wildness about her and a great sense of humor, so she's good at pulling other people out of their shell. And who doesn't want to have dinner with Susan Sarandon."
Though Lakshmi loves exploring exotic foods on her show and in her travels, she grew up a strict vegetarian in India and follows a mostly vegetarian diet when she's not filming.
"It's probably why I understand better that there are so many great plant-based sources out there, so you don't have to feel deprived," she said. "We have had a disconnect in our generation of how to eat well and how to eat a varied and abundant diet. I'm not espousing total vegetarianism or veganism. I personally and politically believe that a varied diet with a little bit of everything is the right path for most Americans."
At home, she still mostly cooks the Indian foods she grew up eating, which are heavy on beans, including lentils and beans of every color. And she and 5-year-old daughter Krishna eat lots of dairy products, including milk, cheese and homemade yogurt. In fact, the single mom recently partnered with MorningStar Farms to encourage others to go meatless a few meals a month for a Veg of Allegiance challenge.
"The best thing you can do for your children is to cultivate an interest and appreciation in food, because a child who has a hand in making their own foods is more likely to eat that food because they have ownership of what they make."
Lakshmi also doesn't worry what her own inherent curiosity for food will do to her bombshell figure, admitting she typically goes up two dress sizes while filming.
"In Chicago, I went up three dress sizes. It was that damn deep dish pizza challenge that threw me off in the first episode," she said.
She follows a strict diet when not filming, but it takes her 12 weeks to lose what she gained in six weeks because she wants to do it the right way.
"If you were in my closet you would see things in a size 2 and you would see things in a size 12," she said.
It took her 13 months to lose her baby weight through a healthy diet and lots of boxing; she's addicted to the mental clarity and focus it brings.
"I didn't want to just have a crash diet," she said. "I don't want to live my life scared of food or what I'm putting in my mouth because that's not sexy either."