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SXSW: 'Top Chef' host Padma Lakshmi on cultural appreciation, curry meatloaf and building empathy through travel

Addie Broyles
"Top Chef" host and executive producer Padma Lakshmi chats with Mary Beth Albright, the food anchor for the Washington Post video, during The Copernicus Project, a breakout program during South by Southwest at Trinity Hall. [Addie Broyles/American-Statesman]

Padma Lakshmi might be best known as the host of "Top Chef," but she's also the executive producer of the show, a cookbook author, a founder of the Endometriosis Foundation, an ambassador with both the UN and the ACLU.

Oh, and she's a single mom to a 9-year-old daughter.

Lakshmi has been a fixture on Bravo's hit reality cooking competition for more than a decade, and this weekend, she was in Austin for a panel during South by Southwest and at a side program called The Copernicus Project.

After appearing at the Hilton Austin Saturday on a panel called “Making Change On and Off the Screen” with the ACLU and actor Amber Heard, Lakshmi was in conversation at Trinity Hall with The Washington Post's Mary Beth Albright, who is the food anchor for the newspaper's video content.

At the session, Lakshmi talked about the limits of cultural appropriation, teaching her daughter empathy through travel and what to expect from her next book.

Lakshmi explained that "Top Chef" has always offered equal footing to men and women, which seems even more important in the past few years as the #MeToo and Time's Up movements have hit the food world.

The "formidable women" who have appeared on "Top Chef," including the new-to-Austin Kristen Kish, have shown that gender has little to do with your skill in the kitchen. "The food is what really wins," she says."If there are three white guys in the final, it's because their food was the best.

Lakshmi was born in South India and moved to the U.S. when she was 4, and though she made frequent trips to India growing up, she always felt like an American kid.

Although many Americans might not be able to identify South Indian cuisine, they know the ingredients, Lakshmi said, especially peppercorn and ginger, two ingredients endemic to her family's cuisine.

"Spices and other ingredients are a great introduction to another person’s food or culture," Lakshmi said. In contrast to people in the food industry who draw lines in the sand around "authentic" or "traditional" food, Lakshmi doesn't mind when people make fusion dishes. "Anything that allows you to have one foot in a culture is fine. I’m not offended by curry in meatloaf," she said.

"When I see a Caucasian woman wearing a sari, I don’t get offended. I’m secure in my culture and so I want to share it," she said. "I’m honored and flattered that someone is taking the energy and care to get to know my culture. That's a beautiful thing, and that’s different than someone doing a characterture on it."

"We're in a very sensitive time, and that's good overall, but we have to be careful, too. A certain kind of political correctness does not allow for love. It does not allow for appreciation and admiration."

Using culture, from a recipe to a piece of clothing to a style of music, can be used to bring us closer rather than trying to separate us. Lakshmi talked about exploring other cultures as a way to build empathy. "It's easier to have empathy with others when you’ve gone to other cultures outside your own," she said.

When she was in her 20s and starting out as a food writer, she lived in Italy and France, where she adapted easily to the food and customers. Going back and forth from America to India when she was a kid taught her about code switching, "and having that practice as a child helped me adapt to different cultures faster," she said. "I was already used to interpreting another culture and being respectful of it and finding my place in it."

Her daughter is learning those lessons now, traveling with Lakshmi to "Top Chef" shoots and to visit family in India.

For her next book, she said she's writing about the different ways we interpret and pass on culture, especially with young children. "We live in this culture where we raise girls one way and we raise boys another way and we send them out to the world together," she said. "They have totally different rules they are operating from in their heads. There are changes to be made there. We need to teach self-reliance, self-preservation and self-advocacy to both girls and boys."

Lakshmi, who said she hopes to take "Top Chef" to India soon, perhaps for a finale, said that being on the show taught her how to have confidence in what she brings to the table, even if it's not what others are expecting. "My role as host is to elicit the judges' or contestants' opinions and to keep the conversation moving, making sure I ask questions in a way that doesn’t lead the judge but also brings out the most amount of information them from," she said. "The audience can't taste the food, so I’m the conduit for the person at home. That's harder than being a judge."