As Padma Lakshmi enters Craft, the Century City, Calif., outpost of Tom Colicchio's Manhattan-based restaurant, the wait staff momentarily stops prepping for dinner service to stare. Her long black hair is in a ponytail and she's wearing an oversized navy blue fleece sweater, jeans and gray sneakers.
The 37-year-old host of Bravo's celebrated cooking competition Top Chef doesn't notice the gawking as she settles into a booth and orders a pot of hot green tea. She's grateful to be between her big projects; she shot the Top Chef Season 4 finale a few weeks ago and just finished a tour promoting her second book, Tangy Tart Hot & Sweet, which doesn't coyly refer to herself, but to the flavors of Mediterranean and Southeast Asian cuisines.
The newly single Lakshmi - she divorced novelist Salman Rushdie last summer after three years of marriage - is using her break to tend to more business: She's still settling into the New York apartment she bought in January, and on the horizon are more cookbooks, another cooking show, her own brand of bottled chutneys, perhaps a jewelry line and a memoir.
"If I don't conquer the world, that's fine," said the Indian-born former model with a few acting credits to her name, including Mariah Carey's Glitter and a memorable turn on Star Trek: Enterprise.
"I want to teach people about things and places and foods they don't necessarily know."
Lakshmi spent her early childhood years in India but came to the United States as an adolescent. In New York, she developed a passion for global cuisines. Her travels as a young model took her around the world, but no matter where she landed, she always tried replicating the flavors of home: her mother's Indian food, the Filipino noodles of her neighbors, the dishes of Spanish Harlem and Chinatown.
The constant experimentation in the kitchen resulted in her first cookbook, Easy Exotic, in 1999, which, in turn, led to a hosting job for Planet Food, a documentary series exploring the culture and cuisine of different countries. Her own show, Padma's Passport, followed.
Type her name into the Food Network's Web site search engine today and dozens of her recipes pop up.
Despite her broad-based food experience, she still struggles with being taken at face value. "It's the curse of being beautiful," said Colicchio, Top Chef's head judge, "but she really does know a lot."
Colicchio said her expertise became instantly apparent when they met. "We had dinner before shooting began on Top Chef, and it was clear she knew what she was eating and how to talk about it. When we're judging, I want someone to challenge me, and she's very articulate, so we can spar."
Top Chef has never been hotter. "Never did I think it would become this big, huge thing, but I'm very proud to be a part of it," said Lakshmi. "It's like this big little show - people have either never heard of it, or they're obsessed."
Lakshmi speaks in the same languid way she does on Top Chef. Yes, the acting bug is still there and she's got a couple of scripts she'll get to but probably won't have time for, and the jewelry she's designing with a friend is coming.
But she gets excited when talking about making laksa, a soup popular in Southeast Asia, or anything concerning food.
"My greatest pleasure is to put a plate before you and watch you," said Lakshmi.
It's Lakshmi who gets to do the eating on Top Chef, which kicked off its fourth season in Chicago with a deep-dish pizza-making challenge. "That was a low point," she said. She and guest judge Rocco DiSpirito "couldn't move after that one."
She's developing a cooking and entertaining show with Chris Albrecht, IMG's president of global media, to help get her back in the kitchen.
Here's how it's loosely described: A group of fun, eclectic people come over to her house for a dinner party; we watch her prep, get ready and cook; guests arrive and eat; maybe someone plays music. In other words, it should feel like her own kitchen.
"I don't think people have tasted the full flavor of Padma's personality on Top Chef," Albrecht says. "There's definitely a much more fun-loving person than the bits you see."
Denise Martin writes for the Los Angeles Times.