Padma Lakshmi Talks Tequila, Top Chef and Staying (Relatively) Sober on Set
For someone who is, in her own words, “not a huge cocktail person” (she prefers her spirits straight), Padma Lakshmi can make a damn good drink. The author and Top Chef host recently worked with Patrón to create a signature tequila cocktail—a challenge this season’s final four cheftestants will face when they reach Jalisco, Mexico in the episodes leading up to the finale. Lakshmi’s take on a Margarita (recipe below) is a bright, balanced, spiced mix of Patrón Silver, ginger-turmeric syrup, lime juice and mint. It’s easy to drink and equally easy to make, which falls in line with Lakshmi’s cocktail philosophy: “I don’t think a cocktail should take longer to make than it takes to drink it,” she says.
We recently sat down with Lakshmi to talk tequila, Top Chef and how to stay (relatively) sober while drinking during day-long shoots.
Supercall: You seem to have an affinity for tequila. Have you always been a fan?
Padma Lakshmi: Tequila and I got into a fight during my freshman year of college, and the two of us didn’t speak much until a few years ago. Susan Sarandon brought me back to the tequila side of life. She and I would be stuck at these boring benefits—not one of my benefits, of course, my benefits are rockin’ parties—and we would just be bored and drink tequila on the rocks to help time pass. Now I love tequila.
SC: How do you take your tequila?
PL: I like to use silver tequila in cocktails, but when it comes to an añejo or reposado, I’m a purist. I don’t like mixing those with anything. A good reposado should not even be mixed with ice. It should be sipped very slowly from a brandy snifter so you can get the aromatics.
SC: Booze is not uncommon on Top Chef. Do you have any dos and don’ts for cooking with alcohol?
PL: You want to make sure the alcohol cooks out. I’ve had a few occasions where I’ve tasted dishes contestants have made on Top Chef where they’ve added the spirit or wine too late in the cooking process so you get that weird raw alcohol taste that’s bitter and sticks out like a sore thumb. No matter how great a tequila is, if you can still taste the alcohol it feels off. The other pet peeve of mine is when very intensely flavored cocktails are served with very intensely flavored dishes. You end up with all these flavors at war with each other.
SC: How do you approach food and cocktail pairing?
PL: There are two schools of thought. One is you want to contrast the flavors in the food with the beverage or vice versa. If you’re doing that, you have to pick a star—it’s the food or the drink, not both. The other school of thought is that the drink should echo and complement the flavors of the dish. That’s a much safer way to go.
SC: Your new book, The Encyclopedia of Spices & Herbs: An Essential Guide to the Flavors of the World just came out. Did you discover anything unexpected while writing it?
PL: Sumac and green mango powder. They let you add tartness or sour notes to a dish or drink without adding citrus, vinegar or any kind of moisture. Green mango powder is dehydrated green mango. It looks like sawdust and it has the texture of talcum powder. Sumac is a tart, wild berry. The Native Americans used it as a tonic for your throat. It’s one of the spices in za’atar powder, which is used in Middle Eastern cooking.
SC: What are your top holiday party hosting tips?
PL: Don’t make a million dishes. Pick two or three dishes you can make before hand that are supposed to be served at room temperature. Ideally you should serve dishes that can be eaten with a fork rather than a knife and fork. It makes it easier for people to eat while they’re standing. Make just one hot dish that you can pull out of the oven and let rest while you go take a shower. Then by the time you have your Chanel No. 5 on your wrists and the doorbell rings everything is beautifully relaxed.
SC: Do you have any guidelines for being a good holiday party guest?
PL: Ask if you can bring something.
SC: On Top Chef, you have to do your fair share of imbibing over the course of long dinners and shoots. How do you manage that without getting too tipsy?
PL: You can’t do it on an empty stomach. I learned this lesson the hard way. We were doing a branded spirits challenge my first season on Top Chef. It was shot on the Warner Bros. lot in August, but they were turning the whole thing into a winter street scene. The bartender was, like me, waiting around bored while they fixed the lights or whatever and kept saying oh try this, oh try that. And I try to save my appetite and not eat too much before I get on set because I want the contestants to have the full audience of my hunger. So I hadn’t eaten—and I don’t have a high tolerance for alcohol to begin with. I was so drunk. Watch that episode; you can hear me slurring. It’s really bad. Now I have a little snack before and I don’t drink until the cameras roll. Then I take a sip, followed by a big gulp of water.
Padma Lakshmi’s Ginger Turmeric Margarita
2 oz Patrón Silver
1 oz Ginger Turmeric Syrup (see below)
1 tbsp fresh lime juice
3-4 fresh mint leaves
.5 tsp ground turmeric, for the rim
.5 tsp ancho chili powder, for the rim
2 tsp coarse salt, for the rim
Orange wedge, for garnish
- Combine ancho, turmeric and salt on a small plate and mix to combine.
- Wet the top of a rocks glass with a wedge of orange and dip in spice mix.
- Tear mint leaves, and add to a cocktail shaker with ice. Add the Patrón, lime juice and ginger turmeric syrup and shake vigorously.
- Strain into the prepared rocks glass, add fresh ice and garnish with an orange wedge.
Ginger Turmeric Syrup
.75 cup sugar
1 cup water
4 inches fresh ginger root, peeled and sliced
1 tsp turmeric powder
- In a small saucepan, combine sugar, water and sliced ginger. Place over medium heat and bring to boil.
- Cook until sugar dissolves. Let steep for at least 10 minutes.
- Add the turmeric powder and stir until incorporated. Strain syrup through a coffee filter.