Padma Lakshmi, a cookbook author and reality television star, has a signature repertoire as host of “Top Chef” on Bravo. It plays out at key moments in the competition, when anxious chefs stand opposite her as she tastes their dishes, their faces scrutinizing hers for some clue about what she is thinking.
She chews silently and then puts down her utensils, often without a flicker of expression. “Thank you,” she finally says, before turning away gracefully and moving on to the next contestant.
Part of the appeal of the moment is that Lakshmi, 45, leaves so much unsaid.
Not so in her new book, “Love, Loss and What We Ate,” which was released Tuesday. In the 324-page memoir, Lakshmi opens a window into her life, weaving together stories from her childhood, her love affairs and her work through the lens of the culinary experiences that eventually shaped her fame. The book appears to spare little, delving deeply into personal details about uncertainty over paternity during her pregnancy, the pain of a custody case and her efforts to overcome the insecurity she felt being Indian.
“I am going to own my history,” she said in an interview on the “Today” show on NBC.
Lakshmi particularly highlights her high-profile relationship with author Salman Rushdie, which was overshadowed by a fatwa, or religious edict, that had been issued in 1989 by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran’s former supreme leader. It called for Rushdie to be put to death for his supposedly blasphemous book “The Satanic Verses.”
The two met at a party in New York in 1999, when he was married and she was an aspiring model and actress. They shared a high-profile love affair and then a marriage. But health and professional tensions frayed their relationship.
Lakshmi suffered from endometriosis, a painful uterine disorder in which tissue grows outside the organ. The struggles of dealing with it – she had extensive surgery – upended their sex life and contributed to the demise of their marriage, she writes. Lakshmi said Rushdie was insensitive to her medical condition and at one point called her “a bad investment,” even as she tried to recuperate.
She wrote that he believed she was using her ailment to justify not having sex with him. Deciding she was better off alone, she said, “I was free to wallow in my malaise, and nurse myself without seeing the disappointment in his face.”
Lakshmi said in an interview with People magazine that she told Rushdie that she was writing about their marriage.
“And he said, ‘You have the right to tell your side of the story as you see it,’ ” Lakshmi said.
Rushdie has also written about their relationship in his 2012 memoir “Joseph Anton,” which is told in the third person and derives its title from the code security name that he used as he lived in the shadow of the fatwa. In the book he refers to Lakshmi as his “Illusion,” and he describes her as irrational, vapid and vain.
“Her feelings for him – he would learn – were real, but intermittent,” he wrote. “She was ambitious in a way that often obliterated feeling. They would have a sort of life together – eight years from first meeting to final divorce, not a negligible length of time – and in the end, inevitably, she broke his heart as he had broken Elizabeth’s.”
He also suggested that she was competitive with him “and thought he was blocking her light.”
“She didn’t like playing second fiddle.”
But like a chef seasoning to taste, Lakshmi leavens dark memories of Rushdie with bright ones, reflecting in her memoir on the love and the passion the couple shared in their eight years together courting and as a married couple.
She said the book initially started out to be one about healthy eating, but then it broadened into a narrative of a life that bridged cultures.
Lakshmi was born in India and spent some of her childhood years in the southern city of Madras, which she says was the starting point for the culture and chemistry of food that eventually formed the backdrop to her life.
“The vivid flavors I experienced there will forever be the standard to which I hold any food I eat today,” she writes.
Her memories in the book are interspersed with recipes – yogurt rice, kumquat and ginger chutney, and kichidi, a rice and lentil porridge.
She immigrated to the United States as a child and said she struggled with self-confidence as she tried to come to terms with her identity, to overcome a “brown girl’s self-loathing” and to fit in.
“It took years for this internalized self-loathing to fade,” she writes.
Lakshmi pursued modeling and acting (she appeared in the Mariah Carey bomb “Glitter,” from 2001) in Los Angeles. Years in Paris and in Italy contributed to her personal growth through culinary and sexual adventures.
Lakshmi said that after her marriage ended, in 2007, she struck up relationships with Adam Dell, a venture capitalist, and Theodore J. Forstmann, a colorful financier and philanthropist several decades her senior who she said taught her unconditional love.
When she discovered she was pregnant, in 2009, a paternity test later established Dell as the father of the girl, Krishna. A contentious custody case played out in the media, but she said she and the girl’s father reached a rapport in their parenting.
Lakshmi went on to become a co-founder the Endometriosis Foundation of America. For all her struggles, she writes, cooking staked out emotional markers in her life. It bolstered her confidence when, in the presence of Rushdie’s friends, it allowed her to “keep her hands busy,” to mask her insecurities.
It provided a wholesome distraction. Alone in an empty new temporary home after their split, Lakshmi, decided to whip up a chutney to revive her spirits.
Through the simple ritual of cooking, she writes, “I could lift myself, at least gastronomically, from the gray.”