Padma Lakshmi Likes It Hot

She’s been on the cover of countless fashion magazines, once inspired a novel by her ex-husband Salman Rushdie, and (with a little help from Tom Colicchio) has propelled Top Chef into smash-hit status since becoming the show’s fiery host in 2006. Now, add jewelry designer and ground beef paramour to Padma Lakshmi’s growing resume. Her jewelry line debuts at Bergdorf’s today, and she’ll make an in-store appearance on May 8; here, the culinary bombshell discusses sex, burgers, and why she’d rather go naked.

A recent article suggested that you had dreams to build an empire. Is that the goal? If someone else wants to call it an empire, that’s their business. I think only kings and queens have empires. But I’m lucky to have a new jewelry line. It’s a real labor of love, not at all a licensing deal. I’ve put all of my own money into it.

Tell me about the pieces. I’m launching the line at a very shaky time, but I do think people want things of value, and my jewelry is real rather than costume. I’ve always loved to adorn myself with little trinkets and baubles. I’ve designed pieces for myself for a long time and have amassed a pretty good pirate’s booty of vintage and antique pieces from India. The pieces all have some form of movement — dancing on the wrist, ear, and throat, or creeping down a woman’s back. I think a woman’s back is one of the sexiest parts of her body, yet we seldom see that part adorned.

Have you always felt sexy and beautiful? I guess I always kind of felt awkward. I was really tall, and I had a really long neck. I am 5’ 9’’ now and I was 5’ 9’’ when I was 15, and I just felt really gawky. I always stuck out and was always in the back of class pictures. I started feeling prettier in high school, but I certainly wasn’t the girl that every guy went after in high school. I didn’t have a date for my prom. I had a boyfriend and I broke up with him a week before prom. He went to another high school, and I really couldn’t get a date. I wound up going because I won a limousine in a raffle, and then this guy that I didn’t know from Spanish class came up to me and said, “Well, you did win that limousine.” He knew he’d have a free limousine if he took me to the prom.

I’m sure that’s no longer a problem. Ratings for Top Chef jumped 46% after you started on the show. I hope the ratings have reflected how I’ve done my job. If I still looked the way I do but didn’t know about food or cooking, then I would have been replaced. Food is also inherently sexy, too. Did you know Tom [Colicchio] beat me out for sexiest host by the viewers of the show? I’m serious. Just check!

Where did you learn to cook? I learned to cook from the women in my family. All the action in our home was in the kitchen. Gossip was exchanged there, and all of the decisions were made there. Now, I’ve written two cookbooks and still haven’t gone to culinary school.

It must be tough to kick someone off the show each episode. It’s the worst part of my job, to be honest, especially because I’m with those guys from morning to night every day, and I see what they have to go through. They sacrifice a lot. They are away from their jobs and families and homes. They don’t have television, newspapers, Internet or e-mail. They really are passionate about what they do. As difficult as it looks on TV, it’s harder in real life.

Your Hardees commercial has been getting tons of media attention. What has the reaction been like? A lot of it has been very positive. I think it celebrates food, and it celebrates womanhood, and I actually think it celebrates feminism because if you watch the commercial, the last line is, “It’s not just a piece of meat.” That particular burger is delicious because of the BBQ sauce, the onion rings, and the bacon — it’s not because it’s a big fat burger. And I really did grow up with that burger. I ate that burger the whole time I was in high school. Even my mother loved the commercial. She called me up and said, “Pads, it’s so hot and beautiful. You make me want to eat meat!” And she’s a vegetarian!

What about racy magazine shoots? More often than not, you aren’t wearing much clothing. I am very comfortable with my body. And I absolutely think that I look better nude then with a lot of the clothes. I think it’s important for young women to know that you can have a beautiful body after the age of 30. You can be sexy and sensual, and you don’t have to have an anorexic body.

I’d love to hear you describe your ideal man. Oh, it’s great that you asked because I was planning to take out a singles personal ad, but now, of course, thanks to you guys, I don’t have to: He should be tall or at least not care that I’m taller than him; I don’t intend not to wear my heels because of height issues.He should have a quick wit, a keen, wicked sense of humor, and know how to use it to seduce with precision. A sense of humor gets a man farther with me than anything else — make me laugh and I’m yours, but remember that the same joke only works for so long. I like dancing, so I’d love it if he was smooth on his feet, but a willingness to make a fool of himself on the dancefloor is usually enough. Also, I’d like a man who has read a book or two and has done some traveling. I hate piña coladas and picky eaters, but I do love the rain, especially in the summer and in Central Park. He must enjoy spicy food and eating out of bowls and not look at me strangely when I take down a whole bag of potato chips with hot sauce in bed. Rugged, athletic, and being extra nice to my mom really helps, too. Let me know if any good ones apply.

What’s next? I finish Top Chef’s next season at the end of May, and I’ve decided I very badly need a vacation — a real one, where my assistant locks my BlackBerry, hides my design sketchpad, takes away my computer, and screens calls from the Top Chef producers for three weeks. Is Outer Mongolia nice this time of year?

Name three places you like to go to in New York. La Esquina because I like all the tostadas there, and I love the candlelit room — it’s very cozy. I like The Eldridge because it’s always fun and it’s small, I like the music, and I love that it looks like a bookstore from outside. And, finally, there’s Indochine, because I love the food and I love the room and I love the staff. But the perfect night would involve a midnight picnic in the middle of August in Central Park — with a beautiful blanket and candles everywhere.

Isn’t it kind of dangerous in Central Park at night? Okay, a midnight picnic with a beautiful blanket, candles … and two bodyguards.

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