Padma Lakshmi Takes Us On An Epic Food Tour

When Padma Lakshmi takes you out to lunch, it's go order big or go home. Like, really big. Like, four lunches big. So, when we spent the day with the Top Chef host, cookbook author, and accessories designer, we ate our way through not one but four of her favorite NYC restaurants in NYC's Lower East Side. Included on her must-try meal itinerary? A whirlwind global food tour, no passport necessary: We sampled spicy, spicy Chinese, some very authentic fried chicken, fresh Austrian Wiener schnitzel, and even some New Zealand pinot noir.
Of course, along the way, we got some Q-T with the culinary star herself, whose brand-new, first-ever jewelry collection for HSN, PL by Padma Lakshmi, is available to buy today! And, not only did she dish on her affordable new baubles, the multi-tasking phenom also let us in on everything, from her stay-slim diet and workout secrets (hello, her job is to eat!) and tips for guaranteed glowing skin and makeup to what she looks for in a guy and, naturally, her signature dish. If you aren't hungry after clicking through, you're not human.
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What do you look for in a restaurant when you’re going to go out and you’re not cooking?
"Atmosphere is really important. You know, that’s why we go out; it’s not just for the food. And I don’t like really loud, really big restaurants. I like restaurants where you can have fun, and there’s great atmosphere and it seems lively, but you can actually hear the other person you’re at the table with and you can’t hear the people at the next table. Because I want privacy — I want to be seen but not heard at a restaurant."

Stop # 1: Mission Chinese

What makes Mission so good?
"I just love how so authentic and extreme it is. A lot of restaurants, especially ethnic restaurants, try and do gentle versions of their homestyle food to have a greater audience, and clearly, Mission Chinese doesn’t do that. I love spicy food, and some of those recipes are even too hot for me. But I think it’s delicious and I love the atmosphere. I love that it’s gritty and it’s about food, and they don’t take reservations and they don’t care who you are. It’s like that homestyle street-y Asian food that you don’t normally get with Chinese takeout or a high-end, glamorous Hollywood Chinese restaurant. Like, I love the peanuts and the wings with the chilies, all of that."

Padma wears a Givenchy top, Balenciaga pants, vintage YSL pumps from the '70s that she purchased at famed, now-defunct NYC vintage store, New World Order, PL by Padma Lakshmi “Chain Mail” gold-tone dangle earrings, and a PL by Padma Lakshmi goldtone “Shiny Pod”46” chain necklace (worn as a belt).
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Tell us about your new PL by Padma Lakshmi collection for HSN — how did the collaboration come about?
"I had been doing the fine jewelry for a good five years. I love doing fine jewelry, but with the gold prices being what they were, it wasn't as accessible to as many people. So, I wanted jewelry that younger people could wear, as well as people who buy a lot of jewelry and like to change it every day. Also, I personally — artistically — wanted to work in a larger scale. If I made this statement necklace, say, in real gold, it would cost $80,000. This way, more people can enjoy it and wear — I'm really proud of the line, because it's really affordable but looks much more expensive than it is."

Above, clockwise from top: Chongqing Chicken Wings, Smashed Cucumbers, Westlake Rice Porridge, Kung Pao Pastrami, Red Braised Eggplant, Beijing Vinegar Peanuts, and Tartine's Spicy Carrot Pickles.
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How would you describe its aesthetic?
"It's got a lot of influence from my heritage — my Indian background — but, I wanted to do something more modern, more fun. The big statement necklace is really inspired by all those early '70s editorials that you saw with Veruschka, while some of the other stuff was really an ode to all the '80s Chanel, bijoux jewelry — it's a little bit ethnic, but not too much, so it's still versatile."
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How important do you think accessories are in a girl's wardrobe?
"To me, they're incredibly important. I will wear the same pair of jeans or slacks and then I'll just throw a blazer on with a T-shirt or I'll wear a cocktail dress and I'll just change the jewelry. I think it's an easy way to go from day to evening. If you've got to go to the office and then you have to run to a cocktail or a dinner, gone are the days when we have time to go home and get dressed. Usually, we're walking out the door at 8 a.m. and we have to be whatever we're dressed in for the whole day, so jewerly is a great way to transform — you can just have it in your purse and throw it on."
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What's your spring go-to clothing staple?
"It's really just wearing light dresses — I know black and white is a really big trend for spring, and people say emerald green is a big trend, but I tend to be pretty classic. I don't really follow trends and I've pretty much dressed the way I always have...hopefully the brands have just gotten better as I've gotten older!"

A closeup of Padma's own PL by Padma Lakshmi “Chain Mail’ goldtone line bracelet.
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In addition to your new HSN range, you were talking about your line of more expensive jewelry. Do you mix a lot of high and low in your own wardrobe?
"Yes, I do. [PL by Padma Lakshmi] is definitely lower priced — all of the pieces in this collection go from $16 to $90, so it’s very affordable. I do that in my own wardrobe: I'll wear these Alaïa pumps to a basketball game with literally, like, Old Navy skinny jeans and a little tank top with my McQueen jacket. That's like my standard uniform...I love doing that!"

Padma's blinging out in the “Rocky” filigree dome ring from her PL by Padma Lakshmi collection for HSN.
7 of 20
We know you're a busy woman, but what about your makeup — you always look very flawless. Can you share any of your tips or secrets?
"I usually do my makeup in the morning if I’ve got a long day and I don’t put lipstick on until the last minute. I personally don’t like very dark lipstick — I tend to eat it off because of what I do for a living. And then for night, I just play up my eyes. Like my normal standard makeup is usually concealer, cheek stain, lip stain, mascara, and eye pencil. And, I have all kinds of eye pencils. I don’t use too many different products but I really just curl my eyelashes a lot, use a lot of mascara, and change the eye pencil.

Sephora makes these great chubbier pencils that are really creamy pencils — you can use them like an eyeliner and put liquid eyeliner at the base. Or you can use them as eyeshadow if you just smudge ‘em. I don’t like my makeup to look so perfect. In fact, my makeup looks the best when I sleep in it and I get up the next morning...I like that look, you know?"

Mission Chinese, 154 Orchard Street (between Rivington and Stanton streets); 212-529-8800.
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Stop # 2: Bobwhite Lunch & Supper Counter

Tell us about your obsession with Bobwhite!
"Oh, it’s delicious! I just love it. They do it right. It’s simple. They don’t want to be complicated. I never sit there and eat it; I always get takeout. I just usually get a bunch of it and serve it on a platter on the dining table — by the time I get the sides together and bring those to the table, there’s, like, one little chicken leg left, and everyone’s taken all of it.

I love their biscuits. You know, they’re not trying to be fancy. They’re not trying too hard. (A lot of the time you see tandoori chicken pizza. It’s disgusting.) Yeah, it is what is is, and nothing else, and that’s all. And I like their coleslaw because their coleslaw is spicy and it’s a vinegar-y coleslaw; it’s not drenched in mayonnaise."
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How do keep your skin looking so young?
"It’s hard. Genetics and kale juice will only get you so far! But, I drink a lot of water. I know everyone says that, but I drink about two liters of water a day and then I use scrubs and then I get microdermabrasion every six to eight weeks. (Actually, in the neighborhood, from Christine Chin.) I just really, really work at it. Like, I never, ever, ever go in the sun. Now, with my daughter, I’m forced to go out in the sun because she loves the beach and she loves the playground. But before her, I would carry an umbrella over my head if I could because I just wasn’t brought up as a sun worshipper. Being Asian, we always avoid the sun."

The Fried Chicken Supper.
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What’s your take on plastic surgery?
"I think if you want to do it, that’s great. I don’t think it’s what you do but how you do it. To me, I think plastic surgery can preserve but I don’t think it can make someone beautiful if they’re not. I don’t know — maybe some people have had it and I don’t know, and so that’s why I think they haven’t had it!

But, I don’t care. You know, whatever! When I started modeling, there was a lot of talk about me getting plastic surgery — for example, on my scar — and I just chose not to do it because, first of all, there was no guarantee that it was going to work, and at a certain point, you just have to be who you are."
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Million dollar question here — when you're eating so much, how do you stay slim? How do you stay healthy?
"It’s hard, it’s hard. I work my ass off, is the short answer. First of all, I don’t eat like you see me on the show eating all year long. I eat that way six weeks a year, and what it takes me six weeks to gain...it takes me 12 weeks to lose, and that’s only if I cut out a lot of things as well as exercise. If I exercise and I don’t eat red meat or I don’t eat sweets then I can basically eat as much as I want."

Bobwhite Lunch & Supper Counter, 4 Avenue C (at East Houston Street ); 212-228-2972.
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Stop # 3: WD-50

Why do you come to WD-50 so often?
"I love WD-50 because it’s nice to have such a world-class restaurant in my neighborhood. It’s not pretentious but they’re incredibly serious; they’re deadly serious about their food. And I like Wylie. I like his attitude, and he's...just he’s so relaxed. You know you would never know he was this genius by the way he carries himself. He’s just humble and he’s just interesting and doing a great job. It’s just cool. It’s a cool place to eat. And it’s not stuffy. It’s rare to have a restaurant serve food at this high level without having white tablecloths and requiring a jacket."

Padma sports an Alexander McQueen jacket, Prada skirt, Costume National top, PL by Padma Lakshmi “Cascading Pod” 19-1/2” collar necklace, and Alaïa pumps.
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Can you share your workout tips? Anything you swear by?
"I carry a jump rope in my suitcase. Because you can always jump rope! No matter where you are, as long as you have a pair of sneakers. It’s a really big cardio workout. Like, I can’t jump rope for more than 15 minutes — you get really sweaty and winded. And then I box and I run up and down stairs. That’s how I lost my baby weight — I ran up and down 70 flights of stairs."

A detail shot of those killer Alaïa heels. Rawr!
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Do you have a gross, anti-foodie food that’s a guilty pleasure of yours?
"I never feel guilty about taking any pleasure, especially when it’s about food. I think you can pretty safely say I’m omnivorous. I will eat anything."

Wait, you actually eat junk food?
"Yeah, I mean, I’m sure I do. Pringles!"
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Anthony Bourdain recently said that eating is the sexiest thing you can do on a date. Is there anything you avoid on a first date? Or anything you think is sexy?
"I don’t avoid anything on a first date. I won’t eat a lot of garlic...or raw onion...or raw scallion. But I avoid those things even when I’m not on a date. I love the flavor of garlic. I usually add a whole clove and then I remove it or I leave it there so those who like garlic can eat it. I don’t want it coming out of my pores. But I don’t avoid anything when I’m on a date. Maybe gaseous foods the night before would be a good idea."

Padma switches it up and rocks her PL by Padma Lakshmi “Baroque” cultured freshwater pearl 46" layer necklace as a bracelet.
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What do you look for in a good relationship?
"A sense of humor. Honestly. The guys who I’ve had a real connection with over any extended period of time — and that’s a very short list — have all had wicked senses of humor and just been sharp. You can’t be funny if you’re not intelligent. Unless you’re being laughed at. And that to me is the most important thing. A sense of humor — and I like men to be men and rugged and who they are."

Do they have to be into food? Is that important?
"They don’t have to be into food but they can't mind that I am. I know there is one guy in my life where I ate more than he did and that didn’t last long."

Do you cook for the guys you’re dating?
"I cook every day at home. Then if it’s not just for me and Krishna, it’s for whomever comes over. My friends always drop by or my cousins do because they know there’s always food. You know, even the people who work for me tend to raid my fridge at night before they go home."

WD-50, 50 Clinton Street (between Stanton and Rivington streets); 212-477-2900.

Padma relaxes by the fire with a glass of Pinot Noir Calvert Felton Road, 2010.
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Stop #4: Edi & The Wolf

And, finally, we're at our last place on the tour — Edi & The Wolf!
"I love Edi & The Wolf because it's so cozy. It feels like you're in some farmhouse nestled deep in the woods of Bavaria somewhere. So pastoral and lush, it's easy to forget you're on Avenue C in lower Manhattan!"

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Many people have speculated Salman Rushdie wrote Fury about you. Do you see any similarities between yourself and the heroine?
"I think it was written for me. It’s dedicated to me and it was at the beginning of my relationship with my ex-husband [Rushdie]. And certainly there are a lot of things from my life because my life was shared with the author at the time, and I think that’s what great authors do. They take a bunch of puzzle pieces from the world around them and then they jumble them up in another way."

The Wiener schnitzel served with potato salad, cucumber salad, and Lingonberry jam.
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How does it feel to have such a permanent testament to your relationship?
"It’s flattering. He’s a great artist and a great writer. I spent eight years with him, and for a woman my age, that’s half my adult life. So, obviously the relationship shaped me in many ways."
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If we were going on a first date with you, what would you cook for us?
"If you were going on a first date with me, I probably wouldn’t cook."

You're right, you're right — we'd take you out! But, what’s something you cook for someone you love? Your daughter or your close friends?
"I do a mean roast chicken. Like, my roast chicken is the best recipe in the world. It’s so easy to do. You can take the side of a fork and crack the skin. It’s that crispy and juicy on the inside. I would make roast chicken and then I would make roasted vegetables with that and then I would make just a beautiful salad of kale and green apple and mint and kaffir lime juice."

Edi & The Wolf, 102 Avenue C (at East 7th Street); 212-598-1040.