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Top Chef‘s Padma Lakshmi Talks About Being a Woman in a Male-Dominated World

Finally, the most magical time of year is here! And no, we’re not talking about the holidays; we’re talking about the premiere of Top Chef. In its 15th season, the gang of judges we love — consisting of Padma Lakshmi and chefs Tom Colicchio, Gail Simmons and Graham Elliot — all head to majestic Colorado to judge a new group of chefs, learn about the local cuisine and probably get overly critical of a risotto or two.
Padma Lakshmi interview
Image: Inez and Vinoodh
Ahead of the premiere episode, which airs on Thursday, Dec. 7, Lakshmi took some time out of her day to chat with SheKnows, covering everything from sexism in the kitchen to her own stretch marks to her very favorite part of filming Top Chef Season 15.

More: Padma Lakshmi Loves Her Nude Photos

We first had to ask Lakshmi what her response has been to news related to gender-specific issues like sexism, the wage gap and feminism. Specifically, we wanted to know how those issues were being handled in the food industry and restaurant culture.

While breaking into her signature warm laugh (that we hope is trademarked), she replied, “How long do we have to talk about it?”

Reassured that she could talk at will, Lakshmi launched into her complicated feelings about gender inequality in the chef’s kitchen. “Some of the reasons are because of manual labor,” she explained. “You can go to school all you want, but at the end of the day, being a chef means being on your feet, being in your kitchen, working with your hands elbow-to-elbow with your kitchen staff. Whether you’re a lowly commis [apprentice] that’s chopping the vegetables, the saucier [cooks sauces], the poissonnier [cooks fish dishes], whomever. You are on your feet, the hours are terrible, and to be pregnant and breaking down a side of beef is tough. It’s a professional lifestyle that’s not conducive to a lot of aspects of womanhood. But that being said, there are some great female chefs, like Barbara Lynch, Suzanne Goin, April Bloomfield, Dominique Crenn and a bunch of others that do do it, and incredibly well. But the industry does not make it easy for them to do it well.

Still, Lakshmi wanted to make clear that gender inequality was not an issue specific to the food industry. It’s a worldwide issue that affects everyone.

“It’s the culture of the society,” she said. “Most of the food made on this planet is made by women. We certainly know how to do it. So, why on the professional level are the restaurants dominated by men? It has to do with the nature of commerce more than the nature of the specific profession. It also has to with ownership. It’s so deep and subtle and devious, these preconceptions and prejudices we have about women owning businesses and women being able to have agency. It has more to do with societal factors rather than the kitchen specifically. Because let’s be clear: In every kitchen and in every home around the world, it’s mostly the women who are doing the cooking.”

More: Padma Lakshmi Shut Down Mom-Shamers Who Slammed Her for Cooking in Bikini

We also had to ask Lakshmi about an Instagram story the model/author/TV personality posted in November. In the fun, sexy picture, she’s wearing a white shirt with nipples visible underneath and a pair of white underwear that show some zigzagging stretch marks on her thigh. She added some playful hearts and a few playful words: “Hey stretch.”

Padma Lakshmi hey stretch
Image: Padma Lakshmi/Instagram

According to Lakshmi, this type of social post is important. “You know, they retouch a lot of stuff on pictures of my body,” she said. “They don’t retouch my scar because I’m clear about that. But I‘ve gotta tell you, it’s funny. We’re afraid of women’s nipples. We want to erase all of the cellulite and all of the stretch marks. But that is what a real body looks like.”

She continued, “I work hard at my body. I have to because I eat so much and I had a baby at age 40, and it’s not easy,” she said. “But I’m happy with the lot I have. I just think we are so afraid of everything that’s not exactly fitting a very narrow parameter of what we think is attractive and acceptable. The sexual politics of that are very complicated. I feel good about what I look like, and I don’t care if people judge me or anything else.”

More: Padma Lakshmi’s Steamy Winter Beauty Secrets

While we love her fierce feminism, we certainly couldn’t let Lakshmi go without asking about this season’s Top Chef location, and now we’re jealous.

“I have been to Colorado, but I’ve never spent quite so much time there,” she told us. “The natural beauty is so stunning. Everywhere you look is like an Ansel Adams photo. It’s so lovely. I’m a city girl, so to be in nature and in the mountains like that is quite gothic in a way. You’re really bowled over by Mother Nature. It sounds corny, but that was the thing that stood out looking back on my time filming this season.”

We can’t wait to watch Top Chef Season 15 and see for ourselves.

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