Padma Lakshmi Shares How Top Chef Managed to Cook With Its Usual Heat During the Pandemic

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Happy now to see Top Chef: Portland unfolding—the show itself a singular ambassador for the blood, sweat and tears these chefs put into their life’s work—and with her first children’s book, Tomatoes for Neela, due to be released Aug. 31, Lakshmi, like so many of us, is starting to see light at the end of the tunnel.

But she and her legion of friends in the culinary world also were tuned in from the beginning to just how much the pandemic was going to ravage the restaurant business. Top Chef head judge Tom Colicchio was one of the earliest public voices last year presciently explaining how devastating closures were going to be for the sprawling food service industry—and he memorably shared that his personal financial windfall was primarily from TV and other media projects and not from his Craft restaurant empire, successful as it is.

“The margins are really, really slim, and I don’t think people realize that,” Padma concurred. “I really don’t think people realize that [owners] are paying the invoices from 45 days ago with the money they’re making this week, and so the restaurant business, even when you’re a huge chef like Tom or others in his position, you’re still suffering because the margins are so low” after you’ve paid your staff, your vendors, rent and utilities, etc.

The Small Business Administration started accepting applications for its Restaurant Relief Fund on May 3 and, within 10 days, 266,000 people had applied, requesting more than $65 billion to stay afloat.

Padma, who admitted that she felt “impotent” when she saw what was happening to the restaurant community, connected right away last March with the nonprofit James Beard Foundation, which funds a number of programs for culinary education, chefs and restaurant owners (and these days helps businesses apply for the RRF). “If you watch Taste the Nation or Top Chef, you’ve seen the James Beard callout at the beginning of each episode, which I’m very proud of,” she said. “Both Bravo and Hulu came through for us on that.”

The multitalented model is also now the face of Stella Artois’ “Your Table Is Ready” summer campaign, which is aiming to refill restaurants all over the world with hungry—and thirsty—customers.

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