If Padma Lakshmi’s award-winning cookbooks are the main course, then her picture book Tomatoes for Neela is a perfect amuse-bouche to introduce little ones to the magic of cooking with seasonal ingredients. With rich illustrations by Caldecott Honor winner Juana Martinez-Neal, the Top Chef and Taste the Nation multi-hyphenate weaves a stirring multigenerational story about the variety of ways that food connects us all. EW spoke to Lakshmi about her foray into children’s literature, as well as what’s coming in November on Hulu’s Taste the Nation.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Your daughter Krishna is 11. Why do a picture book now?
PADMA LAKSHMI: This is something that I had written down just to save it because it was such a part of my bonding with my daughter. It was a story that I told Krishna when she was smaller. Her original story was much more elaborate and had a squirrel family in it as well. When my editor at Penguin approached me about doing it, I sent her what I had, and we used that as a jumping-off point.
I think that when I told the story to Krishna at first, it must have been in the summer. I think she asked me for pomegranates and I was like, “We don’t eat pomegranates in the summer. Why are you asking me for pomegranates?” That’s kind of what spurred the story. There’s nothing to me that screams summer more than tomatoes. I think tomatoes, to me, just seem like a juicy, sexy fruit.
Speaking of different cultures, can you tell us what we can expect to see when the new season of Taste the Nation premieres on Nov. 4?
So, it’s not a whole season 2. We didn’t feel that we could get a whole season done in time, but we didn’t want just to go cold, go dark for that long. We’re calling it a “special holiday edition.” We’re filming now for Thanksgiving. We wanted to bust some myths about Thanksgiving. We go and spend Hanukkah with some Ashkenazi New York Jewish people. We do Miami Christmas Eve with Cubans. And we do Korean New Year in Los Angeles K-Town. I only was able to safely go back and film a month or two ago.
I think that a through-line in the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) experience is suffering ignorance when taking our food to school. Is that something you ever personally experienced?
Oh, yes. It is part and parcel of growing up as an immigrant kid in this country, and it forms you. My daughter actually belongs to the meal plan at her school, but whenever they have a field trip we have to pack a lunch. On those rare occasions, I pack the most obnoxious lunch in the world because of my early food trauma at school at that cafeteria table. My daughter is a very adventurous eater because she’s grown up with me and been on the set of Top Chef and things, but, still, I want her to like that lunch. I want her not to be ashamed of it. My mom worked full-time as a registered nurse, so whatever we had for dinner went into my lunch box in the morning. She was not making me these pretty sandwiches with crust cut off. I wound up going to school with smelly brown stews and curries over rice. It was always a nail-biting experience opening that Tupperware.
Has Krishna raised any concerns with you over the past year’s crimes against AAPI?
I have a Tibetan nanny who’s been with us for seven years and is a very integral part of our household. I wouldn’t be able to wake up at 5 in the morning and do all of the things that I’m doing with both my shows without that help. She presents very much as East Asian. [Krishna] heard me say, “Listen, I want you to be careful because you never know.” Even here in downtown New York that has happened literally outside of our door, not to us but to somebody. So it did spark conversation that Krishna heard, and she’s very protective of [her nanny] and other people like my mom who’s a little old Indian lady in California.
But you have to prepare kids for the world that they’re going to live in, as well as teach them about hope and a world that they envision and can have a hand in creating.
Just as Neela loves to cook with her Amma, I’ve read that you and Krishna love to cook together.
When she was about eight or nine years old, I gifted her a little paring knife that had a pretty handle on it that somebody had sent to me as a gift. I said, “This is your knife. It lives in this sleeve. It’s going to be in our drawer, but in order to use it, you have to respect it and have to always do it with an adult.” And whenever she got to take the knife out, it became an event. I think that’s what we should do not only with this book but with all the cooking; we should turn it into a spiritual special event for children. If we do that from day one, then they will learn to respect cooking, they’ll learn to enjoy it, to have it be an activity that hopefully brings them calm, brings them some creativity, and teaches them how to have respect and handle the food that’s going into their body — the most precious thing they have — with the importance that it deserves.
This story originally appeared on EW.com.