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Padma Lakshmi has opened up about the career path that led eventually to her rarified role as host of Bravo's Top Chef: Recently, she said that she "felt imposter syndrome very deeply for a really long time on Top Chef," having "never worked the line in the back of a restaurant" nor obtained a degree from a culinary school.
But eventually, Padma made her way to a position many people might consider among the world's best jobs. How did she do it — especially without the restaurant experience or the degree that some might have expected to see? She shared more about that trajectory on a new episode of the So Many White Guys podcast — revealing it took hustle, a suspension of disbelief, hard work toward figuring things out while at work on various jobs she wasn't sure how she got into — and a strong sense of self, too.
"What I've done is find my own path and I think that's really important — and it's really hard when you don't see a lot of examples on television and in food," she said. "And you don't see a lot of examples of women of color — and just women — hosting shows, big shows."
Padma also offered specific, doable advice for those who want to get into the culinary business — or frankly any niche. "My biggest piece of advice is find out who you are. [I made note of the] skills that my own personal history gave me — a culinary education in spices in Indian food and Asian ingredients, then my travels taking me somewhere else," she said. "Find out what you have a point of view about that is special. Find something in yourself that you can market, that you think is useful and unique and can contribute to whatever the conversation is about that topic — and that is where you should go first."
And then, be prepared to adapt in surprising ways. "You know, I wanted to be an actor. I have been in big movies and small movies and TV shows, I went to theater school, and I did that. But at some point it just fell by the wayside. So I probably should have been [following a food-related career path] all along, I just didn't know," Padma said on the podcast. "I didn't take my cooking very seriously — every woman in my family cooks. In fact, my family isn't even sure I'm the best cook in the family! So that's what I would say: I would ay find what you're naturally good at, find what you don't mind spending hours and hours doing — i.e. find something you love — and make a profession out of it."
But what if you have no experience and no idea how to even start? Well, especially if you're still young, consider working for free or a very low wage. "It's easy to stave when you're young. It's harder to do that when you're older," Padma said on So Many White Guys. "If you want to be in food, any kitchen will take free labor or very low paid labor. And you don't have to do it for a long time, and you have to understand that it's s--- work. But it's amazing what you learn in three months — give yourself your own boot camp."
She said, "Go in there and work hard and say, 'I know this is going to suck and I'm ready for it. But here are the reasons that I'm going for this — because in a year I will need the experience that I have here, so I'm going to plug my nose and do this.' And every time your feet hurt and you want to quit and you haven't had enough sleep and that alarm rings and they give you a new 25-pound bag of onions to peel and brunoise... you remember that you are doing it because a year from now, you won't have to."
That is to say, in Padma's colorful language: "Sometimes you just have to get to the other side. And between you and the other side is a lake of s---. And you just plug your nose and you swim. And most people give up right when you're in the middle of the lake. But just look back quickly and see how far you've come. Take a deep breath... and swim to the other side of that lake."
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