Padma Lakshmi and Carson Daly on the Secret of Unscripted Success

Padma Lakshmi and Carson Daly Talk
Patrick James Miller for Variety

Top Chef’s” Padma Lakshmi and “The Voice’s” Carson Daly are both in the business of making people who have little to no experience on television feel comfortable on camera. And both are responsible for serving in what Daly describes as the role of “conductor.” The hosts of two of TV’s most prominent, Emmy-winning unscripted series were eager to compare notes when Variety brought them together for a wide-ranging conversation. They proved to be kindred spirits from the start when both were quick to change into more comfortable clothes immediately after our photo shoot.

What is the hardest part of pulling off a production with so many contestants that runs several months?
Padma Lakshmi: It’s knowing these chefs have taken so much time out of their schedule to be on our show. They don’t know if they’ll have a job when they get back. I do have empathy for them. A lot of the time it’s not the one who wins who steals your heart.
Carson Daly: We don’t even call the people on our show contestants. We think that’s kind of a derogatory term. They’re artists. I’m always aware that families have flown in from all over the country. The core of the job description of a host is taking care of everyone around you.
Lakshmi: Making everyone feel comfortable …
Daly: … whether they lose or win.
Lakshmi: For me there is a physical element in that I eat every thing that is made on the show. I don’t eat it all, but my well-being physically does take a beating. I’m very lucky I don’t have any food allergies. I’m eating double what (fellow judges) Tom (Colicchio) or Gail (Simmons) eat because they don’t come in for the first couple of acts. They come in for the main challenge. I like being the one human being in the world who’s had every single thing made on “Top Chef.” On the other hand, by the end of the season my whole system is on overload. I have to really detox and exercise and eat clean. I gain 10 to 15 pounds each season. I’m surprised I don’t gain more, frankly.
Daly: I gain 10 to 15 pounds each season too. I’m drinking with Blake Shelton, more than I should.
Lakshmi: I don’t know who drinks more, Blake or Tom.

Do you have much interaction with the contenders before the show starts?
Daly: We have these blind auditions where (hopefuls) are out there singing and I’m in a room watching with the families. I get more response from viewers during that portion of our show than any other. I’m in there gripping their hands and trying to keep them calm. They need someone to be there with them. It’s one of the most enjoyable parts of the show for me.
Lakshmi: I’m not involved in the casting process at all. I don’t think we should be. We pride ourselves on mimicking the professional scene. If you go to a fancy restaurant and you’ve gotten a babysitter, you don’t care if the chef had a fight with his wife or what his religion is. All you want to worry about is whether your steak was cooked properly and did it come on time with everybody else’s food.
Daly: We do that with our coaches too. We make sure they have no idea who’s singing. It doesn’t matter if (the contestant) used to have a record deal or comes from a small town or is married or straight or gay — whatever their circumstance is, it doesn’t matter.
Lakshmi: Even subconsciously we don’t want there to be any whiff of impropriety.

But a few weeks in, do you find yourself rooting for or against certain people?
Lakshmi: I really don’t. I only experience them in the “Top Chef” kitchen or whatever location we’re at and at Judges’ Table. That is my total interaction with them. My opinion of them is based on their food. I’m also doing a lot of sound editing in post, and there I will see the reality beats, or what’s going on in their house and how they’re talking to each other. But even when they’re cooking, by the time I say “your time starts now” and I leave, I don’t watch and I don’t care. … We’re not giving Top Nice Person in the Kitchen award. It is a really high competition of culinary skill.
Daly: I’m the exact opposite of that. I’m so invested in our artists from the get-go. I’m part of finding people to come on the show from around the country. We’re on two cycles now so the show never really ends. We pride ourselves on bringing the greatest musical talent to television. We want to start at a really high level. Going from really good to finding great is an exciting process. I get so invested in people’s lives and backstories that I can’t help but root for certain people.
Lakshmi: But you’re not judging.
Daly: No, I’m not, I’m not a coach, that’s not my role. I’m invested from day one and I can’t help but have favorites.

“Top Chef” and “The Voice” are considered best of breed in very crowded fields. What makes your shows stand out?
Lakshmi: I think the reason these shows are successful is …
Daly: … the hosts are amazing.
Lakshmi: That’s right, the hosts make it (laughs). But I think it’s really because they’re about the human spirit. Whether you’re cooking or singing or sewing or bungee jumping, it’s really about seeing these people strive to be the best at what they do against all odds, against whatever curve ball we’ve thrown at them. It’s like live-action sports. That’s why people watch them. Our shows are also specific in that you can watch them with your kids. That’s something I’m more sensitive to now as a mother. … The best compliment I ever get is being stopped on the street by a 13-year-old saying that they had a quick-fire competition at her sleepover last night.
Daly: I get the same thing. There’s a reason to bring your granddad and your dad and the kids all around the set. If somebody tells me, “My whole family watched the show last night,” I take great pride in that. It’s good to have some primetime entertainment on a major network that is positive family entertainment at a time when we see so much of the American household completely segregated. Everybody’s on their own device. There’s not much that brings them together.
Lakshmi: It’s fun to watch it together. I know colleges where people will watch it together and everybody brings a dish. Because our show makes you very hungry. There’s also some (gatherings) where people play beer pong — is that a drinking game?
Daly: Don’t act like you don’t know what it is.
Lakshmi: Well, I don’t. It’s pong, right, or bong?
Daly: Yes, not bong. Pong.
Lakshmi: Where you hit the glass with a tennis ball?
Daly: Ping pong ball.
Lakshmi: (Laughs) At the time we came on there had been a lot of reality shows, but our show was different from any other food show. Even though I didn’t do the first season (as host), I had a lot of conversations with (producers) about what we wanted the show to be like and what we didn’t. This is not about who can make the best bundt cake in the PTA.
Daly: “Top Chef” came on in 2006, right? I think timing on these shows is so important. We came along (in 2011) on the heels of shows like “Idol” and “X Factor” and I think it was right to have a little shift in our show’s DNA. It was uplifting. It was all about our artists, it wasn’t about our coaches or our judges. With “Top Chef,” food became the new rock star right around that time of 2006. The show personified that.

But failure is a big part of the stakes on your shows. By now, have you developed a gut sense of who will go the distance?
Lakshmi: Everyone can have a bad day. (Cooking) is a skill that doesn’t have to do just with your intellect or your knowledge. It also has to do with your body. You can have a cold one day and misjudge the seasoning. You can have a cold one day and your voice will be off. These skills also have a physical component to them and that is an unpredictable thing.
Daly: There are certain artists on our show who just come out of their shell. They didn’t have it in the battles or the blind (auditions), but as soon as we go live they just knock it out. They literally find their voice and that confidence and they become frontrunners. And there are people who have to deal with fatigue.
Lakshmi: I’ve seen contestants go from point A to point Q over the course of the season and it’s exciting to see someone blossom. We’ve been on the air for so long that the show itself is its own selector. You can tell who’s going to make it and who’s not. Fatigue is a big deal for us on our show, too. Cooking is a physically taxing endeavor; it is manual labor. You’re on your feet in a hot kitchen and you’re asked to break down a side of beef. Every year we have a barbecue challenge, and we’re outside and someone almost passes out. Of course we have an EMT on the set and we never let them push themselves past the point of safety. But it is a compelling thing to watch someone go through the emotional fatigue and the mental fatigue and the physical fatigue. Those are three very different things.

What is the hardest part of your on-camera roles?
Lakshmi: There have been a couple of times where we’ve had guest judges on — people who are leaders in our industry —but they just don’t translate on television. They’re not exuberant or articulate enough. I feel like it’s my job to bring that out in them, and when you don’t, you feel like maybe I didn’t do something I could have.
Daly: The best compliment I get is when people tell me, “I could do that.” When people tell me the show looks really smooth, then I feel I’ve done my job. For us being live so many hours — three hours a week for 16 weeks, I have to be the cop or the ringleader in getting us on and off the air at the right time. … I mean, we’re literally dealing with rock stars. There’s a lot going on in “The Voice,” especially when we’re live. I feel like a conductor a lot of the time.
Lakshmi: Our show is different from other (competition) shows. When you watch “The Voice” or “So You Think You Can Dance,” the audience can hear how they’re singing. You can watch them dance. On our show you really have to rely on us to explain to you what this tastes like. It may look really great, but it could be really bitter or tart.
Daly: With Tom (Colicchio), you can tell. He makes it really clear.
Lakshmi: When we give a critique of the dish, we don’t talk about what we would have done. It doesn’t matter. We can only judge what’s before us. We try to make sure our critiques are meaningful for them and for the other chefs. It was only a couple of seasons ago that we allowed the other chefs to listen to Judges’ Table. Because if (a contestant) fell in the middle every week, you never got any feedback from us. I think it’s helped the food and I think it’s helped them mentally manage the process.

What does being live bring to “The Voice”? Padma, you’ve done some live elements on “Top Chef.” Would you like to do more?
Daly: Live is everything to me. I hate it when we’re not live. My whole background is live. I started in radio. We have the biggest (stage) at Universal, and we have the best band on TV. It’s hard not to get sucked in to the excitement. We basically do a mini-Grammys for eight straight weeks on our live shows. To me the show is greatest when it’s live.
Lakshmi: I think that’s the final frontier in broadcast. I think networks are going to realize that’s where their cachet is because there’s something exciting about watching it. I started in live TV. I used to co-host an Italian talkshow. We had no five-second delay.
Daly: With your potty mouth? How did that work?
Lakshmi: Well, I was speaking Italian. We were live on Sundays for five hours with no scripts, just a flowchart of who was coming on when. It was exciting because anything could happen — that’s why people watch. I genuinely miss the frisson of live theater because there’s so much adrenaline.
Daly: I’m amazed our artists don’t screw up more when we’re live. Sometimes they choose songs they’re not that familiar with. We’ve had a mic screwup and we’ve had the air conditioning go out so everyone is sweating. But I think it’s a testament to our artists that we haven’t had more screw-ups.

Do your schedules leave you much time to pursue other projects?
Lakshmi: I’m very lucky because we work like crazy and then they pretty much leave me alone until a new season starts. I have a lot more to do than the other judges after filming stops because I work a lot on the sound editing. Sometimes we don’t know what the story is until after the competition is over. So you have to develop the narrative based on the authentic material that you get from 15 human beings. You don’t know where that hidden diamond is at the time you’re filming. We have anywhere from 14 to 17 cameras running at any time.
Daly: I love to work. I’m so proud to be able to do it.
Lakshmi: You work like an immigrant you have so many jobs.
Daly: I love it. I remember in 2008 when the economy was in the s—–er and I didn’t have a latenight show (because of the writers strike) and I didn’t have a radio show and there was no “Voice” and (fiance) Siri (Pinter) was pregnant with our first kid, I thought I was going to lose my house. I don’t come from any money. I’ve worked my entire life. I know what it’s like to not have work and it sucks. So when it rains and it pours, I’m so happy to have the work. My dad tells me all the time, “Just keep rolling the dice until you crap out.” I do remind myself that I’m not digging ditches.

Do you like to watch shows that are competitive with yours?
Daly: I do watch (other shows). I think if you creatively have a say on air it behooves you to watch other shows.
Lakshmi: I do watch Food Network. For me each show is so individual. What’s been more useful is doing interviews like this. Because I live in New York I’m not in that Hollywood-Los Angeles milieu. I don’t have the chance to rub shoulders with (other hosts). I see them at awards shows. I’ve learned a lot from talking to people like Carson or Nigel (Lythgoe) or Tom Bergeron who’ve been doing this much longer than I have.

Padma, you worked behind the scenes on the first season of “Top Chef” before you were enlisted to host in season two. What was that transition like for you?
Lakshmi: For me, I’m learning every day. I don’t know many people on television who look like me or come from my background. The reason I get so much attention from the Asian community is that there just aren’t that many of us. I came here from India when I was 4. My mother’s a nurse; my stepfather’s a plumber. To say that I was as far as possible from that Hollywood environment is an understatement.

What’s the most misunderstood part of your jobs?
Lakshmi: For me, people think, “Oh, you’re the star of ‘Top Chef.’” I’m not the star. The chefs are the star. My job is to move traffic and get comments from Gail Simmons and Wylie Dufresne and all our other judges.
Daly: You do that so well and I can see that it’s hard. You’re at this big table and people are eating and you’re the only one who has to be sure to talk.
Lakshmi: It is hard. A lot of these (guest judge) chefs have big egos and run big operations. We had a time when a guest judge came on and was obviously inebriated. He kept saying everything sucked. I finally had to pull him aside and ask him “Why are you here?” Because if you keep going on like that you’re going to look like an ass. I felt I had to do that for the show.
Daly: That’s so great that you did that. … The key to this job is to remember that it’s not about you. It’s about the artists. If everybody feels good and has a great time on the show, then you’ve done your job.

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