When the show started in 2006, I was surrounded by top-tier professional chefs. I had already published a book about food, had another coming out and had done a cooking show and a couple “Planet Food” documentaries for Food Network, but I still felt people thought I was just a model and what did I know about food? I hadn’t been to culinary school. I have never worked the line in a kitchen.
Through our friendship, Tony taught me to feel pride in my own view of the world. We both relished travel and were transformed by it. He cared about me and my history and how that related to food. He was interested in everyone’s opinion. He taught me that no person’s opinion about food was too small to matter.
Tony’s influence on the culinary world was manifold and deep. His book “Kitchen Confidential” came out at a time when chefs were just starting to rise as rock stars. You had all of these forces in publishing and television that were glamorizing and exalting the experience of being a chef, in all of its preciousness and aggrandizement.
But Tony was different. He wasn’t trying to romanticize anything. He never bought into the “Oui, chef” culture. He was unimpressed with the fussy chef mentality of “I’m a god, this is my gospel, and these are the dishes that will define a generation of cooking.” He respected the world of white tablecloths and fine dining because he knew what it took to pull it off. But he was more interested in finding the guy selling barbecue out of the back of a pickup truck. He wanted to meet the salt of the earth, the people who cook with their hands rather than with tweezers.
Tony had a humanity about him that was palpable through the screen. Because he’d made a lot of mistakes in his life, because of his early addictions, he was left with a humility and empathy that made him a sharp observer of people and a natural communicator. At the same time, he relished his bad-boy persona. He wanted to be the Iggy Pop of food. But you could tell that he loved his fellow man; he was more interested in the people behind the food. He loved food because he knew it was the connective tissue between people and their cultures.
Before Tony came along, I think we had forgotten that food is woven into the fabric of our lives. Food is emotional. Every major event in our lives — every wedding, every funeral, every holiday — is built around some kind of food. Food is love.
Tony had the ability to admit when he was wrong, something that many hotheaded chefs are incapable of doing. When he was a judge on “Top Chef” in 2008, he once told contestant Fabio Viviani that his pasta was nothing more than “chlamydia on a plate.” I winced when he said that, and afterward Tony and I spoke about it. I knew how much he loved saying the most outrageous thing he could think of in the moment. But I didn’t feel that the remark reflected who Tony was, and I told him so. To his credit, he immediately said, “You know, you’re right.”
Tony and I were not close friends. We knew each other professionally; we had many mutual friends. But our relationship deepened after we both had children. On the “Top Chef” set he took my daughter Krishna from my arms to give me a hand. He nuzzled his face against her neck and said, “Oh, give me a hit of that baby — there’s nothing like a ‘new baby smell.’”
After his daughter was born, he started smiling a whole lot. He still had that mischievous glint in his eye, but once Ariane was born it became such a positive thing. It was beautiful seeing something in him turn better rather than worse. She softened him.
Tony at his core was a great writer. In TV, you can have the lovingly photographed close-up of the dish, you can have the beautiful walk through an exotic locale at sunset, but none of that matters if you don’t have great writing to back it up.
Tony was a great writer. He had the uncanny ability to zoom in on what was most important about every person he met. He would find what was special about the story they had to tell. He would describe himself as a storyteller. In the tradition of writers like Paul Bowles and Calvin Trillin, he was a great traveler of unbeaten paths. He was a great sampler of the human condition.
Padma Lakshmi is an author and entrepreneur who serves as host and producer of Bravo’s “Top Chef” franchise.