Padma Lakshmi is perhaps best known as the Emmy-nominated host and judge of Bravo's Top Chef, but she's also an actress, model, award-winning cookbook author and wine lover. Wine-based recipes make appearances in her two cookbooks, Easy Exotic (Miramax Books, 1999), and Tangy, Tart, Hot & Sweet (Weinstein Books, 2007), which feature globally-inspired cuisine, including recipes from her native South India. Lakshmi has strong opinions about what bottles to open with the finished dishes on the table, and she recently teamed up with Napa's Sterling Vineyards in a contest to find "the ultimate host" this fall. She spoke with Wine Spectator about her go-to wines, how to pick the right wine for a crowd and perfect pairings.
Wine Spectator: Do you like to cook with wine?
Padma Lakshmi: People don't use wine in food enough. I think it's great to cook with the taste of the wine. A lot of people use leftover wine in their dishes, and the alcohol burns off and that's fine. But when cooking at lower temperature, the wine matters. My favorite dessert is to take beautifully ripe peaches and poach them in some red wine with a couple cinnamon sticks and cloves.
WS:Do you have a favorite food-and-wine pairing?
PL: I make brisket wrapped in bacon a lot in the winter. I stick it in the oven and let it go low and slow. It's so juicy and yummy, and I like to serve it with a deep red wine, like a big Bordeaux.
WS: What is your strategy for pairing food and wine?
PL: I believe it should be in this order: people first, food to fit the people, and then the wine to fit the food. I always start any aspect of planning with the guest list. I make sure it's a balance of interesting people. I look at them and decide what to cook. Let's say Ralph doesn't like spicy food, Jane eats red meat and Chloe is trying to lose those last 10 pounds. Being a good host means catering to the guest list. That person loves my kumquat chutney, so I'll put that on the scallops.
WS: Your recipes feature ingredients that some find difficult
to pair with wine, like curry and cilantro. How do you approach these
PL: I think any good sommelier worth his salt would tell you what I'm about to tell you: When pairing wines with food, you want to complement the notes in the food, or contrast them.
WS: Do you collect wines, or buy them to enjoy right away?
PL: Both. I don't buy wines to collect, although I have been given wine as presents. Cheval-Blanc, Latour, Lafite—those kinds of high-end wines. Those are treats, and I've certainly been the happy recipient of those.
WS:Do you have a go-to wine?
PL: I'd say Sancerre. I gravitate toward everyday dry, crisp wines. In the winter, it would be Chianti. But I try to be as exploratory as I can be.