Pure Padma

On her Rooftop terrace, Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi entertains with ease, warmth, and color.

By Joe Yonan
Photos by John Kernick

When TV star and cookbook author Padma Lakshmi bought her New York City Condo, the centerpiece of its terrace was a hot tub with a built-in TV. “It was this weird '70s bachelor pad,” she says. But not for long.

Out went the tub (and TV), and in went peach and crabapple trees, blueberry bushes, strawberry plants, “lots of funky herbs,” and an arrangement of outdoor spaces that have transformed the 1,000-square-foot terrace into her favorite place to entertain. “It's inspired by nearly every secret garden I've ever read about,” she says.

As host of Bravo's popular Top Chef, Padma judges the work of some of the nation's most talented up-and-coming restaurant chefs. But when she's not working and traveling, her favorite place to eat is right at home, because she loves to cook—for herself and her 6-year-old daughter, Krishna, and for family and friends at weekend gatherings of all sizes. It might be a show-up-in-your-sneakers kind of cookout to get feedback on new recipes that she's testing, a standing-room-only dance party, or an elegant sit-down affair for a dozen guests under the moonlight.

“I am always aiming for something breezy and relaxed,” she says. For a last-hurrah-of-summer party, she'll serve food buffet style and scatter large comfy pillows around the terrace, along with other textiles she has hunted and gathered over the decades from India, Indonesia, and Morocco. As for the food itself, Lakshmi manages to strike the perfect balance: crowd-pleasing seasonal recipes that are deceptively simple—each with its own easy and surprising twist that often involves adding some tang (lots of citrus) and herbs and spices (such as kaffir, clove, dill, or cumin).

All this breeziness works only because Padma has thought through every detail. The best way to make parties feel relaxed, she says, is to be fully engaged once the first guest arrives. And that means she cooks almost everything ahead of time, leaving her at least a half hour to clean up, jump in the shower, and get dressed. Then she can focus on helping people interact and enjoy themselves.

“To me, being a great hostess is about more than just worrying about the menu and the decor,” she says. “It's about being warm and engaged, being the person that isn't embarrassed to start a conversation. You have to take a person by the hand, walk him across the garden, and say, ‘I want you to meet this person.’”

To help get her gatherings started, she will leave some last-minute food prep, such as picking herbs, as an ice-breaking activity for guests. (Hint: If you're trying to set up two friends, have them make a salad together, with one whisking the vinaigrette and the other tasting it, and wait for the giggles to begin.)

By the time the party starts, Padma will have paid attention to picking out the dinnerware (tonight it's some of her own design), setting the table, and choosing recipes that will delight without a lot of fuss. But how she brings people together is the real magic: “No matter how beautiful your flowers or how fancy your linens, you need to offer people a warm evening where they can meet someone who can enrich their lives or make a new friendship,” she says. “That's what entertaining is really about.”

“Every meal is a celebration. I draw my inspiration from my friends, my travels, even colors and flavors, and let the menu bring them all together!” Padma says. Her party starter: peaches soaked in red wine. The secret to Padma's no-fuss grilled chicken is a tangy tamarind chutney. She loves to serve the entrée with wood-fired corn on the cob freckled with smoky paprika and her Easy Exotic branded heat-and-serve rice.

”It is very important to me to create a colorful atmosphere for entertaining and relaxing at home with friends,” Padma says. Her signature punch is the result of much experimentation—grapefruit, tangerine, and lime juices combined with vodka, soda water, and Fresca! An ice ring with edible flowers finishes the drink. Fresh mango slices flecked with red pepper flakes and tangy lime juice make a refreshing snack or light dessert. By the end of the evening, Padma loves to hang out on the daybed she designed especially for the terrace.

Produced by Nancy Wall Hopkins
Food Styling Alison Attenborough
Prop Styling Ayesha Patel
Wardrobe Stephanie Tricola/Judy Casey Inc
Hair Kozmo/Bryan Bantry Agency
Makeup Birgitte Philippides/Sally Harlor Agency