Ahead of ‘Chefs & Champagne’, a Conversation with Guest of Honor Padma Lakshmi

Padma Lakshmi will be this year’s Guest of Honor at the James Beard Foundation’s Chefs & Champagne. • Photo by  Inez & Vinoodh





The East End’s summer calendar is always overwhelmed by a feast of great events, from our own Food Truck Derby to Dan’s Taste of Two Forks. In terms of scale and prestige, however, the James Beard Foundation’s Chefs & Champagne, always stands alone.

Returning to the East End on Saturday, July 28 at Wölffer Estate Vineyard, Chefs & Champagne gathers chefs and the greater culinary community—food enthusiasts included—to celebrate “good food for good.” The “good food” is prepared by more than 35 notable chefs, including the East End’s own Stephan Bogardus from the North Fork Table & Inn. The “good” is this: Proceeds from the event support the James Beard Foundation’s initiatives, which include their Impact Programs in areas of seafood sustainability, food waste, chef advocacy, childhood nutrition; their Women’s Leadership Programs, numerous Scholarship programs, and more. Each year there is also a silent auction consisting of fine dining experiences, cookware, culinary travel packages, and more, to raise funds for the foundation’s important work.

Wölffer Estate Sparkling Rosé at the James Beard Foundation’s ‘Chefs & Champagne’ annual summer fundraiser at Wölffer Estate Vineyard on July 29, 2017. • Photo by David Chow / Courtesy of the James Beard Foundation.

This year’s guest of honor is Padma Lakshmi, host and executive producer of Bravo’s James Beard Award–winning and Emmy award–winning series Top Chef. 

Ahead of Chefs & Champagne, we spoke with Lakshmi about a host of topics—from her relationship with the James Beard Foundation, to what she’s most looking forward to enjoying at the event, the #MeToo movement, diversity in the food community, and more.

Here is our conversation.

Edible East End: Congratulations on being this year’s Guest of Honor at Chefs & Champagne! How did it feel to find out you were going to be honored? What are you most looking forward to about this year’s event?
Padma Lakshmi: 
I’ve admired the work of the Foundation for years and I’m excited to be joining the ranks of previous guests of honor such as Julia Child and Martha Stewart. When I was in college and could occasionally splurge on a purchase, it was always a cookbook that won a James Beard Foundation “Media Award,” because I knew it was a sure mark that the book would be of quality. I have also had the pleasure of attending dinners at the Beard House over the years by chefs and it’s always been stellar. And this past year, I was a presenter at the JBF Media Awards here in New York. I’m excited to join all of the other chefs this year and greater culinary community who support the Foundation’s mission to make America’s food culture more delicious, diverse and sustainable for all.

EEE: The partnership between you and the James Beard Foundation feels so synergistic—especially now, as the #MeToo movement continues to reverberate across every industry, and our basic American values feel increasingly under attack. Do you feel, like us, that the James Beard Foundation is, in a way, more important than ever? If so, why?
Absolutely. For a long time, professional food did not include people that were like me, they were a bunch of French old white guys and American white guys but you didn’t see a lot of diversity. The good news is that that’s really changing, and James Beard Foundation is at the forefront of a great deal of that change. They are creating programs and having real conversations about women in leadership. The Foundation recognizes that people of different backgrounds have interesting and unique points of view and it’s more expansive and actually a richer food culture to includes those voices, so I’ve very thankful to be among the ones who they recognize.

EEE: Your commitment to diversity is well-documented. How do you think the food industry in particular can continue to work so that everyone feels welcome and represented in our nation’s kitchens?
The ugly truth is that in the professional food world, women aren’t hired as often when they apply for the same jobs. They aren’t promoted as fast as men. And investors tend to favor male chefs when developing new projects. So women aren’t always in a position to even be able to help the next generation of women because of the lack of equal opportunities available to them. The culture has to change from the ground up. There are some great chefs and restauranteurs who are taking considerable steps to remedy the inequity in the professional food world. One example is Danny Meyer, who provides maternity leave. Another is Enrique Olivera, whose kitchen at Cosme is run almost completely by women. The life of a chef is not conducive to family obligations or maintaining regular business hours. It has traditionally been a very tightknit boys club. But with gender attitudes changing, and men helping out considerably more with domestic responsibilities at home, there are more women entering the field. That is not to say there aren’t some talented and super successful female chefs and restauranteurs- some examples are Barbara Lynch, Suzanne Goin, April Bloomfield, Nancy Silverton and Dominique Crenn, to name a few. But as an industry, we must support and encourage a new generation of female professionals. The #MeToo movement is a painful but necessary reckoning, and I hope it’s just the beginning.

EEE: If someone—perhaps certain elected officials—asked you why this diversity were so important, what would you say?
Growing up and being exposed to different cultures is so important. It broadens your perspective and enhances your viewpoint of the world. It makes you more empathetic to people who are different than you. It has given me, personally, a much greater appreciation for the world around me. Creating overall awareness of different people, whether skin color or gender, has a large impact on our entire world.  Education and awareness is power and the only way we can all work together is to create equal rights and access for everyone and break the cycle of helplessness we have experienced.

EEE: And finally, we have to ask: What are you really hoping to eat at Chefs & Champagne? Is there anything that will especially make you happy to see being served?
PL: One of my favorite parts of the summer is all of the fresh seafood from the beach and bounty of produce available. The lineup at Chefs & Champagne reflects this and I’ve already spotted several vegetable-forward and seafood dishes. Plus, all seafood served at the event is sustainable.

For more on the James Beard Foundation’s Chefs & Champagne, please visit their website. Reservations for the event are open to the public. General admission is $225 per person for JBF members, and $300 per person for non-members. General admission includes all tastings, silent auction bidding opportunities, and a gift bag. VIP premium admission is also available for $425 per person. The VIP experience includes an exclusive reception with early access to all tastings; an advanced silent auction preview; reserved table seating; access to a VIP after-party; and a gift bag.