New York — PADMA LAKSHMI had a confession to make.
"I hate reality TV, I have to tell you," said the new host of "Top Chef," Bravo's reality cooking competition, leaning over the table at a busy Manhattan restaurant on a recent afternoon. "I think a lot of it brings out the worst common denominator of the human spirit."
But the Indian-born model and actress, perhaps best known for being married to Salman Rushdie, is satisfied that Season 2 of "Top Chef" won't contribute to the decline of modern culture. The reality series pits 15 up-and-coming chefs against one another in an intense culinary contest.
"At the end of the day, it's about the skills," Lakshmi said. "I think it's very compelling seeing someone trying to be really good at their job, no matter what that job is."
"Top Chef," from the producers of the zeitgeist fashion competition "Project Runway," premiered last spring and was the top-rated cable food show among young adults. As with "Runway," its popularity was fueled by the contestants' raw ambition along with the inevitable kitchen drama that ensued as they raced to out-cook one another.
This season, which kicks off Wednesday, the producers brought in prominent chefs such as "Kitchen Confidential" author Anthony Bourdain and Le Bernardin's Eric Ripert as guest judges. The presence of culinary superstars helped ease Lakshmi's doubts about wading into the reality television genre
"They're all people that I really respect food-wise, so I think in that respect, it's a very high-caliber, high-brow food show," she said. "I was very pleased about that, because I didn't want it to turn into some kind of schlocky reality piece of fluff that I would feel embarrassed about."
The 35-year-old is acutely aware of the challenges of cultivating a career in the public eye. Ever since she began dating and subsequently married "Satanic Verses" author Rushdie, 23 years her senior, the New Delhi native has had to endure a constant media spotlight on their relationship.
When asked how she deals with the persistent interest in her marriage, Lakshmi sighed, a slight hint of annoyance clouding her lilting accent.
"I just have to do my own thing and try to steer people away from it," she said. "I had my own identity before I met him and a successful career."
Lakshmi had already published her first cookbook -- "Easy Exotic: A Model's Low-Fat Recipes From Around the World" -- when she was introduced to Rushdie at a party in New York in 1999.
"I've always loved to cook," said Lakshmi, as she delicately munched a grilled cheese sandwich. "Food is very sensual. It's so integral to the daily fabric of our lives that it has a lot of emotional context."
So when Bravo approached her about hosting "Top Chef" last year, she was intrigued. Scheduling conflicts ultimately forced her to turn down the role in the first season, which then went to Katie Lee Joel (wife of singer Billy Joel). But when it came time to tape the second season, producers decided they wanted a host with more culinary knowledge and called Lakshmi again.
"Padma is the perfect fit for this show," said Bravo president Lauren Zalaznick. "She is an absolute food fanatic, and she is both very intelligent and very emotional about food. I think she's a magnet, both by her intellect and looks."
Ever since she was spotted by a talent scout in a Spanish cafe as a college student, Lakshmi's striking appearance has drawn attention. On this fall afternoon, she was recovering from a bad cold but still looked effortlessly luminous, in a chic gray vest over a black T-shirt and pants, her wide-set eyes setting off her slender face. A long scar winds down her arm, the result of a car accident when she was a teenager -- a blemish she refuses to hide or get airbrushed out of photos.
A passion for cooking
ON "Top Chef," Lakshmi brings a certain gravity to the role of host. She intensely debates the merits of each dish with judges Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons. At the end of each episode, she tells the losing contestant solemnly: "Please pack your knives and go."
The home cook said she has "great respect" for the chefs on the show.
"I can make you a fabulous meal," she said. "But can I take a mystery box of ingredients and in a half an hour, make something edible? That's where the true ingenuity of a chef's mind comes out."
Executive producer Dan Cutforth said Lakshmi did not treat the competition frivolously.
"She has a real point of view about food, and that is really important, because the credibility of the show in terms of how it's perceived by foodies is extremely important to us," he said. "While we have fun, the intent was to create a serious show that explores what it means to be a chef."
Lakshmi's ardor for cooking was instilled at an early age. She split her time as a child between Madras (now Chennai), where her grandparents lived, and New York, where her mother worked as a nurse.