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    Eat & Swig

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    A condensed version of this story appeared in our August, 2018 issue. 

    Illustration by Kendall Swann.

    When the cameras cut, Padma Lakshmi stepped off the set of what I think it’s fair to call America’s favorite cooking competition, Top Chef, and into the little room the film crew called Video Village. It’s where people watched the camera feeds on big flat screens, one of them speaking into an earpiece to walk Lakshmi through her lines, some of which she delivered to no one but the camera people, to be spliced into the show with a little TV magic.

    She wore a sleek, slim dress, sunflower yellow, and heels, her dark hair down. The soaring kitchen set, built in a warehouse-style office building somewhere in Louisville, looked a little like a rickhouse, with bourbon barrels from show sponsor Maker’s Mark stacked in the back. More Whole Foods ingredients than any chef could think to use filled shelves — Ale 8 One and Goodwood Brewing both made appearances — and every appliance known to man waited to serve, the ovens and grills emanating heat, though no one was cooking at the moment. Details beyond that — the number and names of contestants, the outcomes of challenges, the identity of a certain guest judge — would get me sued to Kingdom Come, so you’ll have to wait for season 16 to air on Bravo around December to learn more. (Top Chef filmed in Kentucky for about 10 weeks beginning in mid-May.)

    Compared to the set, Video Village was cramped. Lakshmi took a seat in a foldout chair next to an open box of Nord’s doughnuts, and three reporters leaned in close to speak to her over the din of the film crew, probably more than a hundred of them clamoring around. (Top Chef hired about 40 locals.) Without a word, a man squatted next to her and replaced her heels with flip-flops.

    It had been pretty hectic the whole time they were shooting the season, travelling to Lexington and Lake Cumberland in southeastern Kentucky. “I did try and go to a couple places to eat, but I only had time for faster casual places, like Feast and Royals,” Lakshmi said. (Yes, she’s a fan of the bourbon slushy.) She’d made it to a couple vintage stores, checked out the androgynous fashion at BloFish in NuLu, tried Comfy Cow. She had a hot brown from the Brown, though she thinks it was on-set, “just for logistics reasons.” She went to some kind of Prohibition party at the Seelbach, and I confirmed the rumors she’d heard about it being haunted. “They make a point of trying to scare me once every season,” she said. Someone had told her about Kentucky Refugee Ministries, which she hoped to visit. Some of the crew enjoyed running the Big Four Bridge. But the number of places to go far exceeded the amount of time she had, and more recommendations poured in through social media, “enough suggestions to write my own guidebook,” she said. People wanted to make sure she knew what a real mint julep was. One restaurateur even offered a tour of an as-yet unopened restaurant.

    She used to starve herself for the show, to give contestants the “full audience of (her) appetite.” But there can be down time, and alternating between an empty stomach and a tummy full of chef concoctions isn’t exactly healthy. “And my digestive tract needs to be healthy, because if I fall sick, like 150 people have to lay down their tools,” she said. “It’s never happened though.” So she has breakfast. This morning she had a toasted English muffin with a thin slice of cheese for protein. Other days she’ll have a protein shake, a banana. “It’s either starch or dairy to put a base down on your tummy,” she said. “Apple is really good for acidity as well.”

    She’s not much of a spirits drinker, and doesn’t really make herself drinks at home. If she’s going to have liquor, it’ll be scotch or tequila. But she keeps bourbon on her drink cart in case any guests want some, and the distilling process, which after visiting some local distilleries she can explain as well as any master, fascinated her. She toured Maker’s Mark, did some test-tasting, even made a barrel at Old Forester, which, she reminded us, weathered Prohibition with a medicinal qualification, “kind of like medical marijuana is today.” Oh, and she went zip-lining at the Mega Caverns.

    “I didn’t tell anyone here, because I don’t think they could insure me,” she said. “It was exciting. I’ve never zip lined before. I don’t think I’ll ever do it again.”

    An added benefit of traveling with the show is getting to see more of flyover country. “Last season, we were in Colorado, and I feel like — Colorado was beautiful, and people were really nice there — but I feel like Kentucky is more diverse than Colorado, which I may not have necessarily thought, not before I’d gone to either,” she said.

    On the drive back from the distilleries, Lakshmi, who has always lived in major cities, soaked in the scenery. “It sounds corny, but when I was having that drive…I could see…into people’s windows, because they had their lights on. They were just sitting down to dinner, or they were working on their driveway or their garage. And I kept getting, like, in my head, I kept getting the national anthem. It really felt like that — the rolling hills, these beautiful people who were just going about their lives.”

    Dylon Jones's picture

    About Dylon Jones

    Dylon Jones is an award-winning poet and essayist based in Louisville, Kentucky, where he serves as web editor of Louisville Magazine.

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