The 52-year-old food expert and author, whose name has become synonymous with the Emmy-winning program, shared in an emotional message on social media that she came to the “difficult decision” to exit after “much soul searching.” Lakshmi’s surprise announcement comes just one week before the finale of season 20, World All-Stars, is set to air. “Having completed a glorious 20th season as host and executive producer,” she wrote, “I am extremely proud to have been part of building such a successful show and of the impact it has had in the worlds of television and food.”
But what some Top Chef fans may not know is Lakshmi, who hosts Hulu’s food travel series Taste the Nation, wasn’t with the cooking competition show when it debuted in March 2006. The TV personality replaced cookbook author and food critic Katie Lee, who lasted only one season as host, in the sophomore cycle — and the rest is history.
According to The Hollywood Reporter‘s oral history of Top Chef, which was published in May, Lakshmi had actually met with executives at NBCUniversal before the cooking competition show even premiered, pitching a dinner party series. But, as executives noted in the piece, it was coming up against Top Chef, their priority internally, and they could not afford to do both. Instead, they persuaded her to attach herself to Top Chef, which they were actively developing.
Everything seemed to be going well, as the producers locked in on professional chef Tom Colicchio. As Bravo exec Andy Cohen recalled, a new issue had come up when it came time to begin filming season 1 of Top Chef in late 2005, which was set in San Francisco. Lakshmi, who was known for her modeling and acting work before Top Chef, was no longer available. “We had all locked in on Padma as the perfect host, but then she, like, booked a movie,” Cohen said in the oral history.
“By the time they decided to film the show, I had signed on to act in a miniseries for British television,” Lakshmi recalled. Scrambling for a last-minute replacement, producers cast Lee, then married to Billy Joel and going by Katie Lee Joel, as the host. The now 41-year-old remembered receiving “an email through my blog” inquiring about her to read for the host part. “I thought, ‘Well, this must be phony baloney,’ but I googled them and a week later I was on a plane to San Francisco,” Lee said.
Her brief time as Top Chef host wasn’t received warmly by viewers, who often described Lee as robotic and inexperienced, which executives and producers later acknowledged was partially their fault. “I was very green and took the direction that was given me, which was to be icy and authoritative. That wasn’t my personality,” Lee said, to which Cohen conceded, “We produced her to be very stern like Heidi Klum [on Project Runway]. We produced her all wrong.”
Lee, who has since gone on to host Beach Bites, Iron Chef America and The Kitchen, weighed in on the cold response from viewers. “It wasn’t a secret that I wasn’t well received by the audience. I knew that it wasn’t working,” she said, sharing that Cohen called her the day after the season 1 finale to tell her she had been let go.
So how did Lakshmi get back into the Top Chef saddle? Cohen recalled it being a major priority, after the tumultuous first season, that they secure Lakshmi. “There was a great disparity in terms of talent that first season. We had to fix that. And we had to get Padma,” he reflected.
Lakshmi, for her part, admitted to having reservations about jumping into the franchise following an up-and-down debut. “I’d watched the first season, so I got a sense of it. I was a little worried people would assume that Bravo was sticking another model on the show because of Heidi — I’d written a cookbook and hosted another food show — but I was just glad I got to say ‘Please’ before the ‘Pack your knives and go,'” she said.
Those worries ended up being a moot point as Lakshmi, along with Colicchio and culinary expert/food writer Gail Simmons, became household names due to the growing popularity of Top Chef. The flagship spawned a series of spinoffs, including Top Chef Masters, Top Chef: Just Desserts, Top Chef Junior and Top Chef Duels, among others.
“It’s really nice to have such a long-standing show because your fans grow with you,” Lakshmi told ET ahead of the 19th season in early 2022.
Lakshmi was nominated for a Primetime Emmy four times — in 2009, 2020, 2021 and 2022 — for her hosting work on Top Chef in the Outstanding Host for a Reality Competition Program category. In 2022, she won the Best Show Host award at the Critics’ Choice Real TV Awards, which celebrates achievements in unscripted television.