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She hosts Top Chef, travels around the country for Taste the Nation, has written three cookbooks and can frequently be found on Instagram whipping up dishes like dal and ratatouille. It's little surprise, then, that food also plays a significant role in Padma Lakshmi's life as a mom to 11-year-old daughter Krishna — and serves as an inspiration for her new children's book, Tomatoes for Neela.
Illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal and on sale Aug. 31, Lakshmi's first children's book stems from her own efforts to teach Krishna about the importance of eating in-season produce; while testing recipes for her cookbooks, Lakshmi would involve her daughter in the process, from tracing tomatoes on paper to eventually adding spices. "I would tell her this story at bedtime, and that's how [the book] came about," she tells Yahoo Life.
The book teaches young readers about tomatoes — when they grow, when they're best eaten, why they're so special — but that's not the only takeaway.
"It's also, more importantly, an intergenerational story about an Asian family who writes down all of the recipes that are important to them," Lakshmi says. "The book tries to show young children how writing down recipes is literally saving pieces of our family history. And it can be a good tool to start conversations, about everybody in our food system: about farmworkers, about different generations in our own family who have something to teach us and also about preparing your own food."
Though she acknowledges that her own daughter — whose father is Lakshmi's ex, Adam Dell — is "pretty fair" and "Caucasian-presenting," the 50-year-old says it was important for her to have Asian representation in her book, noting her own struggles to find diverse characters.
"It's better today than it was when I was a kid, but other than The Snowy Day or a few exceptions, it's still harder to find books with different characters of different skin tones," she says. "We were very purposeful in showing that even within one family, there can be multiple shades of skin colors... that's important."
Though Krishna's true passion is music — the tween plays piano and aspires to be a singer-songwriter — having Lakshmi as a mother has ensured that she's a capable cook; indeed, she often makes cameos in her mother's at-home cooking tutorials.
"I hope to send her off to college with a cache of 12 or 15 recipes that she knows how to make for herself and her loved ones so that she can survive eating nutritiously," the Top Chef host shares. "But for her, cooking is just something that's fun and is part of life. It's not an obsession like it is for me."
Krishna's appearances on her mother's social media accounts are something of a new development. Throughout her daughter's life, Lakshmi has taken pains to keep her out of the public eye, and still refers to her by her nickname, "Littlehands."
"I just wanted her to have her privacy and there was so much interest in my pregnancy," Lakshmi says. "There was so much gossip around it and everything that I really just wanted us to have some semblance of privacy... And I hadn't really been online for very long when she was born. So I just wanted to be careful about that, to be honest. Unfortunately, there's so many paparazzi pictures of us on the streets of New York that it just became ridiculous [to keep trying to protect her identity]. "
These days, "it's a struggle between being authentic and real and true online, to also saving some space for myself that is private. So much of our lives are lived online now. so it's hard to know exactly where that line is, and sometimes that line moves from week to week. So I still try and not have her all over my Instagram, but honestly, being a mother is the most important, fulfilling and time-consuming job I have. So if I were to give you a true snapshot of my life it would have to include my time with my daughter, because that is what I spend most of my life doing. ... I want to experience life with her, whether it's going to Paris or going to the green market up the street; it's all the same. It's just part of life. There's no way I could kind of take her out of my life, and give you any kind of true, accurate portrait of what it's like to be me."
Though they were not a couple at the time of their daughter's birth — and have since called time on a romantic reunion announced last year — Lakshmi and Krishna's father, businessman Adam Dell, have come to create a successful co-parenting relationship. Ultimately, Lakshmi describes herself as a single mom.
"Krishna's father is very involved in her life, so he is a co-parent, but it's different if you're married and living with the child's other parent," she explains. "We don't live together; we're not together anymore. We are good friends and we have the same first priority, which is her."
Lakshmi also considers herself "very Americanized," but says that "when it comes to my parenting, I'm very Asian." She can be strict about schoolwork and, of course, food. Veggies and fruits are essential, and there's little indulgence for picky eaters. "I'm not into being a short order cook," she says, sharing that Krishna can make herself eggs or a veggie wrap if she objects to what's been served for dinner.
"I'm not always the most popular person in her life, but that's OK," the famed foodie, who will return for a holiday-themed season of Taste the Nation on Nov. 4. "I have a specific role to play, so I'm not looking to be liked at all times... I'm not her best friend. I'm a good friend whose primary role in her life is as her guardian and her caregiver and her parent. So I have to be the disciplinarian. I have to be the person making the rules and making sure the rules don't get broken. The onus is on me to explain why a lot of those rules are in place. At the end of the day, I'm the adult that's responsible for her. And so she may not always like me, but hopefully she'll thank me later."
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