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Top Chef Won't Be the Same Without Padma Lakshmi

The longtime host is leaving the series, ending her reign as one of the best reality competition hosts ever.
  • Guest judge Asma Khan, Padma Lakshmi, and contestant Victorie Gouloubi on Top Chef (Photo: David Moir / ©Bravo / Courtesy Everett Collection)
    Guest judge Asma Khan, Padma Lakshmi, and contestant Victorie Gouloubi on Top Chef (Photo: David Moir / ©Bravo / Courtesy Everett Collection)

    It’s the end of an era. Padma Lakshmi announced via Instagram that she’s leaving Top Chef — the Season 20 finale on June 8 will be her last appearance as host.

    “Having completed a glorious 20th season of television as host and executive producer, 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,” she wrote. “After 17 years, many of the cast and crew are like family to me and I will miss working alongside them dearly. I feel it’s time to move on and need to make space for Taste the Nation, my books, and other creative pursuits.”

    While it’s encouraging to know that Lakshmi will still be working in the world of food television, one she fits into so comfortably, her departure from Top Chef will be a huge blow to the franchise. She’s been with the show since almost the beginning, only absent from the series’s 2006 debut season, which was hosted by Katie Lee. It was a completely different show then, appearing to be extremely low budget, focused more on the drama between contestants and gimmicky challenges. Season 2 introduced a noticeable production glow-up and with it, Lakshmi as the new face of the series.

    Lakshmi started as a slightly more understated host, but over the first few seasons her confidence grew, and she quickly found her voice as the show’s tonal compass, bringing equal parts gravitas and playfulness to the competition’s many ups and downs. In early seasons there were many more asides about her looks rather than her extensive cooking knowledge (it was, unfortunately, still all-too-common in the late 2000s), but she soon escaped being labeled as just a model-turned-host and made sure everyone in the room knew exactly who she was: a culinary expert. Let us not forget that her 1999 collection of recipes and essays, Easy Exotic, won the Best First Book award at the 1999 Gourmand World Cookbook Awards. She’s been a force in the food game since before Top Chef was born.

    As a judge, Lakshmi epitomized the phrase “tough but fair.” More than any of the other regular judges, she built a relationship with the contestants on the show and delivered criticism with an emotional delicacy that softened the blow of even the harshest comments. That being said, she also had no problem showing when she was disappointed or irate with someone, whether because of a bad attitude, an inappropriate comment, or an unforgivable rookie mistake. It’s that range of emotions and ability to instantly connect with everyone on the series that’s made her so engrossing to watch for so many seasons.

    She’s never appeared to just be going through the hosting motions, even when delivering her signature line. As Primetimer’s Joe Reid wrote in his ranking of the 20 greatest reality show hosts, “The myriad ways she's found to pack empathy, regret, and heartbreak into the words ‘pack your knives and go’ has only enhanced the Top Chef experience over the years.”

    And she’s always been a proud representative of her culture, highlighting Indian cuisine as frequently as possible on the series, introducing chefs and viewers alike to new dishes. Despite it becoming a kiss of death on a show with an expert like Lakshmi, cooking Indian food encouraged contestants to push themselves to master a new cuisine. But even more so, her pride has been a beacon to other chefs to embrace dishes they may have otherwise seen as too humble or unrecognizable and bring them to the competition — and more often than not, those dishes were successful. Top Chef has increasingly focused entire episodes on the food of specific regions from around the world, a move that feels strongly influenced by Lakshmi, especially once she became an executive producer of the series.

    We’re lucky to still have Hulu’s Taste the Nation, a series that is the natural evolution of Lakshmi’s curiosity and passion for all cuisines. And she’s leaving Top Chef on good terms, so there’s a high likelihood that this isn’t the last we’ll see of her at the judges table. But it’s undeniable that Top Chef will never be the same without her.

    The Top Chef: World All-Stars finale, also Padma Lakshmi’s finale episode as host, airs June 8 at 9:00 PM ET on Bravo and streams on Peacock the next day. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Brianna Wellen is a TV Reporter at Primetimer who became obsessed with television when her parents let her stay up late to watch E.R. 

    TOPICS: Padma Lakshmi, Bravo, Taste the Nation, Top Chef, Top Chef: World All-Stars