At 28, Padma Lakshmi landed her first cookbook deal

In the 28th installment of Bustle's Q&A series, successful women describe exactly what their lives were like when they were 28 — what they wore, where they worked, what stressed them out, and what they'd do differently if they had if). For Top Chef 's Padma Lakshmi, this was the year her food career began.

Twenty-eight was a critical age for Padma Lakshmi. Over the past few years she has worked as a model in Paris and Milan, acted in a European television miniseries and co-hosted the Rome Sunday variety show Domenica In . But at 28, she said goodbye to touring Europe and moved back to Los Angeles, where her mother lived and where she spent her pre-teen years. She wanted to be successful in America, but it wasn't meant to be.

"It took me longer than I thought to find an agent," Lakshmi, 51, tells Bustle over the phone. “There was a void in the media world.”

Soon after, in another unexpected career twist, Lakshmi found herself inking a deal with a cookbook. “That was the year I started my food career,” says the 28-year-old, “and none of this would have been possible without that first book.”

The book Simply Exotic: Low-Fat Recipes from Around the World was her introduction to the industry. She first appeared on the Food Network during her book tour. Since then, of course, she's hosted 17 seasons of Bravo's Emmy-winning Top Chef cooking show The Competition , written two additional cookbooks and a best-selling memoir, and debuted her Hulu show Taste of the Nation . In the latter show, which she conceived, hosted and executive produced, each episode highlighted the cuisine of America's immigrant culture—tacos in El Paso, Peruvian ceviche in New Jersey, Chinese chop suey in San Francisco— —are woven into history and the sociopolitical forces that shape it. “ Savoring the Country was a combination of things I’d always thought about,” said Lakshmi, who immigrated from India when she was four, “but never thought of connecting as deeply as I did in the show.”

Last week, she premiered a special holiday edition — four new episodes, all streaming now — in which she celebrates Hanukkah with her Jewish friends on New York City’s Lower East Side and Nora with Cuban-Americans in Miami. Chebuena, and celebrate Thanksgiving with members of the Wampanoag Native American tribe on Cape Cod. Along the way, she highlights the persecution, misrepresentation, and genocide these cultures suffered while eating crispy hash browns, slow-roasted pork, and hot clam chowder.

On a day off from filming Top Chef Season 19 in Houston, Lakshmi spoke to Bustle about that year in her life and, of course, what she ate.

“I had no idea I was starting a career of a lifetime.”

Take me back to 1998, when you were 28 years old.

I just moved back to the United States after spending over six years in Europe. Everything looked great [in Europe], but I knew the paths were limited because I was an Indian-American girl in Italy, and I was always going to get the ethnic part. So I moved to Los Angeles, auditioned as an actor, modeled, and I was putting the finishing touches on Easy Exotic .

How do cookbook deals come about?

I did a movie where I had to gain weight. I never really tried to diet, but after the movie, I was still modeling for a living, [so I had to lose weight]. I remove calories and fat from the recipes I make to make them healthier. I met my publisher, [Harvey Weinstein] at a film event, and I think I got the deal just because of the marketing hook. Everyone wants to know what models eat. No one really thought this book would be any good. But after it came out and I won an award in the [Gourmet] World Cookbook Awards, people started to take notice. There weren’t many global, multi-cuisine recipes back then. This is how I eat and how everyone around me eats. I wanted to write a book that reflected that.

What was the most common meal you cooked at that time?

When I got home, there were a lot of beans. I stew white beans with a lot of vegetables, like bell peppers, tomatoes, and onions.

Tell me what that experience was like for you, learning how to cook for yourself in your 20s.

As a model, being able to travel to places like Morocco, Bali, Seychelles, Sri Lanka, etc. allows me to try different foods cooked by locals in my home country. I learned about world cuisines and the relationships between recipes. Every culture has a rice dish, every culture has a dumpling dish. You start to see patterns.

Have you ever imagined in your mind what “professionalism” would look like?

It's a steady income and there's enough money in the bank so I don't have to worry. As an actor, unless you're really successful, you're always a little worried: Is this role going to be my last? You are always living on the edge of anxiety.

What advice do you have for today’s 28-year-olds?

Everything takes longer than you think. Twenty-eight is still very young. Take the time to become an expert at something. We all want to do a million things, but it pays to be really good at what you do, focus on the craft, and gain as much knowledge and experience as possible. [But also] give yourself as many chances as possible to succeed because you never know what might happen. I said yes to everything because I wanted to work. Even when I was lucky enough to get that cookbook deal, I just thought, "Okay, this is going to be a fun project and we'll see where it goes." I had no idea I was starting a lifelong career .

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity .