The model and TV host was actually approached to host the Bravo reality competition while it was in development prior to its 2006 debut, but Lakshmi had already signed on to star in a British TV movie during the production dates, the Emmy-nominated host tells EW on the latest episode of The Awardist podcast.
"I had pitched another show to Bravo at the time and they didn't want to do that show, but they said they were developing a food show and wanted to know if I would be interested in hosting that," says Lakshmi, who is also nominated this year as a producer on both Top Chef and her new Hulu docuseries Taste the Nation. Though she had to pass once shoot dates were locked and the gig went to Katie Lee, Lakshmi recalls, "they came back for the second season and said, 'Are you free now?' And I said, 'Sure.'"
Fred Jagueneau/Bravo Padma Lakshmi's final episode of 'Top Chef'
"Of course, it was easier to say yes then because I had the benefit of seeing a season of the show," she explains. "Whenever a show is starting, it's always a little hard to know what you're getting into. I had that on the first season of Taste the Nation because [I had to figure out how] to get participants to open up and talk to us about all these things that we were asking them — very personal questions about their immigrant journey."
But even with a season of Top Chef to guide her, Lakshmi says there was still a lot to figure out as the culinary competition evolved into the global franchise it's become.
"We were adamant that we didn't want to do a certain type of reality show," she says of premiering in an era when shock value was prioritized. "We wanted it to be about the food and the chefs."
That said, Lakshmi admits "there was still a little bit of that Lord of the Flies element" while filming season 2: "Especially because at the end of the competition, it got very heated. But I think that was the only case…We made sure that nothing like that ever happened again."
Lakshmi also warmed up her hosting over time. "The first few seasons, they really wanted me to be very imposing and stern because they wanted to set our show apart from other shows and communicate that this was a really serious show about professional chefs," she says. "But over the years, I found a middle ground in a way to both be super serious about the food, which we all are still, but hopefully exude a little bit more empathy towards the contestants and what they're going through. I also definitely got more comfortable, and I definitely learned how to manage different personalities at the judges' table."
David Moir/Bravo/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images Judge Marilyyn Hagerty along with host Padma Lakshmi and contestant Kristen Kish on season 10 of 'Top Chef'
But after 19 seasons, and crowning the franchise's first "global all-star" at the end of season 20, Lakshmi is passing Top Chef hosting duties to season 10 winner Kristen Kish.
While she calls the Top Chef crew her "family" and the decision to walk away "hard and complex," Lakshmi admits she won't miss the physical toll of eating all that delicious food in such a short span of time. "It's only six or eight weeks, but my body goes through a lot in those six or eight weeks," she explains. "And I don't spit anything out unless I think it's unhealthy for me to eat it. I know I should, or I can, but I don't like doing it because those chefs are putting their heart and soul into every plate of food and I feel terrible to spit it out."
That said, "It's very hard to walk away from something that's so successful and something that I helped build along with everybody on that set," she says. "But at the end of the day, I wanted another challenge, and I wanted to create my own projects and really give a lot of care and attention to Taste the Nation."
Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu Padma Lakshmi on season 2 of 'Taste the Nation'
Summing up her feelings about leaving Top Chef in one word, the culinary expert chooses her word with not even a pinch of irony: "Bittersweet."
Below, listen to Lakshmi's full with the Awardist podcast, where we also discuss the reality competition, structured and unstructured reality, and reality host categories.