Padma Lakshmi’s New Children’s Book ‘Tomatoes For Neela’ Is a ‘Personal Story’

Padma Lakshmi may be known primarily as a food judge on the television competition series Top Chef, but now she can add children’s book author to her résumé. While her gorgeously illustrated new children’s book Tomatoes For Neela is a fictionalized account of a family’s food traditions and recipes for Lakshmi, it’s very personal.

Here’s what the author had to say about her debut picture book.

'Top Chef' host and now children's book author Padma Lakshmi
‘Top Chef’ host and now children’s book author Padma Lakshmi | Gregg DeGuire/WireImage

Her children’s book celebrates how food connects us

Lakshmi’s picture book for young readers focuses on the role of food, beloved family recipes, and of legacy in the life of young Neela, her amma, and her grandmother. The genesis of the book’s story came from moments with her own daughter, Krishna, now 11.

This is something that I had written down just to save it because it was such a part of my bonding with my daughter,” she told EW. “It was a story that I told Krishna when she was smaller. Her original story was much more elaborate and had a squirrel family in it as well. When my editor at Penguin approached me about doing it, I sent her what I had, and we used that as a jumping-off point.”

In a video for Penguin Kids, the television personality called the book a “labor of love,” saying she hoped “you really enjoy this book, we hope it also gives you a chance to see different faces between the covers of children’s books than you normally see.” Especially important to Lakshmi is her hope that the book “inspires you and your family to cook together and to write down the recipes that are most cherished and important to you.”

‘Tomatoes For Neela’ is autobiographical, Lakshmi says

The model and Taste the Nation host told The Seattle Times that the book, a feast for the eyes richly illustrated by Caldecott Award-winner Juana Martinez-Neal, reflects her own upbringing. In the book, little Neela is taught about tomatoes by her mother and learns that recipes are as precious to a family’s legacy as the most valuable generational heirlooms.

“It is just a very small personal story that centers around a young single mother who also is a recipe writer like me,” said Lakshmi. “It’s a hugely autobiographical book. I am not a children’s author. I don’t have experience writing for this audience beyond just making up stories at bedtime for my own child. So I needed to write about something I knew.”

‘Tomatoes For Neela’ shows that the family who cooks together preserves more than just recipes

Neela’s mother teaches her to eat food in season and respect the labor and sacrifice of farmworkers who pick and gather the fruits and vegetables they enjoy.

“Through food, my grandmother and my mother taught me so much about life and culture and being a person in the world,” she continued. “And so I’m hoping that, through this book, I can encourage families to actively cook together, to value the recipes that they’ve been making for their family get-togethers and also to remember all of the different people who bring us our food and to be mindful of our environment.”

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