Padma Lakshmi and David Shadrack Smith, president of Part2 Pictures, talk to TV Real about Taste the Nation, which has debuted on Hulu.
While food and travel have long proven to be a powerful TV combination, peppering in politics and true cultural exploration at such a poignant time in America makes it all the more potent. Taste the Nation, which debuted last week on Hulu, does just this. Across ten episodes, the show follows as author, activist, host and executive producer Padma Lakshmi takes audiences on a journey across America, exploring the rich and diverse food culture of various immigrant groups and shining a spotlight on the people who have shaped what American food is today. While viewers may be used to seeing Lakshmi judging dishes on the long-running hit Top Chef, this show sees her digging deeper. From indigenous communities to recent immigrant arrivals, the host breaks bread with Americans across the country to uncover the roots and relationship between food, humanity and history. The result is stories that challenge notions of identity, belonging and what it means to be American—with loads of tasty dishes showcased along the way.
“This project originally started out as a cookbook idea,” Lakshmi tells TV Real. “After the 2016 election, I became an artist ambassador for the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union], focusing on immigration issues and also women’s reproductive health. There was a lot of hateful rhetoric coming out of Washington about immigrants, everything from the Muslim ban to separating families at the border. I wanted to show what America looks like today, and use food as a vehicle to do that. We all love tacos, Pad Thai and shawarma, but don’t often think about the hands that prepare those dishes.”
This idea resonated with Part2 Pictures, which worked with Lakshmi to develop the series. “It was clear that the American palate had embraced the food of so many different traditions but not always the people, and we wanted to explore that gap along with the complex process of assimilation that is both personal to Padma and nearly universal to all Americans,” says David Shadrack Smith, president of Part2 and executive producer of Taste the Nation. “The deeper story—which food can tell so well—is how to navigate holding on to your traditions across generations and transplanted in new lands. Food is at the heart of this process, often the strongest link to identities thrown into the melting pot of America.”
He says that food is one of the most powerful transmitters of culture, and “that’s what we wanted to dig into. It’s about how identity gets passed along generations, it’s about how you introduce yourself to a new land, it’s about preserving yet evolving the core of your traditions. In each episode, we explored themes that were specific to the community we went into such as how to overcome misconceptions about your culture or stay connected to your roots or reclaim an identity diffused through time. The cooks, restaurateurs, farmers and market owners we met were all thinking about these questions as they cooked traditional food or created new directions for their cuisine.”
“We wanted to remind people that America is a nation of immigrants, and our similarities are far greater than our differences,” Lakshmi adds. “We are a great country because of the diversity among our people, and there is plenty of room at the table for us all to share.”
Part2 has made a name for itself with content around visionaries like Deepak Chopra, Oprah Winfrey and Lisa Ling, so working with Lakshmi on their foray into the food space was a natural fit. “We’ve been wanting to produce a food series for a long time, partly because we’re obsessed with food like so many, and partly because food is flavored with so many great stories about our world,” Shadrack Smith explains. “Finding one that allowed us to be bold in our approach and tell great human stories around the food is what we were waiting for, and this series does that. It’s fun but with a big heart, is visually stunning and allows the food to do what food does best: give everyone a chance to get together, break bread and get to know each other. I haven’t seen another food series that goes as deep into the stories of whole communities to understand how we all got here, where the flavors that make up the American menu come from and appreciate the hands that make the food we eat.”
For Lakshmi, it was important to be involved behind the scenes, serving as an executive producer on the show. “I have a hand in every aspect of production,” she says. “David, Sarina [Roma, executive producer] and the team at Part2 were so helpful in guiding me through many of the technical aspects because this is the first time I’ve done something from scratch, from an idea in my head to a whole actualized series. When I wasn’t on camera, I was combing through research, examining storylines, giving feedback on scouting locations and interview questions, and everything else in between.”
All ten episodes are currently available for binge-viewing on Hulu, including “Burritos at the Border,” “Don’t Mind If I Dosa,” “What Is Chop Suey Anyway?” and “Zen and the Art of Poke.”
“I think having all the episodes arrive at once—like a great feast—means viewers can see the whole picture at a glance and then dive into the specific episodes in their own way,” Shadrack Smith says. “Episodes vary in length and even format, as we really tried to tailor each one to the story we were telling. There is a kind of arc to the season, but really, the experience of watching it on a streamer is designed to satisfy the cravings for a particular kind of food (or connection to a specific community) and hopefully inspire viewers to keep exploring. One of my favorite elements Hulu has designed is links to recipes from the episodes that you can get to right from the show page—that could only happen on a streaming platform, and from personal experience I can say that the recipes are amazing.”