Model, actor and Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi begins her memoir, Love, Loss and What We Ate, soon after her divorce from the Booker Prize winner Salman Rushdie. With the marriage that made her famous, or rather, infamous, crumbling around her, Padma moved into what she calls the “Sorry Hotel.”

It turns out that the Sorry Hotel was in fact the Surrey Hotel, a gorgeous property on New York’s Upper East Side, where Lakshmi lived for many months after her divorce and had meals specially sent up by renowned chef Daniel Boulud. An uncharitable person would think that’s a pretty glamorous way to come out of a marriage, especially the sort of May-December romance that was the Rushdie-Lakshmi union. But Lakshmi talks movingly of the end of a marriage, even though it was she who wanted out because by then the marriage had become what she describes as “a once beautiful meal that ultimately left her with mood poisoning.”

The Rushdie years set the tone for what is – or at least seems to be – an honest and moving memoir (that is nonetheless full of some significant dissing on her ex-husband). One can see why Lakshmi starts off with the dissolution of her marriage.

For many people, the tag of Mrs Rushdie #4 continues to be what defines her and one can sense the author’s desire to deal with it and move on. Unlike Rushdie, who was famously nasty about his ex in his own memoir Joseph Anton, Lakshmi is more generous in acknowledging both the charm Rushdie deployed and the blissful early years of marriage.

“I was young, starstruck, and lovestruck”, she writes, and is open about her desire to be part of his set, to be seen as more intellectual than most people thought she was. She is also charmingly funny when recalling the breathless fans asking her, “’So does he just walk around being brilliant all the time?’

“’Yes,’ I’d say, ‘I keep a notebook on me at all times to record every word.’

“’Wow, what did he say last night?’

“’He told me to stop hogging the sheets.’”

Breaking free

In his own memoir Rushdie writes that she was determined to get out of his shadow, "to strike out for herself; and in the end she did." Lakshmi’s own memoir only corroborates her frustration of being constantly seen as an appendage to a brilliant mind, a pretty face with perhaps not much more to offer, at worst a gold-digger. In the book she does seem determined to strike out on her own even if it means taking on bit parts in now forgotten TV shows and movies.

I couldn’t help but admire that hustle, the need and desire Lakshmi makes clear she had to make a name for herself. That her husband had a brittle ego didn’t help the marriage’s prospects. To add to the already toxic ego battle was a more personal health battle staring her in the face in the form of recently diagnosed endometriosis, which caused unbearable pain and only reduced the couple’s intimacy.

In many ways, it’s the end of her relationship with Rushdie that really allows Lakshmi to break free and to chart her own path and career. It is around this time that the hosting gig at Top Chef falls into her lap. Having always sought solace in food – she acknowledges that early on in her relationship with Rushdie, she was so anxious about talking to his intellectual friends at dinner (Susan Sontag and Paul Auster among them), that she cooked for them instead.

It’s a role Lakshmi takes to like a fish to water. The book is packed with food memories, every important event in her life connected back to some favourite comfort dish. The disclosure that the glamorous Lakshmi reaches for thayir sadam (curd rice) and khichdi as her soul food is nothing if not endearing. As a lover of tangy, sweet and sour things this reviewer has to disclose that Lakshmi won her heart when she declares the taste she looks for to make her universe go round is “chatpati” , the combination of salty, sweet, tart and spice that makes you click you tongue against the roof of your mouth in sated satisfaction.

Nibbling at a different life

If food is one of the loves of her life around which the book revolves, the other is her relationship with the billionaire Teddy Frostmann, whom Lakshmi describes as the man who changed her life. Purveyors of gossip might well be aware of the saga. When Lakshmi became involved with Frostmann soon after her separation from Rushdie it seemed like she was playing to type. Here was another older, richer, more famous man.

Only in this case his fame and money (lots of it) came from his business smarts. Lakshmi acknowledges that in Frostmann too she sought a mentor, someone who could introduce her to a new set, a kind of life. For his part, he seems to love her as unconditionally as one can, so much so that he did not cut her out of his life after learning she was pregnant with another man’s child.

Lakshmi is honest in acknowledging her own dilemma at falling for another older man and why in a bid to push back against that very sense of playing to type she starts romancing another man. But she is also honest about the hurt those decisions cause both to Frostmann – her love for whom she acknowledged perhaps too late in life – and Adam Dell, the father of her child. The entanglements, the hurt and the loss – Frostmann was diagnosed with brain cancer and passed away in 2011 – haunt what seems on the surface to be a very charmed life and these are perhaps the most moving sections of the book.

In spite of the hurt and pain of loves lost, Lakshmi always come off as humble and grateful in her memoirs. She speaks with warmth and true feeling of her own family and the support system they provided her, the joy her daughter gives her especially in light of how difficult a successful pregnancy is for women suffering from endometriosis and all the men who have added to her life.

In her acknowledgements Lakshmi thanks the late Nora Ephron, who sowed the seed for the book’s title – a reference to Ephron's stage play Love, Loss, and What I Wore. Lakshmi’s work isn’t Ephronesque but it is a deeply personal and quite revealing book that provides a little glimpse into a very public woman.