Inside Hulu’s first foray into food originals, “Taste the Nation with Padma Lakshmi”

Disney-backed streamer Hulu is preparing to plate the premiere of Taste the Nation with Padma Lakshmi this Thursday (June 18), from Brooklyn-based prodco Part2 Pictures. Each episode of the culinary travelogue (main image) will follow the award-winning cookbook author, host ...
June 16, 2020

Disney-backed streamer Hulu is preparing to plate the premiere of Taste the Nation with Padma Lakshmi this Thursday (June 18), from Brooklyn-based prodco Part2 Pictures.

Each episode of the culinary travelogue (main image) will follow the award-winning cookbook author, host and executive producer Padma Lakshmi as she undertakes a journey across America to explore the diverse food cultures of various immigrant groups while seeking out the individuals who have heavily shaped what American food is today.

Lakshmi will break bread with Americans across the nation – from El Paso and the Arizonan desert, to her own hometown of Jackson Heights, Queens – to reveal “stories that challenge notions of identity, belonging, and what it means to be American.”

Taste the Nation, which marks Hulu’s first foray into the unscripted food genre, is executive produced by Lakshmi along with Part2 Pictures’ David Shadrack Smith (below) and Sarina Roma. 

Hulu will launch all 10 episodes of Taste the Nation this Thursday (June 18).

Realscreen caught up with Part2′s Shadrack Smith to talk about the culinary series ahead of its premiere.

dss photo 2020This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

How did Hulu become involved with Taste the Nation

There was a fortunate convergence for everyone. Taste the Nation started with the story Padma wanted to tell about the diverse American palate and the people who have shaped it. The series aimed more broadly to be about the experience of assimilation into this literal melting pot, a story that is deeply personal to Padma and also relatable to so many of us. Hulu, at the same moment, was developing a food initiative for their first forays into unscripted series and believed deeply in the best and boldest version of this series from the get go. The goal of taking a food series and making it unafraid to delve into complex social dynamics in our nation is something Hulu encouraged and supported throughout. That it’s also fun, delicious, and beautiful to watch is, I hope, the fulfillment of that mission.

Hulu describes this culinary travelogue as “a living cookbook made up more from people and culture than recipes.” What exactly does that mean? 

We all wanted the food to be the entry into the human stories. Each episode centers around a dish — as familiar as Pad Thai or the hot dog — but from there we take viewers into how each community navigates the process of preserving a heritage while also adapting to a new land. In the American context, communities change and so does the food, yet the food always contains traces of the traditions and narratives of a people. So, while you may learn how to cook the best shish-kebab you’ll ever eat, you’ll also learn the complex way food served as an introduction to Persian culture for most Americans, and conversely how food is one of the last links many have to the Iran they were forced to leave and can’t return to. As one person said in the series, you may know the food, but how much do you know about the hands that make it? Those stories can be both incredibly specific and at the same time universal to just about every American figuring out their relationship to their cultural traditions.

What separates Taste the Nation from the glut of culinary travel programming currently available? 

Some might say glut, others might say feast! Certainly, we are obsessed with food, but food is also flavored with so many great stories about our world and central to how we transmit identity and culture. We wanted to go deeper on those human stories and this series does that. It’s fun but with a big heart, 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. Hulu challenged us in the best way to go further, take on issues, let Padma’s naturally inquisitive and fearless side really come to the front, and make it all incredibly relevant to conversations that may start with food but are about way more than food. I hope this series not only entices people to try new things in restaurants and their own kitchens, but to really reflect on how we all fit into this tapestry of America, especially right now.

Taste the Nation is a series idea that Padma had been developing for some time. Can you provide any insight into that process and how you came to be involved? 

This series started with Padma’s ideas and is so personally wrapped up with Padma’s own experiences it could only have come from her. Our role, as a production company, is to support and craft the voices and curiosities and intentions of the great talent we get to work with. Every effort we make toward that is to try and show the world through a strong POV and with a voice unique and authentic to that person. We worked very closely with Padma to find the best way to tell the stories she was already passionate about. That’s the secret sauce.

Padma had been working on a cookbook idea that essentially starts with the thesis this series is based on: that the foods we eat in America each tell a story about the communities that bequeathed their cuisine to the flavors of this country. That includes the original Americans and the most recent arrivals and every story in between. Stemming from her own experience as an Indian-American, Padma had already been thinking and working on this thesis — one might say her whole life — when we came aboard.  From there, it was a collaborative effort to figure out the specific themes, architecture and approach for the series. As everyone reading this knows, that process takes time and, I hope, benefits from the time and care that went into it.

What were some of the biggest challenges you encountered in making the project? 

The biggest challenge for us was making sure we got the stories right. When a community or an individual entrusts us to share their recipes and their personal experiences, we have to tell those stories responsibly and with integrity.  These are complex experiences and it took, I think, our roots in journalism (as much as our passion for food) to identify and present the themes and broader contexts. That was something Hulu really made a priority and helped us sharpen. The fun part of making this series — which was its own challenge — was eating so many amazing meals.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the production process for Taste the Nation?

We were incredibly fortunate to have finished shooting before the curtain came down on production in our industry and were able to focus on post and delivery. At the same time, as everyone retreated to their homes and, judging by what we see and hear, spent more time trying to cook and eat well, we feel like the series has a new timeliness to inspire us all to try making each other’s cuisines. Hulu is making recipes from the series available to its subscribers right on the show page, which is brilliant. I know I have personally cooked almost every dish in the series while in lockdown. At the same time, we know the restaurants and chefs we met while filming have been deeply impacted by the pandemic and our concerns are for them to come back strong. We wish that viewers, after bingeing the series, could run out to try the cuisines we feature and hopefully that will happen soon.

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for HMV.com. As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.