The 47-year-old Top Chef host and judge heard the news on Friday when she was in Kentucky, where the longtime Bravo competition series is currently filming season 16.
“It’s been a really hard day,” Lakshmi told PEOPLE by phone. “I’ve known Tony for such a long time. I was just really shocked and saddened because he had been doing really well. Obviously his career is better than it’s ever been, he seemed to really be in love with his girlfriend, and he had a beautiful young daughter. I’ve been walking around all day with this empty pit in my stomach.”
Bourdain died on Friday at the age of 61 of an apparent suicide, French police confirmed to PEOPLE. The Emmy winner was found unresponsive in his hotel room in France by close friend and French chef Eric Ripert, according to CNN. Both were filming an upcoming episode of Bourdain’s CNN series Parts Unknown.
Hours after the news hit, Lakshmi and her Top Chef costars returned to filming the series. Bourdain had appeared on the show as a frequent guest judge and was a self-described “regular viewer” and “fan” of the program.
“It’s obviously hard on all of us,” Lakshmi said. “He was great on Top Chef. He brought a breath of fresh air and a new energy and made it his own. He was very much himself. He made me laugh the whole time. He was like a swashbuckling pirate that just out of nowhere landed onto our judges table.”
“I think if we had our choice, we would probably have the day off and spend it in bed or reminiscing about Tony together, but we don’t have that luxury,” she continued. “We’re just trying to muddle through. Everyone that I’ve spoken to, whether they even met him or knew him well or just in passing, has been deeply affected by this. The world has lost a real original voice.”
Though the two both shared a love of food and travel, it was the birth of Lakshmi’s daughter Krishna Thea, 8, that connected them on a deeper level.
“Tony saw the humanity in every person,” she said. “I really got close to him after the birth of my daughter. I may have even been a bit intimidated by him before that. I think he could see what I was dealing with and juggling. And he had a lot of empathy for that.”
Bourdain’s role as a father to daughter Ariane, now 11, showed Lakshmi a different side of him as the two “really bonded over our girls.”
“As you know, Tony could be rough and rash … [But] I remember Tony could be really tender and sweet as well,” Lakshmi said. “There were times when he would just take Krishna and bounce her on his knee. And he would always say, ‘Give me that baby! I need a hit of that new baby smell!’ It made me laugh. He would just nuzzle his face into Krishna’s neck and would say how much he missed his daughter and how much he missed that new baby smell. He was great like that. He was a guys’ guy, but also a champion of women. He stepped up for the underdog. And often the underdogs in the kitchen are women.”
Lakshmi also has found memories of Bourdain’s sense of humor. “He definitely had this mischievous rebel side to him. He always had a twinkle in his eye. You could tell he was winding up to say something really funny and really off color,” she said. “He’s one of the wittiest people I’ve ever known, and I’ve known some pretty witty folks. He was whip-smart. Because he was so funny, he often got away with a lot of his commentary.”
“The important thing to know about Tony is that he didn’t take himself very seriously. He really wore his success lightly,” Lakshmi added. “I know a lot of people in the entertainment business, I know a lot of writers, and I know a lot of chefs. But I didn’t know a lot of people like Tony. He was somebody I really admired. He was somebody who was generous with his time. He was never too grand or too big. He said it like it was but he also admitted when he was wrong. And not many big chefs have an ego that allows them to do that but he did.”
RELATED VIDEO: Chrissy Teigen, Gordon Ramsay and More Mourn Death of Anthony Bourdain: ‘Be at Peace Now’
But mostly, Lakshmi will remember the legacy he left behind.
“The reason people loved him and watched him travel around the world was that he had an innate curiosity about other people and other cultures,” she said. “He had an uncanny ability to see the humanity in everyone, whether he could identify with them or not. He made us understand that food is about more than physical sustenance — it’s also about what connects us emotionally. He wanted to connect with the world and connect us to each other.”
After Bourdain’s death, Bravo released a statement mourning the loss of the star.
“Our hearts are heavy to learn of the passing of Anthony Bourdain,” the network wrote on Twitter. “He was a beam of light not only as an incredible chef, author and entrepreneur, but also someone we considered family at Bravo and Top Chef. We know that his legacy will live on and he will be greatly missed.”
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text “help” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.