Padma Lakshmi Says 'Top Chef' Jackson Kalb's Loss of Taste 'Didn't Factor Much' for the Judges

Plus Padma Lakshmi, who spoke to PEOPLE at the premiere of José Andrés' documentary We Feed People, reveals which Top Chef episode she's "really proud of"

Padma Lakshmi on TOP CHEF "Texas Trailblaze-Hers" Episode 1906
Photo: David Moir/Bravo

It's been an eventful season of Top Chef so far — with one contestant losing his taste and smell weeks before the competition and another making it through six rounds on Last Chance Kitchen — but one episode is especially close to Padma Lakshmi's heart.

The longtime host of Bravo's Emmy-winning series, who praised this season for having "one of the most diverse casts we've ever had," tells PEOPLE that the episode commemorating "Texas Trailblaze-hers" is her personal favorite this run.

"Just extraordinary. I'm really proud of that episode," says Lakshmi at the premiere of José Andrés' Disney+ documentary, We Feed People, part of National Geographic Documentary Films. "I think it was a really moving episode, and I think we also had a good cross section of people."

For the episode's elimination round, contestants were tasked with creating dishes inspired by Texas' most influential women and subsequently serving them to a group of trailblazing women judges. Some highlights included plates honoring former Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards and Sheryl Swoopes, the first player to be signed in the WNBA. Chef Evelyn García, the winner of the challenge, made a dish with bold flavors inspired by singer Selena. With Selena's "Como La Flor" in mind, García's dish was a snapper main with Asian pear, orange zest, avocado and radishes arranged like a flower.

Lakshmi also reveals to PEOPLE what she knew about contestant Jackson Kalb's struggles with long-term COVID-19 symptoms while in Houston. Kalb, who contracted COVID-19 just a couple of weeks before the show started filming, spoke with PEOPLE in April about how he competed without his sense of taste. He decided not to tell his fellow contestants about his new handicap, but he may have let it slip to the judges.

"I think at some point he did mention it in judges' table," Lakshmi says. "But if you're an experienced cook, you know what something is supposed to taste like. So, he didn't make a big deal of it. And so, it didn't factor much for us either."

Kalb, who made it to episode 8 before getting eliminated, told PEOPLE that the setback was one of the "most stressful things" he's ever gone through.

"It was mind-bending and weird, and I still don't really know what anything tasted like that I put up, but I guess my instincts were better than I thought they were," he said.

Padma Lakshmi
Bryan Bedder/Getty for National Geographic

At the premiere of We Feed People, Lakshmi shared an important takeaway from the documentary centered around Andrés' nonprofit, World Central Kitchen, and its evolution over 12 years.

"I think it gives you hope. I think it's a really hopeful movie, and it reminds us that we're all connected and that we need to have more empathy for each other and we need to also just help each other out," she says. "And after we've all been through this pandemic for two years, whether you're living in China or South America or wherever, it's nice to see some good news."

The Top Chef host, who also ran a Q&A with Andrés and director Ron Howard after the screening, commended the Oscar-winning director and the humanitarian chef for the film's heartfelt message.

"I think it's a beautiful, uplifting story," she said. "It's told in amazing fashion by Ron Howard, and it's an extraordinary testament to José's…perseverance and his will."

We Feed People starts streaming on Disney+ on May 27.

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