From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
Moments after tasting a lovingly crafted dish on the Emmy-nominated Top Chef, host Padma Lakshmi makes sure her grin is camera-ready—with a little help from the judges. "We have teeth checks," Lakshmi tells PEOPLE. "There's nothing worse than seeing me with a wad of spinach between my teeth."

Such are the occupational hazards for the stunning Indian-born model and actress, whose second cookbook, Tangy Tart Hot & Sweet, features recipes inspired by her travels to places like Tanzania and Spain. But this latest venture is as much about fellowship as fine dining. "With food, there's more that unites us than divides us," says Lakshmi, 37, who learned Indian cooking from her mother. "Take Asian and South American cooking—there's tamarind, cumin, cilantro, in both."

Her chief recipe tester? Then-husband, novelist Salman Rushdie, 60, to whom Lakshmi dedicated the book. (The couple recently divorced after three years of marriage.) "He tasted every dish," says Lakshmi, who lives in temporary New York City digs. Currently unattached, Lakshmi says of her ex, "I miss having that sounding board. I don't think you ever stop loving people."

For now, the multi-tasking Lakshmi is channeling her energy into the Top Chef season finale airing Oct. 3, staying fit by lifting weights and boxing, and shopping for—what else?—kitchenware: "I can go into Chanel and walk out empty-handed, but if I go into a kitchen store, I'm in trouble."