Food: Gemma Rose meets the British cook sensation, who also happens to be her idol: Rachel Khoo, on her terms.
Persistence is a prized possession of Rachel Khoo’s. Ever since the British food creative burst onto BBC television over six years ago with her cookery programme The Little Paris Kitchen, she’s published two more cookbooks (with the third to be released at the end of July), presented four more programmes, launched her online lifestyle platform ‘Khoollect’, as well as done an array of food writing and consulting; and she’s still in her 30s! I’ve taken a leaf from her book and persisted in interviewing her because she is my role model: with grit, good-humour and guts, Rachel Khoo is living life on her terms.
Our interview takes place on either side of the world, 9,000km apart, thanks to Skype. Rachel is in cool, fresh Sweden (where she lives with her husband and son) whilst I’m in hot, tropical Sabah. I’m sitting at the desk of my corporate French hotel room, whilst she appears in a bright room with bare, pale walls, which looks very Scandinavian. Both of us natural, relaxed and content, we easily jump into conversation, like catching up with an old school friend. I secretly hope this easiness is partly because we share some common ground – similar in age and origin (both being half European, half Malaysian), growing up in London and settling in Europe – like two peas in a pod. Wishful thinking aside, it’s probably because she is simply a friendly, down-to- earth person.
Rachel Khoo was born in Croydon, south London, to an Austrian mother and Malaysian father. She grew up with a lot of Eurasian food fusion: stir-fries, schnitzel, rendang and roast dinners. Despite being exposed to such rich and varied cuisine, sometimes she just wanted to eat chicken nuggets and chips like her schoolmates did. “Being culturally different wasn’t embraced in the 80s,” she says, her south London accent still clear after many years abroad. “My mum used to make curry puffs (a Malaysian savoury pasty) and my brother and I didn’t want to bring them to school because it was embarrassing. We didn’t want to stand out.” At school, a career in food never crossed her mind. Instead, she wanted to be a physiotherapist (“I was told I was too short to be one”), and when that fell through, a politician.
Her professional interest in food began when she worked with food stylists during her art and design degree at London’s Central Saint Martins. After graduating, she continued food styling on the side whilst working full-time in fashion PR to pay the bills. In order to break into the business, she was advised to have some hands-on cooking experience. So, she registered at Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in Paris. She says: “I thought I’d give Paris a shot. I said to myself that if it didn’t work out then I could always come back to London and get a job.” In 2006, she boarded the Eurostar, with £600 in her pocket and no French in tow.
After obtaining her pastry diploma at Le Cordon Bleu in 2010, she wasn’t quite finished with Paris. A culmination of circumstance (the mother of the family she was au pairing for introduced her to an owner of a culinary bookshop, which in turn introduced her to food writers); strong multi-tasking skills (she had up to four different jobs at one time); initiative (she wrote two cook books in French); and sheer determination brought her knocking on the doors of UK book publishers – not to mention the BBC – with her story: a young British woman cooking French classics with a twist, using two gas rings and a mini oven in her 21 metres square studio apartment. She tested her recipes by converting her studio into a pop-up restaurant, where guests donated to cover the cost. The Little Paris Kitchen cookbook became a smash hit, selling over 120,000 copies and translated into 14 languages. The BBC TV series, based on the book, pulled in as many as 1.5 million viewers per episode.