Khoo-la-la! When Rachel Khoo pitched up in Paris six years ago she didn’t speak a word of French but now she’s got her own TV show teaching them how to cook
21:30 GMT, 30 March 2012
Of all the people in the world to have their own TV show devoted to French cooking, Rachel Khoo would once have looked the least qualified.
Just six years ago, Croydon-born Rachel was living in London and working for Thomas Pink, a clothing company that trades on its oh-so-British image.
She didn’t speak a word of French and had only been to Paris once in her life – and hated it. ‘I thought the people were rude; the place wasn’t charming. I didn’t get why people were always raving about Paris. For me, it wasn’t like it was in the movies,’ she confesses, apologetically.
Of all the people in the world to have their own TV show devoted to French cooking, Rachel Khoo would once have looked the least qualified
She can’t even say, hand on heart, that she liked French food either. ‘Although I grew up in England, my mum is Austrian and my dad is Malay-Chinese, so I grew up eating Asian food and wiener schnitzel, with the odd roast thrown in. I think Mum may have made a coq au vin once, but that’s about as French as it got.’
So how on earth has Rachel, 31, come to the point where she is being hailed as the new Goddess of French cooking The answer is down to cake, basically. The one thing Rachel did like about France was its patisseries.
When she grew bored and listless in her London job, she decided, on a whim, to move to Paris and retrain as a pastry chef. ‘My parents thought I was mad,’ she says. ‘My friends did too, although they were more envious. They all said, “I wish I was brave enough to do something like that.”’
Rachel meets chef Pierre Saugrain in a scene from her show
She enrolled at the famous Le Cordon Bleu cookery school, and worked as an au pair, then as a perfume tester in a department store, to fund her lessons. But her real break came when she got a job in a cookshop with a caf attached.
She started trying out her creations on customers, and was soon holding her own classes for chic Parisienne ladies who wanted to learn more about British afternoon teas. At home she was slaving away teaching herself about French cuisine, ‘and I just fell in love with the whole thing – Paris, the food, the culture. I started to realise French cuisine had a bad press in Britain. It’s not all about heavy sauces and difficult dishes. I knew there was a niche.’
Her skill for self-promotion landed her a 30-minute slot with a publisher in which she had to pitch her idea for a cookery book. She nailed it – but then found herself having to come up with 120 recipes. So she set up her own pop-up restaurant venture – trying out new recipes in her tiny Parisian apartment. ‘It wasn’t a proper restaurant, obviously. It was me having a few people round – I could only fit two at a time – so I could test these recipes and cover the cost of the ingredients.’
I never thought in a million years I’d
be able to pitch this book to a French audience. I expected them to say,
“Who is this English girl and why is she telling us how to cook”
Now her ‘strange little adventure’, as she puts it, has turned into something rather bigger. Before her book had even come out, the BBC signed her for her own TV series, The Little Paris Kitchen, set in her tiny apartment. The journey that had taken the likes of Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay years of slog in hot restaurant kitchens had happened virtually overnight.
When Weekend catches up with Rachel during a visit back to the UK, she’s still digesting the news that her book is now going to be translated for the always-picky French audience. ‘It’s incredible,’ she admits. ‘I never thought in a million years I’d be able to pitch this book to a French audience. I expected them to say, “Who is this English girl and why is she telling us how to cook” But they’ve embraced it. It’s like a dream.’
She in turn has embraced French cuisine – to a degree that some on this side of the Channel might find distasteful. She tells me – quelle horreur! – she even tried horse tartare the other day. Oh dear. Horse on the menu is bad enough, but raw horse ‘It’s sweeter than beef,’ she says cheerfully.
Still, you can see exactly why the BBC snapped her up.
She is certainly the best-looking TV chef since Nigella, and her penchant for perusing French markets la bicyclette will win her an army of fans. Her lack of experience in the business will probably win her critics too, but you can’t fault her passion for doing it in her own way. ‘I’ve never worked in a restaurant. I’ve never wanted to. I think I’d find them too macho, too pressured. My style of cooking is pottering about at home, thinking how different food combinations will look on the plate – and obviously taste in the mouth.’
Rachel taught herself to cook in an apartment so small there wasn't room for a decent oven
An art college graduate, she has an edgy and very modern style – she’s not a cupcake kind of girl. ‘I’ve been very lucky because the TV people I’ve been working with got what I was trying to do, and have never tried to change it. It could have been very different. The first production company I talked to wanted me to front a sort of foodie challenge show called Queen Of Tarts. I was out of there pretty sharpish.’
Indeed her gimmick – and let’s face it, every TV chef these days needs one – is that, while she learned the baking basics in a formal setting, she taught herself to cook in an apartment so small there wasn’t room for a decent oven. And it’s here that a film crew had to try and find space for their equipment.
‘It might just have been the smallest space ever for a cookery programme,’ she admits. ‘My whole apartment is about the size of a double bedroom. I cook with just two rings on the hob, and a small toaster oven. There isn’t even room for a fridge.’ It hardly needs to be said that filming was a nightmare. ‘The cameraman had to stand on his tiptoes behind me, with the camera over my head. If I moved at all, he’d have to shuffle along too. I certainly couldn’t drop anything because there wasn’t space to bend down to pick it up.
‘But while it might seem mad, I thought it was important to show that it can be done. You don’t need a huge kitchen to create amazing food. Operating in such a small environment makes you a better cook. You have to be organised and you pare everything down to the basics.’
So what happens if Rachel does now become the new Nigella, with a bank balance to match Surely it’s only a matter of time before a grand country pile with the Aga beckons ‘It’s a bit early for that,’ she laughs. ‘My goal at the minute is just to get a big enough apartment that I don’t have to unfold my futon every night in the living room. But if it all works out, who knows Maybe the next book will have to be called The Penthouse Paris Kitchen.’
The Little Paris Kitchen, Monday, 8.30pm, BBC2.