When Rachel Khoo’s mother first heard that her daughter was going to present a cookery programme, her reaction was one of surprise. “Mum said: ‘Why would anyone want to see you on TV? You’re normal!’” Khoo says, squealing with laughter at the memory.
But it was her normality that would make Rachel Khoo this year’s break-out food TV star and, at 31, she seems to have done it just by being herself – albeit a heightened, idealised version of what we imagine an English girl living in Paris might be like. Think of a cross between Amélie and an excitable Lizzy Bennet.
“It’s been quite strange,” Khoo says in the cafe of Brockwell Park, south London, fresh from her OFM photoshoot. She is dressed in her trademark style: a polka dot 1950s dress, crimson lipstick and expertly applied eyeliner (and it is genuinely her own style, not something picked out by a TV wardrobe department). “Suddenly I’ve got people coming up to me saying: ‘Aren’t you that girl off the telly?’ I don’t actually have a TV at home.”
This is partly because there isn’t enough room for one. In The Little Paris Kitchen, screened earlier this year on BBC2, Khoo was shown whipping up classic French dishes in her tiny kitchen in the Belleville district – at 226 sq ft, it barely has room for two gas rings and a toaster, let alone a camera crew. The comparative modesty of her surroundings played into the romanticised notion of a winsome English girl living the Parisian dream in a picture-postcard artist’s garret. But it also meant that Khoo’s take on cookery was appealingly unstuffy: she was shown assiduously cleaning up pots and pans as she went along. Her coq au vin was cooked like a chicken kebab.
On screen, Khoo was an engaging presence: the perfect balance of infectious enthusiasm and vintage tea dresses. She did not talk lasciviously about dripping cream or sizzling chorizo sausages. Nor did she stick rigidly to recipes and make the rest of us feel inferior for allowing our soufflés to sink. Instead, she was unsnobbish and fun to watch. The result was more than 1.5 million viewers and a book that is already a bestseller.
Khoo puts her success down to knowing what she wanted. Beneath the pretty frocks and sunny disposition, there lies willpower and determination as sharp as a Sabatier chef’s knife.
“At the beginning, I said [to the production company]: ‘It’s a collaboration,’” she says firmly. “I made it quite clear that I want to be female-friendly. I don’t want to be too sexualised because a woman in a kitchen is already a loaded image. I want to be taken seriously: I can cook, I do have qualifications, OK, I do make mistakes, but I want to show that on camera. I’m not perfect. I’m someone who works hard, who is serious about what they’re doing. It’s substance over style.”
She even insisted the pilot episode be tested on women to see whether they would relate to her. The focus groups loved it. “I bribed them all with cake,” she says, half-joking.
Food has always been an important part of Khoo’s life. Her father is Malay-Chinese and her mother is Austrian – they met, somewhat improbably, in Croydon where Khoo and her younger brother, Michael, were born and raised. The mixed cultural heritage made for some interesting family meals. “In Malaysia, they don’t ask you how you are, they ask ‘Have you eaten?’” Khoo explains. At home, there would be “schnitzel, stir fries, rendang curry and we always had a Sunday roast like beef with Yorkshire pudding, so it was a real melting pot.”
When Khoo was 12, the family moved to Germany for her father’s work (he has a job in IT). For the next four years, she attended a convent school and picked up the language, before moving back to England to sit her GCSEs. It wasn’t until she graduated with a degree in art and design from Central Saint Martins and worked for a few years in London as a fashion PR for the clothing chain Thomas Pink (“There were a lot of free shirts,” she says. “Also a lot of ironing”) that Khoo realised she wanted food to become her career. In 2006, she moved to Paris with £600 in her pocket and a desire to learn how to cook French pastries. She enrolled in French courses at La Sorbonne, got a job as an au pair with a Parisian family and signed up to Le Cordon Bleu culinary school.
“My parents thought I was mad,” she recalls. “It was: ‘Why are you giving up a good job in London? You should pay off your student loan!’ People at work were really jealous. They thought going to Paris to bake cakes sounded amazing.”
It wasn’t easy. For a while, Khoo eked out a living on €80 a week, supplementing her au pair wages with stints as a perfume girl in the Printemps department store. “Even though I was on a budget, I could afford to go to the fresh food market and get baguette and cheese. That kind of food is not really accessible to you in London. I really love that in Paris, there is no division [in food] by social class.”
By 2010, she had graduated from Le Cordon Bleu and given up au pairing to set up a pop-up restaurant in her minuscule flat. She only had room for two diners at a time but when dates were advertised on social media sites, they were often snapped up within 20 seconds. The French response was overwhelmingly positive – she wrote two cookbooks in her adopted homeland before becoming known in the UK.
One of the admirable things about Khoo is that her success has been self-generated. The Little Paris Kitchen came about only because she emailed Penguin in London asking for a meeting. She walked in and after 30 minutes had sold a book of 120 recipes. She then set about finding a production company to pitch the idea for a TV series. Until recently, she did all her publicity and built her own website, “just because I couldn’t afford to hire people. I would try and barter a cake for some help with coding. I’m not the best coder,” she says apologetically. “I have some basic HTML but that’s about it.”
Now that Khoo has hit the big time, she needn’t worry about bartering. She has plans for a new book and is revelling in once again being able to cook in her own kitchen without “contorting myself in different ways” so that the cameraman can get his shot. Otherwise, she insists not much has changed. But now that she is no longer having to live on €80 a week, she has rewarded herself with one small indulgence. “I bought a mini-washing machine,” she says with a grin. “That’s how I celebrated.”
Just like mother said, Rachel Khoo is really very normal indeed.