Megan Abbott

At Home with: Rachel Khoo

Megan Abbott
At Home with: Rachel Khoo

Originally published on food52.com

Rachel Khoo is a woman of many talents. She can cook, break dance (she has a pair of knee pads tucked away in her house from her days in a Paris dancing crew), paint and turn the tiniest space into a multi-functional hub of activity. She first made her name turning her tiny Parisian apartment into the city’s smallest restaurant. She left her PR job in London to move to the French capital back in 2006, enrolling at La Sorbonne to learn French and Le Cordon Bleu to master the art of pâtisserie. “I could have done it in London, but I thought ‘why not do it in Paris?’” She remarks. As whimsical as it all appeared though, Rachel admits that her time in Paris was not always so sweet. “It took me two years to actually start liking Paris.” She tells us, “It was tough. I didn’t speak the language, I didn’t have money, I didn’t know anyone.” 

After graduating in 2010 she left her au pairing job to launch her own supper club. From her 21-metre-squared apartment in Belleville she began serving dinner to just two guests at a time. “I thought ‘ok, I don’t have the money to open a real restaurant, so I’ll just make a table for two’” She explains. “The French are quite traditional about the way they eat, so I was uncertain at first. But it seemed to work! It’s so funny, it was years ago now and people still are still asking if they can come to the kitchen for dinner!” 

With a little help from social media, Rachel’s kitchen table soon became the hottest spot in Paris. Following its success, Rachel penned The Little Paris Kitchen, a cookbook inspired by her time in Belleville. Celebrating all that she had learnt about classic French cooking with her own fresh approach, the book went on to be translated into fourteen languages. A wildly successful BBC tv show followed, launching Rachel towards celebrity cook status. Despite the giant critical success surrounding it, Rachel is still reluctant to glamourize her little eatery. “You know, I cooked in my living room.” She says, “I had a table for two and they’d sit and have a meal with me, it was all very simple. I was just doing my thing.”

All this feels like a lifetime ago for Rachel, who has since moved back to London and turned herself into a powerful one-woman brand. “It seems like a world away.” She laughs, “So much has happened since then.” Since her time in Paris there have been six further tv shows and four more cookbooks. “The years have blurred, really!” She laughs. 

Though her culinary roots are in French cooking, Rachel’s rich heritage goes some way to explaining her interest in foods from across the globe. She was born in south London to a Malaysian father and an Austrian mother. After moving to the outskirts of Munich at age twelve and attending a convent school, Rachel returned to the UK and went on to study art in London. This creative flair is alive in all that she does. Dotted around her bookshelf are her personal notebooks, which she has kept all her life. In them, she documents her adventures and recipes in handwritten notes and watercolour paintings. She pulls one down for us to look at. The thick pages fall open to reveal delicate paintings of flowers, colourful dishes and characters she has met on her travels. “It’s always kind of been my thing.” She tells us, “And that was the idea for the newest cookbook.” Her latest release is Rachel Khoo’s Kitchen Notebook. “There are so many food writers out there, the only way you can set yourself apart is by having your personal angle.” Rachel says, “Each book signifies a different time in my life. The Little Paris Kitchen was my time in Paris, My Little French Kitchen took me around France, this recent one brings together all my travels around the world.” 

We popped over to Rachel’s East London flat for lunch. It is both her home and the nucleus of her brand. She greets us at the door, a vision of colour with her signature red lips and patterned dress. Inside her kitchen, the colour continues. It is is flushed with pinks, greens and blues, from the utensils hanging from the shelves to the ceramic tiles above her sink. “I love colour.” She tells us, “I can’t completely change the kitchen right now, so my way of adding colour is with little splashes. Of course, it’s not my dream kitchen. But we’ll get there one day!” What would her dream kitchen look like? “Well, it would be bigger.” She says, “And there would be colour on the walls. One day I would love a really beautiful set of cutlery. I have such a random collection at the moment. And an island! I’ve always wanted an island.”

Looking at her kitchen, though, it is easy to tell that Rachel is practiced in the art of utilizing small spaces. Her walls are lined with shelves, stocked with jars and cooking equipment. She has built herself an extendable surface, which she slides across the room and begins chopping up vegetables on. “I grew up in a house where you make the most of what you have.” She says, “That’s what I did in Paris, and it’s what I’m doing here.” 

We take a moment to admire a framed picture on Rachel’s wall. It is the portrait of her along with the likes of Emma Thompson, Annie Lennox and Rita Ora, shot by Annie Leibovitz for Marks and Spencer’s 2014 ‘Leading Ladies’ campaign. It is a picture of female success, one that Rachel fits in to perfectly. “That was surreal.” She tells us, “Completely surreal!” 

Amid the “chaos” of her work, which takes her travelling “three weeks out of four”, Rachel treasures her home. “I’m away so much.” She says, “So when I’m here I’m happy to be a homebody. When you’re constantly away you just want your own bed.” “I only cook here if I’m recipe testing.” She continues, “Otherwise I just look in the fridge and try and come up with anything! Being precise with recipes can take the joy out of cooking. So it’s quite liberating to just cook whatever you feel like for yourself.”

We join Rachel’s small team at the table for lunch. We gather around on a jumble of chairs. Lunch had been whipped up in a flurry of noises and smells. The timer sang, the pots sizzled, and all the while Rachel was completely engaged in our conversation. “This kitchen is rarely a calm place!” She laughs, “I set the oven on fire the other day…mess is a common occurrence in here.” Lunch is a Rachel Khoo classic – sticky chicken with a Malaysian pineapple salad. We ask if her father has approved the recipe. “I don’t think I’ve actually cooked this for him you know!” She says, “I love Malaysian food for so many reasons. In Malaysia, they don’t ask you how you are, they ask you if you’ve eaten yet.”

Rachel’s friend drops by to say hello, and she immediately fills up a plate for her. She is a natural feeder. Which is why we felt completely at home asking for seconds. The sweet, rich chicken was followed by a giant coconut cake, which came topped with passion fruit and peels of sweet mango. It is a recipe from her next book, which will be shot this year. She is also at work launching her brand new blog. “I’ve gotten to the point where I want to try new things and get behind the camera.” She says, “I’m going to use the new blog as a platform for that.”

Flicking through Rachel Khoo’s Kitchen Notebook, we notice how the book exemplifies all that the public loves about her. It is personal, warm and authentic. As well as her cooking talent, it is Rachel’s vibrant personality that has steered her achievements. She is a mass of energy and drive, and has created success for herself. She worked hard to saved up enough money to study in Paris, and she was the one to approach Penguin with The Little Paris Kitchen. She was also the one to pitch the idea of a television series to follow. Her enthusiasm is the driving force behind her, both in the kitchen and out of it. “This is a tough industry, and I had to work really hard to get here.” She says, dashing from cupboard to cupboard, “It’s not always easy, but I want my life to be driven by the work I find exciting. I’ve never had a big budget, but I’ve made it happen because I want a creative platform for myself. I’ve always believed that you do what you can with what you have.”