From art student to fashion PR to her new programme on BBC 2 – The Little Paris Kitchen, and book of the same name; Rachel Khoo is the new darling of cooking television – bubbly, effervescent and too cute to comment, we caught up with her to find out exactly what the Parisians know about cooking that we don’t!
How did you go from Central Saint Martins studying Art and Design, to cooking?
When I was at Saint Martins I worked at the Sunday Times Style magazine – I met a food stylist on a photo shoot and started assisting her, but at uni I had an interest in food as well: we had a project once to create a shop front and I made mine entirely out of gingerbread! When I graduated I couldn’t find a paid job with food, so I went into fashion PR until I finally decided to go back and study; I thought ‘I could study at the Cordon Bleu in London, or I could go to Paris!’
Your dishes are always extremely pretty! As an artist as well as a cook, do you think aesthetics are important in food?
If it’s visually appetizing it’s more interesting to eat than if you just slop it on a plate! I went to Septime in the 11th District recently – the chef there used to be a graphic designer, and his food is just stunning! Obviously it tastes amazing as well, but I enjoy making things look pretty.
Obviously in terms of cooking everyone knows Paris for …
Exactly … but what was the lure of the city for you?
I had spent a lot of time in London – I grew up in south London and then went on to study at Saint Martin’s. I wanted to learn French, and have the excitement of discovering another city. Paris is beautiful and has an amazing lifestyle and history – it’s not just about the food.
I try to keep it simple. What I cook depends a lot on what’s in season and I try not to overwork ingredients. My kitchen is basic – I have hardly any work surface so practically I can’t have lots of pots and pans … plus I hate washing up!
What do you enjoy most about cooking?
If I am cooking for people then it’s the pleasure of cooking for someone – I like the social aspect; people are scared to cook for me now, but I would be happy with beans on toast – it’s a real gift to cook for someone.
You new book covers all manner of foods, but your passion seems to be sweets and pastries – have you always had a sweet tooth?
Always, I will happily have a cake before lunch – being able to have sweets whenever you want is the best thing about being grown up! But what drew me to patisserie is that people love sweets – if you go to a friend’s house you are more likely to take a cake than a pot-roast – there’s a giving and sharing element that I love.
Do you think the Parisiennes know something about cooking that the rest of us don’t?
I think they have one up in the sense that every neighbourhood has a fresh food market at least twice a week and it’s accessible to everyone – I could afford it as a student, but in London the farmers’ markets are very expensive. Good produce is easier to find, which influences the way you cook – you don’t have to do as much. That’s more the advantage here than the cooking technique.
What’s your greatest food indulgence?
I have a real cheese problem – I looooooove cheese! I always ask my local cheese lady for a little bit and every time she gives me a huge piece and I eat it all. Cheese and crackers – Wensleydale or Camembert especially.
Do you think it’s possible to be decadent and healthy at the same time?
Yes, I think so. If you cook a lot from scratch instead of ready meals you are already doing yourself a favour because you decide the fats and salt content, but for me it’s all about balance and moderation. I don’t eat croissants every day, but I am a croissant snob so if I am going to have one it has to be the best – that way you usually don’t need as much of something.
You cook beautiful food for everyone else … what do you do at home?
It’s usually whatever’s in my fridge, so yesterday I had roasted parsnips, watercress, mushroom shavings and olive oil. I go shopping in the market so it’s always seasonal, and I am not a big meat eater – I am a bit of a flexitarian – if I am going to have meat it has to be very high quality, otherwise I would rather not have it and as I don’t have it that often I can afford to spend a bit more when I do.
Do you get much time to relax?
It’s essential to take time out, even though my job is something I love. Paris has definitely taught me the importance of a work/life balance – going to a spa is great because you put your phone away and you don’t have people trying to get you by email. I could fall asleep having a massage – you could have me there snoring and dribbling away!
Rachel is giving you a couple of her recipes to try from her book The Little Paris Kitchen (£20, published by Penguin/ Michael Joseph Hardback) … so keep an eye on the blog!
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