Peter Wilmoth talks to ‘global cooking sensation’ Rachel Khoo in South Yarra

Rachel Khoo comes to Melbourne

Rachel Khoo. Photo: Pal Hansen \ Contour by Getty Images

When she was trying to sell the idea for her cooking show to production companies a few years ago, it didn’t take long for Rachel Khoo to develop a strong suspicion of those who thought playing on her sex appeal might be a marketing winner.

“I noticed when I was going around the production companies there was a tendency to push you into a very sexualised [area]. I am who I am and I didn’t want to be made into some caricature. Queen of Tarts. That says it all.”

“Queen of Tarts” was the name for the show suggested by one producer. She didn’t pursue that one. “I just said, ‘No. I’m not working with you’.”

 

She also mentions the headline on a piece about her on a news website: “Sexy chef happy to hustle for fame”.

“I tell my mum, ‘Please don’t read anything’. OK, it’s very flattering that people think I’m sexy but it’s also very derogatory in terms of your work and how hard you work. Maybe everything’s so visual these days but I find it difficult. Maybe I should just wear a sack.”

Rachel, 34, is TV’s latest food-presenting star: indeed as one London newspaper called her, “a global cooking sensation”. It’s not hard to see why publishers and television production companies have pursued her: alongside cooking smarts, drawing skills from her art and design background (her drawings grace her books) and her obvious love of food, Rachel – helped along by her penchant for retro-vintage dresses – projects an irresistible olde-worlde charm. One British journalist called her “a modern Audrey Hepburn”.

We’ve met at the Lyall Hotel in South Yarra on a warm autumn morning. She’s just finished filming a new eight-part series for SBS called Rachel Khoo’s Kitchen Notebook: Melbourne, in which she explores the local food culture on which the city prides itself.

She’s a warm presence and seemingly unaffected by the attention she receives. She pulls her new book, Rachel Khoo’s Kitchen Notebook, out of her bag and hands it to me – a task usually undertaken by a public relations person – and says she hopes I enjoy it.

Melbourne, says Rachel, was a natural choice for the series. “When we discussed doing a TV show in Australia other places were thrown up and people said, ‘You’ve got to come to Melbourne’. Sydney came up – sorry if you’re from Sydney. I said, ‘I’ve been to Melbourne before, I have a lot of friends in the food scene there and I know it’s a really vibrant and diverse scene’. And, in terms of representing what’s happening, this is the place to be.”

She grew up in London with an Austrian mother and a Malaysian father. “It was mainly Asian – Malaysian and Chinese – with the odd schnitzel thrown in,” she says of the family food. “And, on the weekend, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding or roast lamb with mint sauce. It was like the United Nations on the table.”

She later worked in public relations, as an au pair and sold perfume in a department store before moving to Paris, where she lived for eight years.

A graduate in pastry cooking from the French school Le Cordon Bleu, she came to prominence, first in the UK in 2012 with a show called The Little Paris Kitchen, in which she would cook classic French dishes with her own twist in her tiny studio apartment. The sheer simplicity of the idea, or the allure of a Paris apartment – however tiny – made it a ratings winner, attracting two million viewers to the BBC.

It was in that flat that, for a time, she ran Paris’s smallest restaurant, squeezing in just four diners at a time for lunch – curious Parisians and others who’d been alerted to the opportunity on social media.

“I did Wednesdays and Saturdays, because those were the days the local market was on,” she says. “I did lunch because I felt a bit uncomfortable having strangers coming over in the evening.”

She found it a useful way to test recipes for her cookbooks and not waste the food, so she did not charge full price. “I’d go to the butcher, the cheese lady, the wine guy, do my little tour,” she says. “The customers would get whatever I was serving. One woman said, ‘As long as there’s no cow’s head’. I said, ‘Don’t’ worry, I couldn’t fit that in my oven’.”

Having enjoyed the restaurant experience and wondering how she could take her cooking further, she emailed some publishers and, out of 10 emails, scored three meetings. After negotiating a book deal with Penguin, she then sold the idea of a cooking show based in her little Paris apartment to the BBC.

She has now published five cookbooks and the Melbourne programs are her fifth TV series. Earlier this year she was part of a BBC series called A Cook Abroad, in which she travelled to Malaysia to cook with her extended family at her uncle’s house. For Rachel, it was using food as a way of connecting.

“What I love is you can explore a different culture through the food,” she says. “Food really brings people together. Everybody has an opinion about food and it’s a softer way to get to know people instead of asking these hard questions.”

Did she feel Malaysian on the trip? “I definitely felt a connection but, because I don’t speak Bahasa Malaysia or Cantonese or Hokkien, the dialect my family speak, it’s still jarring a bit, whereas when I go to Austria I speak German.”

Rachel Khoo. Photo: Supplied

Rachel Khoo. Photo: Supplied

She is convinced of food’s capacity to bring people together. “I remember when I was studying French at La Sorbonne and there was another English girl in the class and we immediately became best friends because we were both British. We had to do a presentation about our culture in French. I said, ‘Let’s do scones and tea-time’. So we did. Then everybody started to do presentations about their home food, and we’d get Mexican, Italian foods … all sorts. It doesn’t matter where I go in the world, when it comes to food people always light up.”

The new series will feature Rachel living in Melbourne like a local, in an inner-city apartment, cooking some of the recipes she has found on her travels in Victoria.

In a show that is a mix of food showcase and travelogue, she visits Lygon Street, Brunswick Street, Chinatown (with local chef Tony Tan), picks fruit at an orchard in the Yarra Valley, samples local produce on the Bellarine Peninsula, stops for coffee in numerous cafés, samples from a gourmet food truck and goes bike riding around St Kilda.

She meets local families – including from the Italian and Vietnamese cultures – spending time in their kitchens. “It’s overwhelming the diversity you have here – from Italian, Greek, Malaysian – young chefs doing their own thing,” she says. “It’s a really vibrant good scene.”

Since childhood Rachel’s great passion has been pastry. “I did a lot of baking with Mum as a kid. And Grandma would make strudel; making the dough was very complicated.”

She likes the social nature of pastry. “For me food is not just about eating; I love the social aspect of it.”

After eight years in Paris, Rachel now lives in London. She declines to talk about a partner in her life but she will say how much she’s looking forward to a short break in Bali. “I’m looking forward to no make-up, and I’m going try some surfing and some yoga.”

I ask for her impressions of Australian food, and suggest that Italian seems to be our national cuisine. “I still can’t put my finger on what Australian food is,” she says. “I think it’s still trying to find its identity. That’s what’s exciting about Australian food – there are no rules and people can be creative.

“What’s being created now is this new melting pot of culinary history.”

Rachel’s career trajectory has been swift. She is powering forward in books, television and on social media where she has legions of followers. The only ripple on her golden pond seems to be how some media chooses to position women in the media.

In 2012 the London Evening Standard couldn’t quite contain itself, saying she was “charming everyone from French fishermen to besotted viewers”, going on to say: “Watch out Gordon [Ramsay]. She’s prettier than you and a lot more seductive”.

Still, she seems well equipped to handle the heat and has no interest in ceding control or being objectified. “With all my projects I’m very hands-on, I’m not just a pretty face in front of the camera,” she says. “Even though I like pretty clothes and I like lipstick – that’s who I am. I’ve done consulting, teaching pâtisserie, I am educated and I want to project an image where there’s substance behind the style.”

When in Melbourne:

Pope Joan Brunswick East

“We went to [British chef Matt Wilkinson’s] vegetable allotment and he was saying, ‘There’s a pomegranate tree, there’s a peach tree’. Settlers had planted the trees and he said it was such a shame that people just don’t use the fruit. People bring in boxes of fruit to him; he’s got the locals involved. He’s got two little ladies bringing in their figs.”

Bluebonnet Collingwood

“This [Texan-style smokehouse barbecue] was absolutely amazing. He [Chris Terlikar] used a smoke machine from some casino. It’s not just the meat that’s good, he pays great attention to the side dishes – the coleslaw and pickles are all homemade.”

Chinatown “Local chef Tony Tan showed me around. He knows a lot about the history of Chinatown … told the story of the Gold Rush and the [Chinese] settlers and the influence they had. It’s a big part of the culture.”

I Love Pho Richmond

“It’s a family business, so you go into the kitchen and there’s granny sitting in the corner and the father and the son and everybody’s running around and the pho’s so good. It’s how you would have it in Vietnam.”

Nikos Quality Cakes Oakleigh

“They’ve been making amazing pastries since 1987 and have a stunning window display.”

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