Half-Malaysian, half-Austrian British TV chef Rachel Khoo has cooked her way into the hearts of many with her everyday brand of cooking.
YOU could be forgiven for thinking that Rachel Khoo was engineered in a BBC studio somewhere, so widespread and apparent is her appeal.
Wholesome, bubbly and refreshingly normal, she has all the genuine charm of homemade apple pie.
In Kuala Lumpur recently to promote her third TV show, Rachel Khoo’s Kitchen Notebook: Cosmopolitan Cook, the self-described “food creative” first rose to fame with her television debut in 2012.
The Little Paris Kitchen: Cooking with Rachel Khoo won her legions of fans. Using a gas stove in her diminutive kitchen, she whipped up dish after dish of French classics, Khoo-style. Unabashedly girly, the show featured shots of her cooking in her Thumbelina-sized apartment with picturesque panoramas of Parisian life.
There was a bohemian sensibility to it all: this London-born girl with a Croydon accent appeared to have been transplanted to romantic Paris, where she spent her days navigating the city markets for fresh ingredients to use in her gorgeous food.
Seemingly out of nowhere, a celebrity chef was born. Telegenic and winsome, Rachel Khoo and her twee vintage wardrobe were ushered into the spotlight.
She became the newest addition to the pantheon of British celebrity chefs, even drawing comparisons to Nigella Lawson. But that is an unfair comparison.
For a start, she lacks Nigella’s come-hither provocativeness, or litany of public scandals.
But perhaps most surprising, in the age of celebrity chefs, is that Rachel Khoo does not want that title.
“When people give me the celebrity chef title, I always cringe. My work always comes back to food writing, whether it’s TV, books, or events. I’d rather have that title [food writer] than the celebrity chef,” she says.
In person, she is petite and pretty, outfitted in a white top, blue gingham skirt and a wraparound scarf (she did live in Paris for eight years, after all). She speaks expressively and with animated hands, her slightly digressive replies frequently punctuated by an infectious cackle.
She is keen to dispel the myth that she is an overnight success. She says that before The Little Paris Kitchen was filmed, she had already written two cookbooks in French and was nearing the completion of her first in English (also entitled The Little Paris Kitchen).
Far from being plucked out of a Parisian alley and thrust into fame, she had actually visited scores of production companies in London to pitch the idea for the TV show before it was picked up.
“There were years between of working very hard and having five different jobs. Looking after kids, teaching English and working in department stores – it didn’t happen overnight,” she insists.
The 34-year-old started her professional career in fashion PR. Finding it did not suit her, she upped and moved to Paris to enroll in a Patisserie course at Le Cordon Bleu.
In between perfecting soufflés and working as an au pair, she developed a passion for traditional French cuisine, simply because “that’s the sort of food you cook there.”
Her new TV show, where she plays the titular cosmopolitan cook, sees her journey to ten destinations in Europe to seek culinary inspiration. It is a way to distance herself from French cooking and to demonstrate her ability to master a diversity of cuisines.
Having moved back to London, she invites viewers into her larger kitchen to marvel at new Khool creations.
“Essentially, I think my style is that I’m a bit of a magpie. I take inspiration from places around the world. I cook whatever I fancy, but always bearing in mind that the recipe should be approachable to home cooks.”
And therein lies her special appeal: she is accessible and approachable, recipe-wise and as a food personality. She is so ordinary that she becomes extraordinary.
She is no Gordon Ramsay, with his Michelin stars and his expletive-laden diatribes. Nor is she Heston Blumenthal, the kitchen scientist who alienates as much as he inspires with his molecular gastronomy. She is you, me and everybody else. If Khoo can do it, so can you.
At her media masterclass in Starhill Culinary Studio, she amply displayed this everywoman personality. Instructing her students to disregard the troop of photographers in attendance, she paid one-on-one attention to each of us as we made baked cheese cigars and a slaw.
Praise was effusive, whether deserved or not. The clumsy amateur with sausage fingers who ripped her filo pastry nearly in half was told not to worry and that “butter makes everything better.” The same neophyte who then over mixed her slaw into a watery grave was commended for “drawing inspiration from the sea.”
Under Rachel Khoo’s tutelage, you can and will triumph in the kitchen. Her detractors may scorn her dishes as subpar and without the creative genius of a Heston Blumenthal, but then why should it matter?
She admits to it herself: “My books and TV programmes are for everyday cooks. In general, my recipes you can make on a Monday or a Sunday. These are recipes for everyday situations.”
Apart from her simple approach to cooking and her bonhomie personality, she is of especial interest to Malaysians because her father is Malaysian – an Ipoh boy who moved to Britain to study at 16 and never returned. Khoo says she grew up eating Malaysian staples like “beef rendang, curry, chicken porridge and lots of stir-fries.”
Here and there, she has incorporated Malaysian cooking techniques into her recipes. Her take on coq au vin was inspired by satay. While it retains the traditional French flavours, the meat is skewered and the red wine sauce is used as a dipping sauce.
She laments that Malaysian cuisine has been overlooked in favour of Vietnamese and Thai food. In fact, she will be filming a one-hour special for BBC2 during her stay to explore her heritage and promote local food. She will head to Ipoh and Penang, amongst other foodie haunts.
She is also excited for the publication of her fifth cookbook, Rachel Khoo’s Kitchen Notebook, slated for release in February.
It seems like this one-woman show is programmed for global domination, and Rachel Khoo’s success is no flash in the pan.
Rachel Khoo’s Kitchen Notebook: Cosmopolitan Cook airs every weekday at 4.05pm on BBC Lifestyle (HyppTV Channel 620). The series also airs every Tuesday at 8pm on the same channel. Although the series ends its original run on Dec 23, Hypp TV has plans for a rerun in March. Meanwhile, you can catch reruns of The Little Paris Kitchen and Kitchen Notebook: London starting Jan 28, every weekday, at 5.50pm on HyppTV Channel 620.