Rachel Khoo has had a busy year. She usually has a full plate, but this past year has been especially eventful for the British cook, social media star and television personality. She renovated a new studio for her online lifestyle magazine Khoollect, wrote a new cookbook, and oh, she had a baby. If there's anything that we can say about Khoo, it's that life does not sit still with her.
“I decided this year that I need to do a little bit less. But even my doing less is too much,” laughed Khoo in a Skype interview from somewhere in the Swedish countryside. It was eight in the morning there and already she was sounding bright and chirpy, fielding questions to promote the cookbook, The Little Swedish Kitchen.
She talked about her new life in Sweden (where she now lives with her family), a foreign country with which she needs to familiarise herself again. “The way I usually integrate into a culture is through the food. It's a good way of learning about the culture and learning the language,” said Khoo. It's not unusual that food would be an important connection to her new abode. After all, she became famous as the winsome English girl turning out classic French dishes with her own fresh approach from a tiny Parisian kitchen.
Naturally, she has turned her experiences with Swedish cuisine into a cookbook, divided into the four seasons and peppered with personal anecdotes. “In my introduction, I've clearly stated that this is not a 101 on every Swedish dish there is. This is my way of discovering my new home. That's why it's a personal story in that sense,” she explained. “Some people would go, ‘Oh, but this is the traditional way of doing it, you can't change it.’ And I go, but why not try? It's not always successful but you never know. I'm always open to trying new things out.”
For example, with the classic beef bourguignon from her Parisian days, Khoo gave it her personal twist by adding baguette dumplings. In her new cookbook, she gives the recipe for vegetarian Swedish meatballs; it was at the insistence of her husband that she included the meat version as well.
This playfulness with flavours is probably a product of her mixed cultural upbringing. Born in south London to a Malaysian father and an Austrian mother, she had a jumble of culinary influences for her family’s dining table. “I grew up with rendang and chicken porridge, and we always had Sunday roast at home as well as schnitzel and fries. There would be a lot of flavours involved. I always say it was like having the United Nations on the table.”
A graduate of Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design, Khoo embarked on her working life as a fashion PR and marketing rep in London. In a mid-career reflection, she decided to pursue her dream of going to Le Cordon Bleu in Paris for a pastry diploma. “I was only intending to do it for a year, and if it didn't work out, I'd just go back to London and get a job.” That was almost eight years ago, and Khoo hasn't had to resort to her fallback plan.
This is thanks to her indefatigable enthusiasm and go-getting attitude. Success did not come to Khoo on a silver platter. In Paris, she worked as an au pair while attending school and struggling with loneliness and the French language. She then worked at the delightful La Cocotte, a culinary bookstore and tea salon, where she was meeting authors, catering for book launches and hosting cooking classes. Meanwhile, she was hosting private dinners at her tiny Parisian apartment. “I was out hustling, approaching people instead of waiting for people to come to me. I was knocking on doors,” she said.
Her time at La Cocotte resulted in two cookbooks in French. With that, Khoo cold-called publishers and presented them with a PDF layout full of ideas for an English-language cookbook. Her first, The Little Paris Kitchen, was published by Penguin. She now has six cookbooks to her name.
But what really launched Khoo into food stardom was her BBC2 hit The Little Paris Kitchen, which aired in 2012. Again, it was she who approached the production houses. The appeal was her wide-eyed ingenuousness, packaged in bright lipsticks and whimsical full-skirted dresses. She made cooking seem casual and fun without getting caught up in culinary perfectionism. Khoo cooks like we do. She dusts her clothes with flour, gets on her hands and knees to plug in the blender, and almost forgets about ingredients in the flurry of cooking.
Since the success of The Little Paris Kitchen, more shows have followed, including co-hosting Australia's Just Desserts. In one episode of A Cook Abroad, she goes food hunting in her father's home country, Malaysia.
“You can't sit on your hands. Nothing comes from nothing. One of my pet hates is people telling me that I'm an overnight success or that I was so lucky. I was very fortunate to have been in the right place at the right time and meeting with the right people but most of it came from sheer hard work and determination,” she said.
Away from the cameras, Khoo maintains an active social media presence and updates her Instagram with bright and cheerful images of food and daily life. She is also the founder and editor-in-chief of Khoollect, which dispenses curated dining, travel, fashion and beauty news. “We are at an age where we have the tools. You can create your own small community yourself. It is a lot of hard work and you won't get rich quick, but you can do it if you are passionate about it,” she advised.
Our time is almost up and as we are winding down, I ask if there's a possibility of a little Malaysian cookbook. “That is something that I would love to do. I love the diversity of food there,” Khoo enthused. “For me, food is a lot about sharing and that's what I love about visiting relatives in Malaysia and Singapore. It's all about sharing dishes.”