Rachel Khoo sprays her hairspray on herself, not her food.
With her red lipstick, polka dot skirts and toothy smile, Khoo knows there’s real merit in looking good.
But aesthetics should never steal the limelight from a well-made dish, she says. “There’s no hairspray on my food for the cameras. It’s eaten afterwards.
“Sure I have experience in food styling and I know how to twist a plate to get the best angle or pile the food to get the best shot. But when you’re at home, you’re just hungry.”
The part Malaysian, part Austrian chef enjoys nothing more than beans on toast on a lazy night in. Or cheese and crackers if she’s had a really hard day. She spices baked beans up with Tabasco or Worcestershire sauce and her fridge is always brimming with dairy products.
“I’m a bit of a dairy queen. I always have cheese, butter and creme fraiche. And I always have a bit of chilli sauce. I like a bit of heat – that’s my Malaysian roots.”
Sometimes she will make a big vegetable curry and freeze it so she has something quick to tuck into. “Curry is probably the worst kind of food to photograph, though. It never looks as delicious as a piece of cake.”
For TV, you do your best to make food look as good as possible, she says.
In saying that, some of the world’s greatest chefs are swinging too much the other way. It was in the restaurant of a well-known Parisian chef that she was served the worst dessert she’s ever tasted.
“They made a white chocolate mousse with cauliflower. Cauliflower! It was revolting.
“You can’t just put a vegetable in a dessert and say it’s beautiful, it’s avant-garde.”
Khoo thinks it’s funny how food moves with fashion. Michelin star chefs copy each other and home cooks end up copying them, she says.
“I always think of the Meryl Streep character in The Devil Wears Prada who says that blue jumper was influenced by da-de-da and now you’re wearing it.
“Chefs are all influenced by their colleagues. One year I saw everyone using radishes and slicing them on a mandolin. It was hilarious.”
Having travelled throughout Europe and inheriting a love of Asian cooking, Khoo describes herself as a cultural melting pot of a chef. She found fame with her book and TV series, Little Paris Kitchen, after living in Paris for eight years, yet it’s evident where her loyalty lies.
“Sometimes I’m walking down the street in London and someone will say ‘aren’t you that French woman off the TV’
“Paris for me, will always have that precious place in my heart – the markets, the food culture. But what Paris doesn’t have, London has – that real energy and dynamic food culture, a melting-pot culture.”
While filming for Rachel Khoo’s Kitchen Notebook: London, Khoo enjoyed meeting characters who gave up their careers to become chefs. Paris just isn’t like that, she says.
Parisians are, in comparison, after an easier life and the city isn’t set up for entrepreneurs. There’s too much paper work involved, she says.
Little Paris Kitchen only took off when she returned home. “It was a breath of fresh air.”
There’s now a second series coming from Rachel Khoo’s Kitchen Notebook, this time she’s taking ideas from all over Europe. All up there are 20 episodes in the entire series plus a book containing recipes from the show plus 50 or 60 extras.
“I’m not someone who can just be in the kitchen and come up with an idea. I’m always fascinated with different cultures I’m not familiar with.”
One such culture is the Turkish. While filming in Istanbul, Khoo found Turkish kebabs differ greatly from the imitations served at home.
“In Turkey they use a lot of dry herbs which is funny because in the UK everyone thinks fresh herbs are the best.
“But the dry herbs they had – thyme and mint – were very aromatic and that was a real eye-opener for me. Over there, dried herbs are fresh in the sense they aren’t on supermarket shelves for years.”
Khoo enjoyed meeting everyday cooks who were good at what they did, day in, day out. They didn’t have to be famous to be inspirational. But she did meet some who had very fancy skill sets indeed. Khoo’s most trying moment was having a go at pulling Chinese noodles.”It’s so amazing but they let me have a go and it was a disaster.
“It was me swinging this noodle dough and my noodles were as thick as skipping ropes. It made great TV but it was a disaster.”
In her home kitchen, cooking is much more simplistic.
In Paris, her beloved baked beans were tricky to get hold of. “You had to go to an expensive department store and pay €4.”
And as for Kiwi faire, Khoo is partial to New Zealand wine and all Brits know Kiwi lamb. But she is yet to venture here, though she would “looove to”, she says.
“New Zealand’s on my top five places that I want to visit. You watch the movies and see this stunning backdrop. which is obviously shot in New Zealand. It’s jaw-dropping.
“But I haven’t had the opportunity to. I’m just waiting for an invitation.”
Rachel Khoo’s Kitchen Notebook: London airs on Food TV from May 21.
– Sunday Star Times