Cooking up a storm

Big doesn’t always mean best, as television chef Rachel Khoo proved by creating and testing all the delicious recipes for her new book in the tiny kitchen of her bijou Parisian apartment, discovers Anna McKittrick

Unlike some women who follow the man of their dreams to France, for Rachel Khoo it was her culinary heart that led her to the French capital. “It wasn’t for a Frenchman that I moved to Paris, it was for the love of cakes,” laughs Rachel who is the latest English chef to give French cuisine a glamorous makeover with her new book The Little Paris Kitchen and accompanying television series.

When Rachel decided to embark on a p�tisserie course at the world-famous Le Cordon Bleu cookery school in Paris, little did she know that six years down the line she would have her own cookery book and be the star of a BBC 2 television programme. But she’s more than relishing the turn that her career has taken since she made the move across the Channel.

Rachel, who’s originally from Croydon, was working in fashion public relations after graduating from Central St Martin’s College of Art and Design when she decided to pursue her dream of studying at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.

“I could’ve done the p�tisserie course in London,” remembers Rachel. “But I thought, ‘Why not do it in Paris where you can learn about p�tisserie but you can also go to all the amazing p�tisseries while discovering another culture and learning another language?’”

Studying at the prestigious cookery school doesn’t come cheap and Rachel saved up for a year to pay for the €8,000 three-month course. “I only did the basic course because I couldn’t afford to do anything longer. For me it was more interesting to learn the basics and then get work experience. I think you learn a lot more when you’re out and about and if you want to learn French, you need to work with French people and integrate. What better way to learn than in a Parisian environment?” says Rachel.

When she finished at Le Cordon Bleu, Rachel got a job at La Cocotte, a small cookery bookshop and tea salon in the 11th arrondissement, where she used to bake biscuits and cakes along with catering for book launches and hosting cookery classes. It was a great opportunity not only for improving her French but also for gaining the culinary work experience she craved.

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When she first arrived in Paris Rachel only spoke basic French and it took time for her to settle down in her adopted homeland.

“The first two years in Paris were awful; I didn’t like it to be honest. I didn’t know anybody, the family I was au pairing for were really nice, but it’s quite lonely. If you don’t speak French it’s very hard, so for me the beginning was difficult. When I started to learn French I found a good way of meeting people and starting a conversation in French was to talk about food, because the French always have an opinion about food,” says Rachel.

Paris grew on her slowly and she now loves it, especially the little corner of the city that she calls home. Rachel lives in the trendy neighbourhood of Belleville in the 19th arrondissement, which she likens to Hackney in London. “I really like the neighbourhood because it’s very mixed and vibrant,” enthuses Rachel.

“There’s a big Chinese community, North Africans, Africans, Jewish, young professionals and young families, so it’s very different to the other neighbourhoods of Paris and it’s affordable to live in.”

Her apartment is tiny at only 21 square metres, hence the title of the book The Little Paris Kitchen, but it was in this small space that she created and tested all of the 120 recipes that feature in her new book. “The whole point of this cookbook is that it’s classic French recipes. But because of my kitchen I’ve had to keep it quite simple, although I’ve added my own fresh twist to it,” she says. “If you have a small space you can’t do complicated dishes like Michelin-starred chefs do, so that’s why the book’s the way it is.”

When it came to choosing the recipes to include in her book, Rachel says she based the chapters around her typical week in Paris and what she cooks and eats. “During the week you keep your food simple, so lunches and dinners are quite easy and then you might have an ap�ritif when you meet your friends in the evening, so there are little recipes to go with that. And then you have dinners where you want to spend a bit more time and cook something stunning for friends and family. And of course there’s p�tisserie, which is a big part of why I came to Paris.”

It was once Rachel got the book deal that she decided to set up a supper club, La Petite Cuisine � Paris, in her apartment. Although Rachel had run pop-up restaurants, they had always been on a bigger scale and the tiny proportions of her Paris apartment meant she could only welcome two diners at a time.

But Rachel says it worked well: “It was a great way of testing recipes, not wasting food and meeting new people. I cooked and then sat down and ate with people who came from all over the world. It was not just about the eating, it was about the experience of having lunch together. It’s the way in France that you take time over a meal. It’s changing slightly now, but traditionally you would have three courses and a glass of wine, so that was the idea behind the supper club.”

She hosted the lunch-time event on Wednesdays and Saturdays to coincide with the days her local market is held, and went every morning to source delicious fresh ingredients from the market, before heading back to her little kitchen. It’s the food markets that Rachel loves so much about not only her quartier, but also about the city in general.

“The fresh food markets in Paris are something that’s affordable for everyone. I could even shop there when I was on an au pair’s budget.”

Rachel describes the food scene in Paris as exciting and says “it’s definitely a great city to be in if you love food.”

So it’s no surprise that Paris is the perfect fit for Rachel, whose relaxed approach to French cooking is proving to be a big hit on both sides of the Channel.