Without wishing to get all Dr Johnson about it, the surprise is not that Rachel Khoo cooks well, which she does. The surprise is that she does it at all. You see, Khoo operates several flights up within a rather shabby-chic block, in a flat that is weeny even in Parisian “appartement” terms. In total, it is 22 square metres in size. That’s about as big as a double bedroom.
Entering it feels like arriving in a treehouse. There’s a tiny little hall, a titchy bathroom and a diminutive living room, where she sleeps. And there’s a little kitchen. Rachel’s little kitchen. In Paris. This is her definition, indeed, it’s the title of her book and accompanying TV show, which is in the process of being filmed when I visit.
“Hello!” she cries. Only I can’t see her. The figure of the director and the cameraman are enough to entirely obscure Rachel in her broom cupboard, sorry, kitchen. In all, there are five of us in the flat, and it is chocka. All I can see is a vintage-looking colander hanging on the wall. And a pair of feet in socks.
These belong to Rachel, who is standing in her kitchen rolling out dough and explaining that when you do this, it’s best to sandwich it within baking paper, so it doesn’t stick. It’s also good because it means you don’t have to cover your worktop with flour, which then gets everything all messy. You have to be neat when you work in a kitchen the size of a doormat.
“You have to think twice about what you buy, too,” she tells me later, over hot chocolate at Chérie, her favourite café down the road in the newly fashionable 13th arrondissement, near the Belleville Métro. “You have to really think about what you need.”
She’s not complaining. Khoo, 31, who was born and bred in Croydon, with a Malay-Chinese father and an Austrian mum, is quite petite herself. Equally fortunately, she appears to have brutal drive. This is essential.
Right now, the world of the television chef is, frankly, as full as a bowl of classic Italian minestrone soup. Except with giant egos instead of macaroni bobbing about in it.
To make it big in the world of the televised smile hovering over the expertly kneaded shortcrust pastry, to become famous on Planet TV Chef, you have not only to have talent, but you also need nuclear-powered self-belief, and you must have a gimmick.
This is crucial, as it will set you apart from all those other TV chefs who have their gimmicks, too – easy, sexy, fishy, French, cockney, foul-mouthed, and, er, very foul-mouthed.
We know them so well, they exist simply under these totems. Rachel will have to have her own niche, in order to compete. A microscopic kitchen, which is, of course, a niche in its own right, will do perfectly.
Khoo, who trained as a cordon bleu chef in Paris when she got fed up with working as a food stylist in London, has all of the above. She has talent. The gimmick is the tiny kitchen. And she has self-belief. Gallons of it. If you measured it, it would probably be larger than her flat, actually.
After ten years of messing around in London having trained in design, she decided she wanted to work in Paris. So she signed up for a patisserie cooking course at Le Cordon Bleu cookery school, where she says it was all, “Oui chef, non chef” and industrial quantities of eggs and butter.
She paid her way, via au pairing, selling perfume in department stores, anything to further the dream. Then she found a cookshop with a café attached. She talked her way in as the resident pastry chef, launching sessions like Pimp My Cupcake for elegant Parisian ladies who were curious to know more about British teatime.
She got a two-book deal. In French. The first one was about breakfast, the second was about tea. She started doing pop-up restaurants for commercial clients such as VW. She then got 30 minutes of pitch time at Penguin Books in London. She marched into the commissioning editor’s office and sold My Little Paris Kitchen, and then realised she would have to create 120 recipes for it.
“I won’t eat all this food!” thought Khoo. So she resourcefully turned her own flat, the Little Flat that contains the Little Kitchen, into a Little Pop-up Restaurant, charging 30 euros a person for a three-course meal, plus wine, twice a week. It was at exactly the time that pop-ups were all the rage. As well as a way for her to try out all her recipes, it was a fantastic story.
Newspapers from Italy to Brazil gave her column inches; My Little Paris Kitchen, the cooking concept, then got picked up by the BBC.
Flicking through the cookbook, the Khoo idea appears to be classic French cooking with a twist. Boeuf bourguignon with dumplings made from stale bread; coq au vin on a spit; winter salad with goat’s cheese mousse.
She feels French cuisine has been overlooked in the British obsession with only cooking, as she puts it, “lasagna, pizza and curry”, and wants to lead the charge to reintroduce the Gallic touch to our kitchens.
Does she have a life outside patisserie and pop-ups? It doesn’t look like there is room for much else. She will probably be a giant success, and be known on first-name terms before the year is out; she looks like Juliette Lewis, for a start, she is winningly down to earth (“If your quiche Lorraine has anything other than bacon, eggs and cream in it, it is not a quiche Lorraine,” I hear her telling the camera), and she is the real deal. She cooks in a tiny Paris flat, rather well.
“Oh, you don’t need a giant kitchen,” she breezes. Her first kitchen didn’t even have an oven. Or a fridge. What’s the bare minimum, then? “A hob. Running water. Some pots, and chef ’s knives. And a windowsill.”
What, for growing herbs? “No, for the fridge.”
Wouldn’t she love to have a giant kitchen with an island, an Aga and a breadmaker?
“No. I like small. It’s why I like living in Paris – it still feels quite small.” She goes to the local market twice a week and simply cooks what’s in season; she has a butcher and a baker and is a self-confessed croissant snob.
She doesn’t buy what she doesn’t need and she lives frugally, largely because her life has to be utterly minimalist, like her quiches. After all, it can be summarised by the contents of a single cupboard, a rather rickety shelving unit, and a tiny kitchen. She’s arrived at the right time, I think.
This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 13 March 2012.
The Little Paris Kitchen: Cooking with Rachel Khoo begins tonight at 8:30pm on BBC2/BBC HD