Contact At home with Rachel Khoo

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At home with Rachel Khoo

Rachel Khoo, the winsome chef who rose to fame baking soufflé and tarte tatin in her petite Paris kitchen, has a confession: she doesn’t watch cookery programmes and, shockingly, she doesn’t like The Great British Bake Off. When I watch cookery shows, I think, how did they film that? I’m looking at the camera angles it’s hard for me to watch, she explains. The one cookery/travel series I watch is Anthony Bourdain, but he is not so much about cooking. Its more about discovery.

Khoo, 35, has certainly clocked up some kudos on the adventure front, too. Born in Croydon to a Chinese-Malaysian father and an Austrian mother, she lived in Bavaria from the age of 12, after her fathers IT job took the family to Germany. Khoo returned to England for her A-levels, then studied art and design at Central Saint Martins. She did a two-week cookery course in the holidays at Leiths, where one of her classmates was a young Kate Middleton, then still studying at St Andrews. She was apparently keen to brush up on her cooking skills so she could make scrumptious dinners for her boyfriend.

At 26, Khoo jettisoned her London PR job to move to Paris and learn to bake at Le Cordon Bleu, even though she spoke barely a word of French. She contacted Penguin with the idea for the Little Paris Kitchen cookbook, which has since been translated into 12 languages, and led to a BBC Two series in 2012, pulling in almost 2m viewers.

Today, we drink tea in her current cuisine, which is about 300 miles from Paris in Hackney, east London. Khoos trademark lipsticked pout is daubed in bright fuchsia and she pads about in stockinged feet, her turquoise outfit perfectly matching the colour scheme in her cosy flat. She is approachable and bubbly: you wouldn’t be scared of showing her your soggy bottom. If you cant bake it, who cares? But if you don’t like eating cake, you’re not going to be a friend of mine, she laughs.

Khoo bought her new-build Hackney home, five minutes walk from Homerton station, direct from the developers for 330,000 almost two years ago, not long after her return from the French capital. I was renting in Paris, and part of the reason I had to move out was that the landlady wanted her apartment back, as her daughter was moving in. Also, it was the crummiest apartment ever. The wiring was from the 1960s, all the paint was falling off and you could hear the neighbours every Sunday evening at a certain time, certain things would go down.

For me, it was perfect, because I didn’t have a steady income, and the landlady was really kind, but I got to a point where I was hitting my early thirties and I was sleeping on a futon.

When Khoo returned to England, she rented in Mile End, east London, but soon engaged a buying agent to help her find a permanent home. Everybody thinks people on TV earn millions, but its not the case. My parents didn’t even help me with this apartment. I did it all on my own. I started queuing at 6.30 in the morning. Even so, I was third in line people had camped overnight. It was a cold day, and there was a queue of 150 people, but within five minutes, all the apartments had gone. I have never spent so much money in so little time.

Although Khoo has traded in her minuscule 226 sq ft Paris studio for a 539 sq ft two-bedder, space is still at a premium, particularly because she cant afford to rent additional offices. Her home doubles up as a studio for her YouTube recipe videos and for her new start-up business, khoollect.com, an online lifestyle magazine.

Yet, just as Nigella is the grande dame of suggestive spoon-licking and high-end cookware, Khoo is the patron saint of poky kitchens and small spaces, proving that you don’t need a giant range or acres of stainless-steel ork surfaces to whip up a peerless coq au vin. Ingenious space-saving features in her home include an 8.50 Ikea Mosslanda picture ledge, which she has fashioned into a spice rack above the sink, and the large bookshelf in the sitting area, which includes a cupboard to hide her computer and a foldaway dining table that can seat six, at a squeeze.

The top of the breakfast bar slides across to give extra preparation space when needed, and even the back of the Heals sofa can be flattened down, so she can watch television in comfort. Her favourite shows are BBC blockbusters such as Luther and War and Peace, and she loved the Golden Globe-winning series Mozart in the Jungle.

Khoos ottoman bed, another Ikea purchase at 309, has hidden storage space underneath. But best of all is the large desk in the second bedroom. With a gentle pull downwards, the flat surface folds magically into a double bed the computer, lamp, books and piles of files and notepads all blissfully undisturbed beneath. A double starts at 1,920, not including the mattress (studybed.co.uk).
There’s little room for fancy gadgets chez Khoo. She has only a KitchenAid and a 2 oven thermometer,which she swears by, while display crockery, colourful tea caddies and Bert & May tiles in her trademark blue and turquoise palette break up the white units and walls.

Speaking of which, you cant help but notice Khoo smiling out of a huge framed photograph hanging above the sofa, posing with Emma Thompson, Annie Lennox, Rita Ora and Baroness Lawrence. This is a memento from her starring role in the M&S spring/summer 2014 campaign, shot by Annie Leibovitz. This woman comes striding over with her flowing grey hair and gives me a hug, and I’m like, Oh my God, its Annie Leibovitz,Khoo giggles. I was more nervous about meeting her than anybody else. Shes super-nice, but if you get something wrong, you’re in trouble.

Despite its ratings success, Little Paris Kitchen wasn’t commissioned for a second series, and Khoos subsequent shows have aired on BBC Worldwide. Perhaps Poky Hackney Kitchen didn’t have the same je ne sais quoi? Well, its so competitive in the UK, and the main terrestrial channels want to make sure they have somebody who’s going to bring in the ratings. Nigella’s obviously like that, the Hairy Bikers, too. I don’t mind.I get to travel the world and do other things. Its quite nice, because I can go about my stuff round here and not be bothered.

Khoo is currently travelling all over for her new BBC Worldwide series, and often heads back to Paris she is going in May, for a friends wedding, and has visited since the November terrorist attacks. The French love their joie de vivre, and they are not going to let people get in the way of that. Obviously, its devastating and shocking what has happened, but… now’s the time to go to Paris, because you’re going to get all the special deals and it will be quieter you’ll see the Mona Lisa.

Khoo, who got married last year, is now selling her Hackney flat for 435,000 for a larger one on the other side of the capital, in Kensal Green. I love east London, but need to be nearer Heathrow for all my travelling. I can see the title of her new show now: Rachel Khoos Average-Sized Kitchen.

For an exclusive preview of Rachel’s new website, visit khoollect.com and use the password khoollectexclusive

Cutting it in the kitchen

Is your kitchen too small to swing a katsu curry? You’re not alone. Contrary to the fantasy of roomy,farmhouse-style spaces peddled by chefs from Nigel to Nigella, its British kitchens that are bearing the brunt of the nations space squeeze.

According to Marsh & Parsons estate agency, the average size of the room at the heart of the home has shrunk by a third since the 1960s, from 95 sq ft to a miserly 60 sq ft. The Case for Space, a eport into the dimensions of new-builds in England from the Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba), echoes the home chefs plight. It found that new properties in this country are the smallest in western Europe, with the average kitchen here having three fewer storage cupboards than its Dutch and Danish counterparts.

A third of respondents living in new developments said they lacked the space for appliances such as toasters and microwaves, Riba said. And they cant invite guests round for dinner, as their kitchens aren’t big enough to entertain.

Jack Monier’s domestic galley kitchen in north London measures just 12 sq ft. Yet the restaurant chef is used to such privations, having moved to the UK from a cramped walk-up flat in New York City.

Chefs kitchens are all the rage in Manhattan real-estate ads, Monier says ruefully, but they’re only for the super-rich. Most New Yorkers, chefs included, buy in deli food and use their kitchens, which are barely the size of two subway seats, for shoe storage.

Monier doesnt believe that Britons are facing the same predicament yet. Following a refit to install a counterdepthrefrigerator and an oven with knobs and controls on a space-saving back panel, Monier can whip up restaurant-quality nosh for his girlfriend, Francesca, in his ships kitchen. There’s no chance of a sous chef,though, he laughs. There would be knives flying!

Gadget tips for small kitchens

The Thermomix (885) is the kitchen gadget of the moment, and no wonder. Not only can it blend, mix,knead, grind, chop and weigh, it steams and cooks, too. Its quick and convenient to use, and performed well in every test the Good Housekeeping Institute kitchen testers put it through. 0330 660 0834, ukthermomix.com
Lakelands Three-tier Cooling Rack (20.47) takes up less worktop space and folds flat for easy storage. lakeland.co.uk
The latest attachment to come with the KitchenAid Artisan Stand Mixer KSM150 (from 359) is a spiraliser. This kitchen wizard also beats, whisks, kneads bread and makes pasta. johnlewis.co.uk
goodhousekeeping.co.uk/institute
Sally Howard

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