"Oh my goodness! Rachel Khoo is going to come and cook with me at home!" I text to my boyfriend. "We'd better clean up then!" came his response.
Far out, my French food idol is coming to my house, to cook in my kitchen, with me!
So who is Rachel Khoo? She's a gorgeous Brit who charmed with her TV series (and cookbook) The Little Paris Kitchen, set inside her petite Parisian apartment, which doubled as a two-seater restaurant. For me, it's not just her cooking, it's her style – hello Breton stripes and floral frocks– I adore her upbeat personality and general je ne sais quoi. Basically, she's my chef girl-crush. Khoo has a knack for demystifying classic French cooking with her unfussy recipes, creative presentation and deceptively simple twists. A keen amateur baker, I've often dreamed of emulating Khoo, who dropped everything to study patisserie at Le Cordon Bleu. Since her eight-year stint in Paris, 34-year-old has combined her zest for food and travel, and is filming a series for SBS in Melbourne. I was thrilled when offered the chance to invite Rachel into my own Little Melbourne Kitchen – what a coup to be able cook with The Khoo!
Countdown to Khoo: 2 days Scrub the kitchen. Where is my French-flag-blue Le Creuset pot hiding?
Countdown to Khoo: 1 day Tidy cupboards and trolley, and hide overflow so I've got some bench space. Wash and iron apron. Painstakingly select polka-dot tea towel prop. Hunt for back-up ramekins.
Countdown to Khoo: The day of Get up at the crack of dawn and sweep the front porch like a madwoman. Dash to greengrocer, load up on eggs, lemons, and other baker-type ingredients. Swing by florist. THERE ARE NO TULIPS – deep breath – WWRD? (What Would Rachel Do?). Buy equally cute and cheery bunch ofsunflowers instead. Phew! Head back home and prep for anticipated "here's one we prepared earlier" moments. Position trio of Khoo's cookbooks off-camera on the off chance she may sign them. Pop on a frock and …
She's here! The woman who puts the coq au vin in coquette is at my door wearing a chic denim shirtdress, silk neckerchief, wedges and signature bold red lips, and is as lovely and bubbly in person as she appears on camera. We spend an afternoon together, bonding over vintage crockery and IKEA trolleys, baking lush lemon-curd-filled lava cakes and sharing dinner party tips. Here's a taste of what I learned from cooking with Rachel Khoo.
Pressed for space? Be organised
"When I was running the Little Paris Kitchen the way I did it was I always thought out 'OK I have only got two [gas] rings so maybe I'll do a cold starter and a hot main course' – and cold starters you can prep in advance – and maybe just a one-pot dish, you know keep it really simple so you don't have too many pots and pans and utensils. And then, maybe the dessert is something you bake. Simplify everything – whether you have a big or small kitchen, keep it simple," Khoo says.
Dinner party motto: Keep it simple and balanced
"You don't want to be spending all of the time in the kitchen, you want to be spending it with your guests. Keep it easy." While it's impressive to have an elaborate show-stopper dessert, Khoo recommends a lighter finale. "Go to the market, see what fresh fruit is in season. At the moment there are all these amazing figs, I love figs – so a nice dollop of chantilly cream and figs. Any kind of fresh fruit because I always think, sometimes after a heavy meal you want something light."
Seasonal produce will do the work for you
Khoo recommends using the best ingredients you can afford, that are in season. "Take, for instance, a lovely juicy sun-ripened tomato, in season, it's going to have lots of flavour so you just simply slice it up, drizzle some lovely olive oil, sprinkle of salt and you've got a fantastic tomato salad. "But obviously if you've got an unripe tomato in the middle of winter it's got no flavour so you're going to have to cook it, add herbs, and give it some substance. So if you've got ingredients in season [they're] going to do the work for you, so you've got less work to do."
Consider making one main dish that will suit everyone's dietary requirements, for example, Khoo suggests a "shepherdless pie" with lentils standing in for mince. "You don't really want to have to make two separate dishes because it's too much work."
Forget fancy gadgetry
Khoo doesn't rely on an arsenal of modern gadgetry, preferring to use good old elbow grease, and mix and whisk by hand. Plus, as Khoo points out, it saves on the washing up.
Don't be precious…
Forget the flour sifter and just "chuck it in".
… except for when it comes to patisserie
Khoo insists you should weigh both wet and dry ingredients using digital scales during French patisserie. Tip: one millilitre is equivalent to one gram. "Usually I weigh all my ingredients. It means you're always spot-on. And with patisserie you want to be spot-on."
Be creative, experiment and have fun
Khoo puts her spin on a classic dish, while respecting its origins, from goat's cheese, strawberry and cucumber millefeuille, to savoury potato churros and a smorgastarta sandwich cake. Don't be afraid to "mix up nationalities – Spanish, Asian food – whatever! Whatever you fancy, whatever you enjoy". She suggests a "little tapas party" as a laid-back alternative to a three-course dinner.
Be a confident cook
Don't be afraid to turn up the heat once you have a handle on a recipe and know what consistency to look for. For example, Khoo uses a medium heat for her lemon curd (see lava cake recipe) to speed up the process.
It was such fun to cook with Khoo, who inscribed my books unprompted. And it turns out my tea towel deliberations were worth it, with Khoo complimenting my "fabulous polka-dot jobby!" I heart Rachel Khoo … swoon.
Khoo's eight-part TV series Rachel Khoo's Kitchen Notebook: Melbourne will air on SBS from July 23.