Upon arriving home from a month away, I come across a fabulous new BBC 2 food programme that reminds me of my love of France ‒ and which, unbelievably, proves that there is most definitely still room on TV for yet another cooking show
I’ve been out of the country for the past month (briefly volunteering at small but interesting projects in Himachal Pradesh and Goa) and frankly, it makes me cringe to think that among some of the reasons I was apprehensive about going away for four weeks – including, for example, people realising they could do my job without me, what would happen to my waistline, whether I’d be able to carry everything I’d need for a month on my back ‒ was that I’d miss out on BBC iPlayer (I know, shoot me).
I hardly ever watch live TV, but I’ll regularly peruse the glorious iPlayer and open in endless tabs the frequently interesting, entertaining and fabulously on-demand programmes I find that I haven’t yet had a chance to watch.
Doing just that upon my return home, I discovered a new programme I hadn’t heard of before – BBC 2’s ‘The Little Paris Kitchen: Cooking with Rachel Khoo’. As in love with cooking programmes as I am (my watching of Saturday Kitchen of a morning is akin to a religious ritual, and I will be hoofed out of bed only for the most paramount of familial or national occasions, sighing with a resigned acceptance that I’ll just have to catch James Martin’s yummy offerings later on) I was sceptical of this one, fronted as it was on the BBC site by a young girl laughing into food mid-frame, eerily reminiscent of those hilarious but depressing ‘Women Laughing Alone With Salad/Fruit’ stock photos that regularly do the Internet rounds. Sigh.
Also, another programme on luxurious, indulgent but oh-so-easy cooking presented by a young, pretty woman? If Nigella hadn’t already cornered that market a while back (albeit, slightly more saucily than entirely necessary), who could forget Sophie Dahl’s well-meaning and sweet but essentially lacklustre attempts at comfort food, or Lorraine Pascale’s enjoyable but nonetheless slightly sickening missives of trying to convince all us mortals that she does really eat loads of cake and cheese and bread, honest (hey, maybe she genuinely does, in which case, I’m still annoyed!)*? Could this new programme really be offering anything different?
Well, it turns out, yes.
I found myself watching all three brief half-hours of the programme in one morning ‒ alas, the perils of travel: you return home and find your new interests are already just so last month! ‒ and, rather than just having the programme on in background, I found myself stopping to watch, actually understanding the recipes that Khoo was creating, and genuinely enjoying the warmly familiar repartee that she has with many of the French bakers, patissiers, chocolatiers, butchers and fishmongers whose shops she frequents looking for the perfect produce.
Her light-hearted humour, hint-of-Croydon accent, genuine interest in France and French food, her cheeky bilingualism and evident love of cooking, shone through and made me want to hop on a plane or train to become her new best friend, in the hope she’d show me round Paris, explain how she manages to wear red lipstick without getting it on her teeth and liquid eyeliner without getting on her eyeballs (something I sadly care about far more than I’d ever usually admit), show me where she buys her fifties-esque dresses, and cook her caramel moëlles au chocolat together to round off the perfect girly evening.
Happily, the programme reminds me so much of my time in France – I lived there from the ages of 10 to 19 (alas, in Toulouse rather than Paris), never really appreciating how richly cultural, gastronomically interesting and linguistically intriguing it was until I left. Khoo’s cooking manages to unearth my half-buried memories of the pleasures of French food: slicing a silver spoon into a just-baked chocolate pudding to reveal the unctuous, gooey middle inside; the golden crust on a fresh baguette; the softly yielding bulge of generously cut Reblochon; the nearly-magenta brown of a braised lamb or beef bourgignon with just-added mushrooms nestling cosily inside; the tangy, smelly bites of mountain-raised, smoky tartiflette; tart lemon madeleine cakes; the pleasingly comforting marriage of cheese and ham on a hot Croque Madame. Rachel’s well-pronounced French, appreciation of the local food, culture and city, constant reference to her very small (and therefore, for Paris, extremely normal-sized) appartement, and willingness to mix in the traditional with the modern and anglicised, make her shows at once intriguingly new, casually relaxed and happily nostalgic.
For her part, Khoo is as intriguing as she is endearing and, if my quick Google searches are correct, seemingly has a rather impressively intimidating CV hovering behind her sunny demeanour. Having moved to Paris to become an au-pair six years ago, she saved up to fund a cooking course at Le Cordon Bleu, and has since not only started a tiny, bookings-only – and therefore exclusive, interesting, highly sought-after, globally-publicised and by all accounts, extremely good ‒ restaurant in her small Parisian flat, but has also found time to write a book and catch the eye of the right someone somewhere who has the power to get these things on to prime time BBC TV.
Her stylish but approachable television manner (“Cook until it reaches a kind-of Cola-colour,” she says, before stepping back from a steaming pan so she doesn’t “give herself a facial”, while repeatedly calling washing up her “least favourite job”) combined with her obvious love and knowledge of food is doubtless how she has attracted the pens of many a journalist in recent weeks ‒ including the Daily Mail (pushing its luck even more than usual of late in its disgusting portrayal of women, but thankfully presenting Khoo in a rare, even-handed manner despite its sexist ‘Khoo-la-la’ headline), weekly freesheet Stylist magazine, The Observer and The Metro, to name but a few – all of whom basically say she’s really rather fab. Her Facebook page is ‘Liked’ by over 6,500 people, and she is well on her way to eight and a half thousand followers on Twitter.
Hats, or rather, chapeaux, off to her.
A few things rankle: Khoo’s insistence, as like all chefs, on using full fat cream, loads of cheese, butter and pastry (as if people like me who put on weight faster than you can say mousse au chocolat can go hang, presumably to escape our boring, low-fat lives) jars slightly, but I guess that’s par for the course with a cooking programme set in Paris – sadly proving yet again that whoever said ‘Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels’ clearly hadn’t ever come face to face with a half-baked French chocolate pudding.
Luckily, however, Khoo is a lovely, stylish and crucially normal-sized person, from the Nigella Lawson school of television cooking that says if you’re going to make fat-laden recipes and eat them with gusto (“Resist the temptation of just dipping your fingers in there,” she says, of just-melted chocolate) you should probably not look like you’ve just walked in after a hard day’s modelling if you want people like me to relate to you (so she just about gets away with mocking those of us who use low-fat creme fraiche – Lorraine Pascale, take note*).
And while the brevity of the programme makes it unsuitable for a properly indulgent, watching-with-coffee hour in front of the box, these are but small qualms. Good editing, including a pleasantly-gentle mix of shots of Khoo’s cheerful face cooking, trying and tasting, intermingled with tantalising views of Paris, local food sellers, and fresh produce, make this programme an extremely enjoyable means with which to while away a few half-hours. I also enjoy the brief historical touches, such as where salted caramel comes from, as well as the appreciation of Paris’s multicultural makeup, which in Episode 3 takes Rachel to a French-Arabic man who explains how to make the perfect cup of mint tea.
And while reading about Khoo’s impressive career trajectory makes me feel rather wobbly inside, as I start to question if the meaning of life and everything in it may not revolve around moving to Paris forthwith, Rachel is well on the right side of pleasant, self-deprecating, relaxed, stylish and interested in making easily-done recipes, that I have to say – even if I am a bit late to the dining table ‒ she is without hesitation my new food programme crush.
Bring on the choux pastry! La vie, it seems, truly is belle.
*I really don’t want to come across as overly bitchy here, or propagate the currently topical misconception that women hate other women simply because they’re beautiful. To her credit, Lorraine Pascale has done brilliantly with her TV series and books on cooking, and more personally I know lots of people who love her for her cheerful style and easy-to-make recipes. But when a woman who is clearly no more than a size 6-8 and has a past history of modelling tells me (me, who struggles to lose a pound a week even when I’m REALLY trying) that she regularly stuffs cake, cheese and pastry in to her slim-line frame, I find it singularly unconvincing, not to mention filling me with a nigh-on uncontrollable urge to throw something sharp at the TV. It’s just so far outside my own personal sphere of reference that she may as well be beaming her show to me from Pluto. But as ever, each to their own…