She rose to fame with her cookbook The Little Paris Kitchen but now Rachel Khoo hails from Sweden, where she spent a cold winter in lockdown with her young family. What better time to then create a whole new television series, Rachel Khoo’s Simple Pleasures? She tells Capsule about adapting to the Swedish mindset in order to enjoy winter, what brings her joy and why candles at breakfast are key for cosiness!
Rachel Khoo’s Instagram bio refers to her as a ‘creative solution seeker with a penchant for butter’, which seems like an understatement now that I know her new show Rachel Khoo’s Simple Pleasures was created in the perfect firestorm of a full lockdown and a Swedish winter. But in Rachel’s case, the lockdown giveth just as much as it took away – when the show she was supposed to be filming was postponed, she pitched a new concept to the Discovery network. “I said, ‘Look, I’m in the countryside at my mother-in-law’s, I’ve got a kitchen, I can film something.’” From pitch to production, she says, it was less than four weeks.
Her first role was to find someone to run the production side of things, within the Covid-19 gathering roles. Her entire technical team was one Australian cameraman who simultaneously ran three cameras, the lighting and the sound, while Rachel cooked a variety of simple meals that would help bring some joy to an entire world suddenly stuck at home.
“To me, it was really about embracing how cooking can make you feel – and, particularly, cooking delicious foods. Not only can it benefit yourself, in being both therapeutic and uplifting, but it also benefits the people around you,” Rachel, 40, says. “You don’t need a huge amount of expertise, you don’t need fancy ingredients or equipment. You can make delicious food with very few ingredients. I wanted to share my love about why I got into cooking – and the joy it can bring.”
Food, as Rachel says, is a great unifier. “It transcends everything – it doesn’t matter what your background is, your age, your race, your gender… we all have the same basic need for food and especially during this past year, it’s been a binding way to not only bring people together but also to escape, as well. For me, food has always been a way to travel the world without leaving my kitchen.”
Born in the UK to parents from Malaysia and Austria, Rachel first came to international recognition with her cookbook The Little Paris Kitchen, but she also does a lot of work in Japan as well. Since meeting her Swedish husband Robert, Rachel has been based in Sweden and the pair have two young children. The real challenge, Rachel says, has been acclimatising to the long and brutal winters that come with the extreme Swedish climate.
“For many years, I’d always try and escape winter by going to work somewhere warmer. But that hasn’t been possible for quite a few years, for a variety of different reasons,” she laughs. “There’s a saying here that even when it gets really cold, there’s no such thing as bad weather – only bad clothes. So you just put on the layers and you go out.”
This is a country, Rachel laughs, where people hold BBQs all year round – no matter the weather. But she has learned that working with nature, as opposed to trying to escape it, has really helped her mental health. “Getting yourself outside and into nature – it’s like with the Japanese do, with forest bathing. It’s like therapy and it definitely helps, even when it does get dark really early.”
She also takes vitamin D – “I have no idea if it does anything, but I take it” – and has also become a believer in the powers of hygge; the Scandinavian art of cosiness. “I light candles at breakfast,” she laughs. But she always says that her cooking choices can also be very helpful. “People always think, ‘oh, it’s dark and it’s cold, I want cosy and comforting food’, but actually, sometimes you want the opposite. You want vibrant, bright, colourful, fresh, crunchy food – food that really livens up the taste buds.”
When it came to creating her line-up for Simple Pleasures, she went back to the food she knew people would want but also her own family favourites – think roast chicken, chocolate pudding – but using ingredients that most people find themselves stuck at home with. “I was already cooking that kind of food because I’m cooking for a young family – it’s all about ‘what have I got in the cupboard for when I can’t make it to the supermarket.’” Growing up, Rachel laughs, the attitude towards food was very much ‘you’ll eat what you get and if you don’t eat it for lunch, you’ll get it for dinner,’ but she says she’s adopted a far more laid-back attitude for her own children. “It is a bit annoying when you’ve slaved away all day to make something and they then reject it… which is why I tend to keep my recipes really simple.”
The simple pleasure that has kept Rachel sane has been running, she says – even though she’s as surprised as anyone to discover that’s the case. “I never used to be an exercise person but now I try and do half an hour every day, even if it’s just an online class, so that at the end of the day, I really feel like I’ve achieved something.” And, like a true adopted Swede, the weather is no longer an obstacle. “Even at -12°C, I still put on the layers and go for a run,” she laughs. “If you can still feel your toes after 15 minutes, you’re okay!”
Rachel Khoo’s Simple Pleasures will air Thursdays from 22 April at 8:30pm on Living on SKY