Lauren Razavi finds out the secret of making it in TV and publishing…
Rachel Khoo is a self-made fashion PR-turned-food star with a passion for vintage clothes and travel. Her cookbook, The Little Paris Kitchen, and the accompanying BBC Two series have marked her out as one to watch in the world of food journalism.
You gave up your fashion PR job and went to Paris to learn French and learn about pastry. Were you determined to make a career out of food at that point?
I moved to go to Cordon Bleu and learn French. I knew I wanted to work in food on the creative side – photography, magazines and cookbooks. At the beginning it was about earning enough money to pay my rent and trying to get my foot in the door. I worked as an au pair, in a department store, in an art gallery, taught English. I did so many jobs just so I could build my portfolio as a food stylist.
My big break happened because I worked in a cookery book store, so I met cookbook authors and networked. It’s only the last four years things have really kicked off and I’ve been able to live off it.
How did your cookbook The Little Paris Kitchen and the subsequent BBC Two series come about?
I picked out my favourite publishers and found their details. I emailed them saying “I know you’re really busy, but do you have just 10 minutes for me to come in and pitch some ideas?” Out of those 10 emails, I got three meetings. From those three meetings, I got two offers, and I ended up going with Penguin. When I was writing the book I realised it would make a good TV show. I tracked down production companies and pitched my idea. BBC Two picked up the pilot.
You became known as the vintage girl with the tiny Paris kitchen. Is it important to have a gimmick to set you apart?
Gimmick’s the wrong word – it’s a unique selling point. All it comes down to is having a strong personality and identity, and knowing what your angle is on food. I don’t think you need some quirky story – I mean, it helps – but you have to back it up. Your USP can change: it was The Little Paris Kitchen for me but now it’s going to be Rachel Khoo.
Do you find blogging and social media useful in your career?
Definitely! What I love about my online platforms is that I have control over them. When I write on my blog, it’s always what I want to say. It’s everything from food to travel to fashion to anything else. It’s a great way to connect with your audience in a quick and immediate way.
Does accepting hospitality from tourism boards create a conflict in your mind?
I wanted to do a piece in Sweden, and The Sunday Times had a miniscule budget. So I pitched to the tourism board for them to pay for the flights and asked a friend to put up the whole team. Without support from the tourism board, it wouldn’t have been possible to create that beautiful piece. It can be very positive, but you need the freedom to review honestly.
You have to be clear when you start the project: OK, you’re offering me this, but I’m not guaranteeing a positive review. As long as that’s clear, I don’t think there’s a problem.
What are your top tips for young creatives who might want to follow a similar career path to your own?
Have a really nice blog – it’s your window. A lot of bloggers gain newspaper and magazine work through their blog. If you’re looking to write a cookbook, you need to show a publisher you have an audience. It’s rare for publishers to pick up writers who don’t have some kind of online platform these days.
Newspapers like certain pieces and angles; make sure you do your homework and tailor your pitch. When you email an editor, get their name right. Then it’s about persistence, and not letting it get to you if you don’t hear back. I’ve always been proactive. A lot of the doors I was knocking on didn’t open. It’s a tough market out there, but nothing comes from nothing. The people who make it are the ones who are persistent.