Food & Drink

Rachel Khoo: ‘Being a chef nowadays isn’t just about cooking’

The chef, presenter and writer talks to Prudence Wade about why it’s important for her to support women in the food industry.

Cook and author Rachel Khoo wants to encourage more women into the food industry
Rachel Khoo Cook and author Rachel Khoo wants to encourage more women into the food industry

Rachel Khoo says it was “very intimidating being the only woman” in professional kitchens when her career was starting out.

The cook, author and broadcaster – who has previously hosted her own BBC shows, and is currently a judge on The Great Australian Bake Off – notes that while some things have progressed, there’s still a long way to go.

“I have in the past worked in restaurants, in professional kitchen environments – but this was a long time ago,” Khoo, 43, says.

“I always found it very intimidating being the only woman. Obviously, things have slightly changed, but we’re still looking at under 20 per cent of chefs are female.”

How did Khoo survive those often macho surroundings? “I kept my head down,” Sweden-based Khoo says simply.

She thinks back to doing a freelance patisserie job in Germany for Volkswagen, heading up the company’s Christmas bakery.

“I was the only woman doing the head baking, but when they gave me the budget to hire somebody, I hired a woman,” she says.

“It’s about giving people those opportunities. Obviously, I hired her because she was the best qualified for the job, not because she was a woman – I really want to highlight that I am not about giving people positive discrimination.”

Instead, Khoo is all about “levelling the playing field”, which is why she’s joined Kettle as the crisp brand’s first female chef, where she is planning some kind of mentorship scheme to help women in food.

Rachel Khoo
(KETTLE® Chips/PA)

“I love the idea of being able to encourage the next generation – or not necessarily even the next generation, it can be a woman who is looking to change careers,” she says.

“Being able to provide support in terms of mentoring, like me providing my experience [is so important] because being a chef nowadays isn’t just about cooking. It’s also about self-confidence, how you are in the kitchen, you might have to do social media, you might have to do PR, marketing – there are so many different elements which are part of working in the kitchen.”

Khoo is well-placed to give advice, considering how varied her own career has been. In fact, Khoo didn’t initially plan to go into food, as she did an arts degree – but that set her on a path.

“We did a project where we had to create a to-scale model of a shop and do interior design, and I would make mine out of gingerbread,” she remembers with a laugh.

“So I ended up using food as a way to communicate my ideas, and I think, in essence, I’ve just continued doing that.”

Then, Khoo says: “I started off in the bakery/restaurant world, but I wasn’t drawn to that.

“I’ve ended up doing cookbooks, then consulting, then catering and events. There’s so many different areas within the food industry.”

Khoo suggests that the rise of social media and the TV cook has highlighted how there are different paths you can take. “When I did Zumbo’s Just Desserts [a Netflix reality baking competition show], which was really popular with kids, I’d get a lot of kids coming up saying, ‘I want to do what you’re doing’.

“So they don’t necessarily want to be in a kitchen, but they want to be creative with food. There’s definitely a growth of people who are interested in cooking, but they don’t want to work in a professional kitchen.

“They want to work in that profession of cooking – maybe that’s a pop-up restaurant, maybe it’s a social media platform where they create recipes. I started off with food styling – there are so many different dimensions where you can work within the food world, it doesn’t necessarily have to be the traditional restaurant route.”

And during her career, she says the best piece advice came from someone who wasn’t even in the world of food.

“My mum said to me, just before my BBC TV show aired [The Little Paris Kitchen: Cooking With Rachel Khoo came out in 2012], ‘OK, a lot of things are going to come your way, a lot of opportunities, but the most important thing is to listen to yourself, to your gut, and stay true to yourself’.

“I think if you stay true to yourself, then no matter what you do, you can always look back and say, OK, that might not have worked out exactly how I wanted, but I stayed true to myself, and I can still be proud and stand by that decision.”

One thing she has had to learn along the way is how to say no. Khoo says she’s now “very good at saying no”, taking “inspiration from my toddler child”.

Khoo, who has three children aged seven, five and one with husband Robert Wiktorin, says: “They’re bilingual, Swedish/English. So they learn how to say no both in Swedish, ‘nej’ and in English, ‘no’.

“They have to ways of telling me: I’m not going to do that. Otherwise, if they don’t want to do it, they just lie on the floor and kick their legs. I don’t do that technique, I just want to put that out there.”

Bestselling author Rachel Khoo joins gourmet hand cooked crisps brand KETTLE® as their first female chef. Visit for more information.