Rachel Khoo: 'The childhood holidays that inspired me to become a chef'

Rachel Khoo
·4-min read
rachel khoo - Getty
rachel khoo - Getty

My childhood holidays to Austria were full of food, chocolate, love, fantastic scenery and fresh air. Every time we’d go, I’d always look forward to my grandmother’s fabulously rich creations that she concocted in her small kitchen.

My mum is from Austria, so my parents, my younger brother and I went there every year, sometimes two or three times, from when I was very small. We would drive from the UK. At the beginning we would take a ferry but later we would go via Eurotunnel.

My Austrian relatives all live up one mountain in Feldkirch in Vorarlberg. It is on the west side of Austria, bordered by Switzerland. They live in what is essentially a family compound; my aunts, uncles, great-aunt, cousins and grandmother are distributed between three houses that are next door to each other. So at Easter, we would literally hop from one house to the next, and do an Easter bunny hunt at the different houses.

Feldkirch is a medieval town with cobbled streets. It has a beautiful medieval castle. Actually, they filmed one of the James Bond car chase scenes for Quantum of Solace there one year. My uncle, who is a volunteer fireman, reported that the fire brigade had to spray the cobbled streets with water to add a bit more drama!

In the summer, they have lovely farmers’ markets for the local produce. We would go into town to get an ice cream and walk around. People really go to that part of Austria for the skiing, but my visits were often in the summer and we would go hiking in the mountains.

vorarlberg austria
vorarlberg austria

My great-grandparents were farmers from Bregenzerwald. I never met my grandfather as he died when my mum was quite young. Because my grandma spent the summer in the mountains, which was when we’d visit, we would also spend a lot of time outdoors in the fresh air. It was very much like the opening scene of The Sound of Music. My grandma would take cows up the mountain to their summer grazing pasture for friends of the family. The cows would be milked morning and evening by hand, so it was still quite old-fashioned.

It was quite a basic set-up in the Alpine hut. The loo was outside I remember. But I would spend quite a few days up there with my brother, my cousins and some foster children from the city. It was so beautiful, and there were wild bilberries and little wild strawberries to pick.

Staying with my grandma was a big chance to eat a lot. She cooked really hearty foods, and there was a lot of butter in everything she made. She had a small kitchen in what was a little granny flat attached to the house where my aunt, uncle and cousin lived. I would perch on a corner table or bench and sit there and watch and help her with the cooking and baking. It would be anything from this traditional Austrian soup called Griessnockerlsuppe, to making her own strudel.

To her, there was no such thing as a diet and you’d make her day if you ate lots of her food. She would always complain, when my aunts made food, that there wasn’t enough butter in it. She did a lot of desserts and we always had one with a meal. There was hot chocolate heaped with loads of whipped cream and rich, indulgent chocolate puddings. She had a cupboard filled with just chocolate – and when we lived in the UK and Germany, she would often send us care parcels full of chocolate.

Feldkirch Austria
Feldkirch Austria

I was always interested in food, and this was absolutely influenced by my grandma’s love of cooking. So while my brother and cousins were playing at being cowboys outside, I was playing at running a restaurant or a bakery with my other cousin. At home, I continued to help my mum in the kitchen and did baking whenever I could. I always loved trying out new flavours and grew up eating lots of different foods, with Malaysian, Cantonese, Austrian and British cuisine being something we regularly had at home when we lived in the UK.

My lifelong culinary interest, encouraged by my grandma, began in earnest in my 20s, when I moved to Paris to train in patisserie. Sadly, she passed away more than a decade ago, but she was around to see me grow into a cook. I look back on those days so fondly and I go back to Bludenz regularly to see my parents, who moved there about six years ago. I still treasure that time with my grandma and her love of sensuous flavours and guilt-free food – those holidays gave me an abundance of taste sensations, and an appreciation for simple cooking (and Alpine chocolate) at its best.

As told to Roz Lewis

Rachel Khoo’s new cooking show, Chocolate, is available to stream now, exclusively on the Discovery+ channel.