If there is one word you would never use to describe Annabel Langbein, it’s blasé. The TV cook doesn’t do nonchalant, especially when it comes to food.
Her latest cookbook, Essential, has recently arrived from the printer and she’s so excited about it that as she sits at the dining table of her Auckland home, she can’t help running her fingertips over the embossed lettering on the cover. At one point, she picks it up and hugs it to her chest.
“It might be my 25th book but I never get over the thrill of seeing my recipes in print,” enthuses Annabel, who self-publishes her books. “Every book is like having a baby and I’m super-proud of this one. It’s the culmination of my life’s work, really.”
It’s certainly a whopper of a baby – a massive tome with more than 650 recipes from throughout her cooking career, featuring her own personal favourites alongside many brand-new creations.
Every recipe has been retested, and many have been tweaked and updated to include gluten-free versions and ingredients that might not have been available when Annabel started sharing recipes 30-odd years ago.
“Who’d have thought then that you’d use pomegranate in salads?” she muses.
A lot may have changed in the kitchen in those three decades, but her passion for food has never waned.
“I think my love of food is in my DNA,” she chuckles.
That deep-rooted need has seen her carve out a career that has gone from strength to strength. Her books have sold hundreds of thousands of copies, her TV show is seen in 93 territories around the world and the accolades keep coming. After breaking into the tough US market at the end of 2015 and getting her series The Free Range Cook on the PBS network, she won the people’s choice award for best home chef TV presenter in the prestigious Taste Awards in the US. Previous recipients have included Jamie Oliver.
And this year, just days after sending Essential off to be printed, she got a phone call from Lincoln University in Canterbury – where she studied horticulture – informing her she was being awarded an honorary doctorate in commerce.
“That really blew me away,” she says, clearly delighted. “What an honour.”
The fact the doctorate is in commerce is recognition of the business savvy she has shown in creating the enormously successful Annabel Langbein brand. When she started out all those years ago, it was purely because she wanted to share her love of food and her knowledge of how to prepare it, and to make people feel inspired about cooking, rather than seeing it as a necessary chore.
Never could she have imagined things taking off quite the way they have.
“But,” adds Annabel, “I did have ideas that I thought might be of interest globally, and I wanted to see if I could reach people around the world. The fact I have been able to do that is thrilling but also quite humbling. I don’t take anything for granted.”
When she was starting her business, Annabel did everything herself, from devising and testing the recipes to writing the books and marketing and promoting them. Her first book, Annabel Langbein’s Cookbook, published in 1988, featured recipes from a column she wrote for the New Zealand Listener, and she flew to China to stand over the press and check the colour herself.
“That was pretty unusual back then,” she recalls, smiling at the cover photo of herself with big ‘80s hair. “But I felt it was important to have that control and I was hooked on the process of putting a book together.”
Ten years and several books later, she wrote one of her most popular, The Best of Annabel Langbein, and took galleys – unbound page proofs – to the world’s biggest book trade event, Germany’s Frankfurt Book Fair, in the hope of negotiating international publishing rights.
“It was huge – there are seven square miles of exhibitions – and I had an anxiety attack. I thought, ‘Why did I think I could do this?’ and locked myself in the toilet. It was an absolute nightmare.
“But in the end, I told myself, ‘You have come all this way, don’t be ridiculous. Get it together.’”
Not having a clue where to start or who to approach – this was in pre-Google days – she came up with an inspired idea, indicative of why she’s done so well in business.
“When the kids were little, we had au pairs from places like Germany and Denmark, and we’d kept in touch with them when they’d gone home. So I rang them and said, ‘Can you do me a favour – go to the nearest bookstore and tell me who is publishing the most beautiful cookbooks.’
“They all did it and came back to me with names. One German publisher, Ludwig Koenemann, was mentioned by several of them, so off I went to his stand, the galleys in my hand. Normally, you have to make an appointment with these people a year ahead but I just bowled up and said, ‘I’ve got a book that is going to make him a lot of money'.”
Her unorthodox approach worked and she eventually sold international rights to The Best of Annabel Langbein to Ludwig (she now has them back).
“Sometimes, you just have to have the gumption to go and do these things. It’s not being arrogant or pushy, it is having self-belief. I just had this belief that I could write cookbooks that would be useful in people’s lives.
“I suppose I have always been pretty fearless. As a teenager, I used to jump out of helicopters to recover live deer in the bush – and I will try anything once. I think my years living in the bush – hunting and living off the land – made me pretty resilient and you need that in business.”
Her thriving TV career came about because of one of those “mad ideas” and willingness to give anything a go.
Just over 10 years ago, she noticed her children, Sean (now 25) and Rose (now 22), were watching videos on a site called YouTube, and decided to see if there were any food videos.
“I had all this eggplant, so I looked at a clip for eggplant frittata and there was this tiny wee lady from New York demonstrating what to do. I went into the kitchen after watching it and proceeded to cook the nastiest thing I’ve made in my life – it was horrible!
“I thought I could do a much better job. I was wondering how to market my next book, Eat Fresh, and YouTube was the perfect solution.”
The clips she made were seen by UK production company Fremantle, who offered her her own show, The Free Range Cook, and Annabel Langbein the business really took off.
But it hasn’t always been easy. In the early days, she’d wonder how she was going to pay the rent. When she and Ted decided to invest heavily in getting the TV series made, she warned her kids it might not work and they could end up “eating potatoes and nothing else”.
There have been many nights when she has found herself still working at 3am and thought, “What on earth am I doing?”
“I am by nature a worker bee and I like working hard,” says Annabel. “I am lucky that I am blessed with a lot of energy, but that doesn’t mean I should work 16 hours a day. I love what I do, but it is important for it not to become your whole world.”
If she could turn back time and give some advice to her younger self as she was embarking on her career, she’d tell young mum Annabel not to take on too much.
“When I first had children, I thought I had to be superwoman and keep going – I thought if I got off the bus for even a short time, my life would be over. I was lucky to marry my husband Ted, who has always done so much with the kids, but I was the one who sometimes missed out.
“Now I know that being flat-out busy shouldn’t be the rhythm of your life. I like to take analogies from nature and I’ve learned plants don’t flower all year round. You don’t have to be on G for Go all the time.”
The pace of life has slowed down a little since Sean and Rose headed overseas to university, and Annabel and Ted decided to make their holiday home in Wanaka their main base. Annabel still makes frequent trips to Auckland, where the family home includes a test kitchen and offices for her staff.
“I am surrounded by people who are brilliant at their jobs, which means I can get on with mine,” says Annabel, who still comes up with all her own recipes.
Her next job will include demonstrating how to cook some of the dishes from Essential at food shows in Wellington (May 26-28) and Auckland (July 27-30).
“I’m very excited about that,” she says, giving the book an affectionate pat. “I can’t wait to hear what people think.”
As much as she loves how pristine the new book looks fresh from the printers, she prefers to see her books battered and dog-eared.
“I would love it if this became people’s go-to cookbook and I’m so happy to see books that have been well-used – it shows that people are getting something out of it, which is why I do it,” she says.
“If they are dirty and covered in food splatters, to me that is the ultimate compliment!”
WATCH: Annabel Langbein discusses her success with Newstalk ZB's Mike Hosking