Not only is the floral scent of spring swirling in the air at the Wanaka home of cooking sensation Annabel Langbein, there’s a serene feeling of calm and contentment. It may seem a contradiction for a busy woman who runs a successful international empire, but Annabel considers the small, laid-back Southern Lakes town to be her happy place.
To her delight, this spring has signalled a new beginning for Annabel and her husband Ted Hewetson now that their two children, Sean (22) and Rose (20), have flown the nest to study in Melbourne. The couple are spending less time at their Auckland home in favour of the simple life down south – a place where they shun the pressures of city living to potter in the garden and embrace the outdoors.
“Yesterday I was having friends over for dinner so, to decide what I would cook, I just went out to the garden,” she says. “That’s harder to do in Auckland – in the city it’s easy to get caught up in just consuming. I don’t know why, but I find it’s less of a consumer life in Wanaka. There’s something about connecting with the environment here.”
While said friends may have enjoyed Annabel’s hospitality until after midnight – sharing fare such as caramelised brussels sprouts, pulled pork and tiramisu – today the natural beauty looks as fresh as a daisy while sipping a cup of tea and admiring the view of Mt Aspiring and Lake Wanaka from her kitchen window.
“We’ve always considered this to be home, and so have our children,” she smiles. “Now that the kids have left school, it’s been easier to spend more time here.
“I’ve got some really nice friends in Wanaka – it’s such a warm, open, welcoming community. When I go to town, I never put any make-up on because it just doesn’t worry me how I look. People aren’t judgmental about any of that here.”
Although the endearingly modest foodie has sold more than two million cookbooks worldwide and is on television in 93 countries, Annabel insists she’s no celebrity in Wanaka and is always up for a friendly chat at the farmers’ market or her favourite local café, Federal Diner.
“If people come up to me, it’s usually because they’re excited about something they’ve made. So it’s about that, rather than me,” she says.
Her enviable figure is no doubt a by-product of the active lifestyle synonymous with the resort town – when she’s not gardening or practising yoga, Annabel enjoys fishing, bike riding, late-night summer swims and walking up Mt Iron with friends.
After many “fantastic” family holidays in Wanaka when their children were little, Ted surprised his wife in 1997 by buying a 23-acre block of lakeside land.
“I was so cross with him – I thought it was a bog on the side of the hill,” she says, laughing. As it turned out, Annabel discovered that the block provided excellent conditions for their dream garden, and they built a back-to-basics bach. “He wasn’t in trouble any more then.”
Fast forward 17 years and the couple grow everything from olives, almonds and edamame to quinoa and kale, and on any given day, Annabel can be found picking produce to develop new recipes.
In fact, her Wanaka garden was the inspiration for her latest cookbook, Through the Seasons.
“The seasons are so dramatic and defined here, so you really do end up cooking in season,” she explains. “My mother taught us that when you cook, you are honouring nature. It can be the simplest thing, such as a bowl of soup, but you take a bit of care and share it and celebrate it. And I’m a great believer in making life easier too – in the new book are lots of lovely shared dishes that you can serve on a big platter and everyone helps themselves.”
Of course, the book will also be accompanied by a third season of her cooking show, airing again on TV One on Saturday evenings from September 13 – although this time it was filmed in her new studio. Nestled into the rustic Wanaka cabin, featured in her first two series, the wing was designed by Ted, not only her husband of 23 years, but co-director of Annabel Langbein Media and jack-of-all-trades.
“Ted is a wonderful support. He and I are business partners and he’s awfully good at banking and transactions – the things that make my eyes glaze over. We’ve got really clear role delineations – it would all go to custard if we were to stomp on each other’s patch!” she jokes.
As if on cue, Ted strolls into the kitchen and Annabel offers him some freshly made vegetable soup to warm the cockles after a frosty morning spent in their garden.
“I’m very lucky because I’m married to someone who shares the same ethos,” she reveals.
The fact that they can call themselves permanent Wanakaites now is just the icing on the cake.
“It sounds strange, but even though we’re still really busy, I feel like I have more control of my life here. In Auckland, the environment can be more frenetic, but here it’s a much bigger open space and I can think more clearly. I feel very alive in Wanaka.”
Words by: Rebecca Williamson