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Why ageing agrees with Annabel

This celebrated cuisine queen feels life is only improving each year.

By Alice O'Connell
Annabel Langbein on ageing

Putting her hand on her hip and throwing her head back in laughter, Annabel Langbein turns back to the camera and suddenly blurts out, “Do you know what? I did my first magazine cover in 1987 and I honestly think I look better now. I definitely feel better!”

Yes, the celebrated cook, who’s catching up with the Weekly shortly after arriving back from one of her frequent trips to the United States, says the ageing process is definitely agreeing with her.

Of course that doesn’t mean to say she loves every minute of it – she’ll confess to moments where she’ll literally “look down and go, ‘Arghhhhh! What happened? It’s a train wreck!’” But for the best part, she’s pretty darn happy with life right now.

So what’s changed? To start off with, she’s let herself off the hook a bit and stopped chasing perfection.

“When you’re younger, you think, ‘My God, I’ve got a pimple on my nose, my chest is the wrong size.’ Whereas now, I just think, you know what? I’m actually just really lucky to be alive, to be healthy and have a fantastic family, a fantastic husband and wonderful friends.”

It’s also helped that she’s let go of some angst that she used to feel when she was younger.

“I was really feisty back then,” she says, before leaning in to admit, “In fact, I think you could say, I could be a real b---h at times! But now I just realise how lucky I am.”

At this time in her life, she realises how blessed she is. Annabel’s always been a bit of an adventurer, but now she relishes in taking overseas adventures of a different kind with her husband Ted. “It sounds really middle-aged, but our idea of a great adventure now is looking at gardens and architecture!” she laughs.

Annabel has let herself off the hook of chasing perfection, and is simply enjoying everything in her life right now.
Annabel has let herself off the hook of chasing perfection, and is simply enjoying everything in her life right now.

But part of having a greater balance in life means taking time out to spend with her cherished girlfriends. With her television series, The Free Range Cook, now playing in more than 90 countries – most recently finding success in the US on PBS – she has friends across the globe, as well as long-time friends she loves to holiday with when possible.

Her latest such trip was earlier this year when a free week appeared in her schedule while in Los Angeles. She called her dear friend Wendy in New York, who suggested they have a Mexican adventure. A fluent Spanish speaker thanks to years spent in South America, Annabel jumped at the chance for some girl time.

“It’s easy in life to get totally absorbed in your partner and then all the other things can fall away. But I think it’s very important to keep up with your girlfriends and spend time with them – we’re all on this continuum of our lives together and you do speak differently with your girlfriends. It’s very supportive,” she tells.

So she packed an array of sarongs and met Wendy in Tulum, on the Yucatán coast of Mexico, a little spot she hadn’t heard of, but one that Wendy – who has her finger on the pulse in New York – firmly recommended.

It was her fourth visit to Mexico – she loves the food, the colour, the culture and the people, but particularly enjoys “getting off the grid”. That means being far away from the tour groups and the many American teens kicking up their heels for “spring break” debauchery.

Annabel’s time in Tulum gave her a chance to relax and indulge in some much-needed yoga.
Annabel’s time in Tulum gave her a chance to relax and indulge in some much-needed yoga.

She also loves a bargain, which Mexico certainly offers. Her last visit was during a swine flu outbreak, meaning there were no tourists and dirt cheap rooms. And she delighted in getting a stand-out meal from “a tin shack of a place that charges a dollar a plate”!

This time, Tulum offered the chance to catch up with her friend and relax while having a bit of an adventure. “You do have to go through Cancun, which is just a zoo... but once you’re there, it’s a stretch of beach several kilometres long, right by the jungle and it’s really off the grid,” she tells. “There’s no electricity, no high-rises, just this beautiful beach with turtles and the clearest water.” She ate fresh food cooked over a grill, did the occasional yoga class on the beach and relished in not having to give a thought to how her face or hair looked.

“How did I survive without a hairdryer? I was fine!” she laughs. “I felt so safe there. There aren’t many cars, so I’d be riding my bike round in the dark at night... I never worried!”

She learned never to trust TripAdvisor reviews after she ended up in a dodgy restaurant. But as her eyes light up talking about the cuisine, it’s clear her other experiences made up for this.

“Oh, the ceviche! They will have 20 different styles of ceviche on one menu. It’s nothing like the Mexican food we have here – the complexity of it. They’ll make 20 different salsas every night to serve. And the mole! It will have chocolate, chilli and so many herbs and spices, you’re left thinking, I wouldn’t even know how to make this!”

But after her restorative week away, she was quietly excited to be back with Ted. Having been married for 24 years, Annabel says it’s the history of their relationship she cherishes most.

“It’s almost all of our adult lives that we’ve known each other,” she smiles. “And I feel incredibly lucky to have married the man I’ve married because he has always supported and nourished my creativity. He’s also been a really lovely father.” The pair have two children together, Sean (23), who is currently at university in the UK, and Rose (21), who is studying in France.

In recent years, Ted has become increasingly involved in the company and the couple now work full-time together. “I think it’s a good idea we didn’t do it until we were older because we probably would have killed each other back then!” she laughs. “I see how lucky I am to have him and we can work out how to balance it now. He looks after all the business-y stuff that makes my eyes glaze over – and I stick to mine.”

Now their latest adventure together is tackling the difficult US market. The show was recently picked up in Los Angeles – no easy feat – and by the start of next year will play on 75% of PBS’s regional stations in all states. It’s meant a lot of time away from New Zealand, but she keeps in touch with friends and family through Skype, and has begun travelling with a small speaker so she can always keep up with the Morning Report on National Radio.

Although the pair are hopeful of the show’s success in the US, it’s not the be-all and end-all for them. “We’ll work as hard as we can and see what happens. I’d really like it to work, but I’m not defining myself by it.” It’s far from being the most important thing in their lives. Well ahead of that is the health and happiness of her family and friends, and she now knows exactly what makes her happiest.

“It’s being in my garden at home, growing something, cooking it and sitting around the dining table with the people I love.” That’s the true recipe to success, says Annabel.

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