by Amanda McInerney
The celebrity cooks and chefs of the United States, the UK and Europe are frequently familiar to Australians too, but I sometimes wonder if the reverse is true. We’ve bred some truly remarkable kitchen talents down here in the antipodes — both in Australia and New Zealand — and we well and truly have our share of local celebrity chefs on TV shows and cookbook shelves. While the international Masterchef franchise has blazed across our screens and spawned an entire new crop of culinary household names, there are plenty that have been steadily and consistently doing their kitchen/foodie thing without all of that fanfare and I’m taking this opportunity to introduce you to one of them.
One of New Zealand’s best known faces, Annabel Langbein is that country’s leading celebrity cook, food writer and publisher, the star of her own international TV series, a passionate advocate for using seasonal ingredients as a means to cooking and eating well and a member of the Sustainability Council of New Zealand. Annabel is simply prolific. She seems to have inexhaustible supplies of energy, enthusiasm and inspiration and her books are a joy to use.
Popularly known as The Free Range Cook, Annabel’s latest (and 19th!) book, Simple Pleasures (Harper Collins Australia) invites her readers to take time out from their busy schedules to savour the honest tastes of fresh, quality produce simply prepared. This latest book features menu suggestions drawn from her latest TV series, which will screen in Australia later this year, but also takes a leap into the world of digital interaction with QR codes on many of the recipes linking the reader to a video on Annabel’s site of her making the recipe.
While Annabel’s face and food are familiar to many Australian cooks and food lovers, I suspect that parts of her background are not familiar to the rest of the world at all. Her passion for food and where it comes from has a surprisingly rustic history and I was fascinated to hear about her early days embracing an alternative lifestyle and hunting for her own food. Annabel was generous enough to answer a few questions for me so that we could all get to know her a little better so, my lovely readers – meet Annabel Langbein!
Annabel, many of us were ignorant of your early lifestyle and career in live-deer recovery. We’d love to know a little more about that.
When I was in my late teens I had a boyfriend who was very alternative – we were at the late end of the hippy movement really. We eschewed all the trappings of modern life and went to work as volunteers in a remote community up the Whanganui River – I describe quite a lot of this in a little essay on page 108 of my new book Annabel Langbein: The Free Range Cook: Simple Pleasures. I bought my first house with money I had made from trapping possums and jumping out of helicopters to recover live deer. But all the time right through I was cooking. I would come out of the bush with my leg of venison or brace of squab and get cooking. My mother had given me Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking when I was 14 – she knew I was a cook well before I did. And I cooked with this while I was living this wild outdoorsy life – quite a juxtaposition of a rough outdoor way of living and gourmet-style food! When I came out of the bush (I had wrecked my knees and it was too hard a life), I went to work in a vineyard and managed that for a year and kept a big vegetable garden before I decided to study horticulture. I never thought to study food, as it was more of a trade – you had to go into the army or a trade school.
You’ve now published 19 cookbooks – a remarkable achievement by any measure. How did you go about that in the early days of your career?
In the 1990s, I made a lot of money as a consultant to big food companies and at the same time I was writing a recipe column for a national magazine. One day I thought, “Why not make a cookbook of all my columns?” It didn’t enter my head to go to a publisher – I just always liked doing my own thing. And once I had done the first one, I was hooked on the whole jigsaw puzzle of it, making it feel layered and whole. Since then I’ve made 18 more books, so my new book Annabel Langbein: The Free Range Cook: Simple Pleasures is actually my 19th. Really, though, it has been my television show Annabel Langbein, The Free Range Cook that has taken book sales to a whole new level. TV just exposes you to so many more people.
Your formatting and design is gorgeous – do you work on this yourself?
I am a control freak actually. I work with a designer and an editor to bring to life an idea I have in my head. An idea can be slowly evolving for about a year before it comes to life on the page.
Your recipes are always so very reliable – this is clearly important to you.
I realised very early on that ensuring a recipe works and is failsafe is the single most important thing when you’re writing a recipe book. When readers cook a recipe and it doesn’t work they don’t think, “What a lousy cookbook,” they think they have failed and they lose confidence. For me, writing a recipe is a bit like making a map – you have to make sure that the list of ingredients is easily transformed into a yummy meal that looks like the photo, without getting lost on the journey.
You’ve been passionate about sustainability in food for a long time. Do you feel there is a generally growing interest in this?
There’s definitely a strong movement in New Zealand towards understanding where your food comes from and eating seasonally and locally. Farmers markets are popping up all over the place and lots of schools are developing their own gardening and cooking programmes. I think it’s a long-term trend, not just in New Zealand and Australia, but around the world as more and more people discover the pleasures of growing and cooking food. In our increasingly industrialised society, I think lots of us are looking for a way to feel connected to the earth and the world around us and our own communities – and cooking and sharing simple but delicious food is a great way to do that.
With so many accomplishments under your belt, how do you maintain your passion, inspiration and enthusiasm for food and cooking?
I just love what I do. I feel so lucky to be doing what I do and at the same time inspiring other people to come on the journey too. In a way food is a conduit – a thread that flows through all my work – but at the same time I have been learning about publishing and making television and new media and all these other skills. It’s a wonderful journey.
Amanda McInerney is a freelance food and travel writer in Melbourne, Australia. She runs the popular blog Lambs Ear and Honey.