Food Inc

By Alan Perrott

Food writer Annabel Langbein is a household name in New Zealand. But now, as her new television show debuts here, she's being talked of as the whole world's next big chef. She tells Alan Perrott about her long road to foodie fortune.

Annabel Langbein is back home in New Zealand for her new show The Free Range Cook. Photo / Natalie Slade
Annabel Langbein is back home in New Zealand for her new show The Free Range Cook. Photo / Natalie Slade

With a mum into home science and a road-building dad, it's no surprise Annabel Langbein's first microwaved creation was like a judder bar.

The box it came out of suggested it was a carrot cake, but once her mum's Renault had rumbled over it and compressed only a few crumbs, it definitely qualified as tarmac.

Oh well, the path from microwaver to budding culinary superstar had to start somewhere. In this case it was the Wellington flat of Langbein's quasi-brother-in-law, Burton Silver - writer, inventor and creator of the Bogor cartoon.

The evening was supposed to be an opportunity to conquer her phobia of the contraption with the support of a friendly audience.

Things began promisingly. It was successfully plugged in, the cake mix inserted and the timer set as per the instructions. At the first ping, the mixture was removed, prodded, frowned at, and then returned for another blast. Second ping ... no change. Third ping ... ditto. And on and on. After an hour the cake was taken out and tapped against the benchtop.

Bonk. Whatever it had become, it wasn't a cake. A decision was taken to run the poor thing over.

"I can still remember the "chock" as the car went over it," says Silver. "I thought it'd be crushed, but it just bounced over. Then we threw it into the sea for the gulls to eat, but I like to think it's still out there, somewhere. One day it might even wash up in the United States."

Can this be the prolific foodie, Annabel Langbein, whose book Great Food For Busy Lives is now called "The Bible" because it never stops selling? Or the same woman being touted internationally by FremantleMedia Enterprises (the company behind Jamie Oliver, Martha Stewart, and the various Masterchef, Pop Idol and Apprentice productions) as the next big television cook?

Of course it is, and the way she dealt with the cake incident shows why. Instead of flagging the whole idea, she took the microwave home and mastered it to the point where she was soon running a catering company from the back of her car. It's what she has always done: aim high, then go higher.

It's was ferociously entrepreneurial approach for a self-declared teenage leftie. "I was a total hippie," she says in the kitchen of her spotless Remuera home, "and a feminist, I wouldn't wear a frock for years. I was probably a Communist in a way, not a signed-up member, but in that idea of feeling everyone was equal."

When the bell rang on her sixth form year at Wellington Girls' College in 1978, she headed up the Whanganui River with her boyfriend. Along with a friend, they ended up living at the marae in Koroniti, helping out at tangis, repainting the meeting house, and maintaining the cemetery. With no electricity, they adopted the Whole Earth catalogue as their guide, while an organic gardening book inspired Langbein to start a vege patch and bottle preserves.

After that they built a 16m Pacific-style catamaran and sailed to Gisborne. Ten days of appalling weather and constant seasickness later, Langbein disembarked and ran off with a possum trapper.

Her new life in the Ureweras was as rugged as it was liberating. If the eggs froze under the chooks it was winter, and daily chores ranged from walking their 30km trapline to leaping on to deer from helicopters. "I was really fit in those days, not that my kids believe me. Sometimes I can't believe it myself, I came from an academic-type family and everyone from my class had got into academic-type stuff. But the kids, they really can't imagine their mother as being adventurous. I'd used up all my adrenalin by the time they came along."

At least that adrenalin was put to good use. She collected enough $10 skins to save $20,000 and bought a house in Gisborne. Langbein's hippie phase was over: "From that moment on, I've been a committed capitalist."

Actually, there's one more important moment from that time. She had been out poaching when she had to scurry up a tree after hearing the landowner's swearing grow nearer. She silently watched him pass by and forgot about it until years later, when she found herself flatting with his sister. They're now married.

But that event was way off. In 1982 she was off hitchhiking around South America, teaching herself Spanish and Portuguese before settling in Buzios, a hip Brazilian beach community known for French actress Brigitte Bardot and wealthy Argentinians escaping the Dirty War.

Langbein moved in with an Argentinian fashion designer and took to cooking. Being foreign, she was soon getting requests for things she couldn't make. Not a problem. When someone asked for croissants, she just phoned Mum and a set of carefully drawn instructions, including diagrams of how to render lard, were popped in the post. The results were so successful people started buying them, a sideline that got her in touch with a local hotel owner. The pair struck a deal where Langbein got free room and board in exchange for running the hotel and bar for four hours every day so the boss could go sailing. This was her first proper kitchen experience, a privilege she enjoyed to the fullest. "I'd just eat and eat," she says, "and I got fatter and fatter. I got to 87kg, so I was reasonably porky, if not quite the Michelin Man."

After 10 months she left for Ibiza. In the early 80s, the island was already a hedonistic hotspot, so she stockpiled 300 pairs of skimpy Brazilian bikinis and set off to make some easy money. "Unfortunately, once I got there I realised that everyone was either so trendy they didn't wear bikinis at all or so fat they couldn't fit them ... that exercise was doomed before it started." There's a pair still lurking in a cupboard as a reminder to do her research first.

By 1984 she was back flatting in Parnell and looking for work. When Silver heard her travel stories he suggested she submit a story to the Listener, the magazine that published his Bogor cartoons.

She whipped something up, with a few recipes tossed in for good measure, and was immediately invited to write a fortnightly column.

Langbein had timed her run perfectly. It was boom time and she joined the party with gusto. "Oh yes, it got to where I could tell one vintage of champagne from another ... so I was having a great time and I'd finally figured out what I wanted to do and what I didn't want to do. I was going to work with food but I had no interest in cooking in a restaurant."

What options did that leave? Langbein had no idea, so she asked one of biggest names in the business, American chef, writer and television presenter, Julia Child, who suggested she investigate the International Association of Culinary Professionals.

Langbein sold her catering business and flew off to Oregon for the IACP conference. "In a sense, going there there was an epiphany. For a start, being from New Zealand, no one felt threatened by me so I was getting great advice from all sorts of people, like dedicated food stylists - a job we hadn't even heard of then. I started to realise what was possible."

She made a new friend in Daniele Delpeuch, who had previously been French President Francois Mitterand's private chef. The pair went flatting in Brooklyn, New York. "It was really rough, we had no money for anything better. The prostitutes were always trying to solicit me and we'd have to climb over three half-dead drunks just to get to our front door. But life was fantastic. We'd go to a market, buy a leek, then make something amazing with it and invite friends over to eat."

Langbein took a six-month course in nutrition, which changed her attitude toward healthy eating, while further classes in regional cooking got her thinking about how culture, environment and geography influence cuisine.

"Straight away I started wondering if there was such a thing as New Zealand food. I was having these big ideas about how I could change things at home and help put our food on the map. The only problem was that no one at home knew me. It's difficult to sell a vision when you're a nobody. All I could do was get home and work hard to get established."

So she did. She began approaching supermarket chains with a concept that grew into her Fresh campaign, which could be described as a micro - rather than macro - form of dietary socialism, aimed at an individual or family level. "It was about changing things at the grassroots. I want to show people that cooking is a very simple way of feeling like a success, that putting dinner on the table can make you the hero of the household. It was also about lifestyle. We live in such an extraordinary environment that even if you don't have a lot of money - and I know this sounds naive, but it's not - you can still pack a picnic, take the kids to the beach and build sandcastles. These are very simple things, but they are the things that become memories for life, things that can give you confidence and foster relationships."

Such talk could easily be labelled Pollyanna-ish, unless you could see the tears in her eyes and hear the lump she had to cough from her throat. This was deeply personal and when she turned it into a consultancy business it became a powerful - and surprisingly lucrative - message.

So 1987 became a big year. She was working with companies ranging from boutique cheese-makers to corporations and government agencies, and had a staff of 12. She was credible. Then she almost died.

Langbein was at a Woolworths conference in Te Anau and enjoying a group trek, when her horse, Jude, took off and threw her. She'd done judo as a kid and knew to roll as she fell to lessen the impact. It probably saved her life but didn't prevent a broken back and seven broken ribs. Doctors at Invercargill Hospital gave her a five per cent chance of walking again, so she had to endure four scary months before making a miraculous recovery. All the same, she's now considerably shorter, has ongoing back problems, and hasn't ridden a horse since.

On the bright side, it spurred her to push on and get writing. Her first book, the Annabel Langbein Cookbook, came out the next year. It came easily, after all she had plenty of material from her Listener columns, so she printed off 10,000 copies. "When they arrived they filled up the garage and I was just standing there, looking at them and thinking 'holy crap, now what do I do?'"

Enter Doris Mousdale, now owner of Arcadia Books but back then working for Whitcoulls. Langbein's still-not-yet-husband Ted Hewitson approached her to see if they'd be willing to stock the book. He'd long given up farming and after a stint in the US as a ski instructor, where he cut up one of his feet on a chainsaw, moved back to Auckland.

Mousdale loved the easy- to-use way the book presented what was, at that time, still fairly exotic food. She bought a stack. And another when the first lot sold out. She then suggested Langbein write books specifically for Whitcoulls.

She went along with Langbein to the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1997 to help promote Great Food For Busy Lives. One big-time German publisher liked it enough to order 500,000 copies. This was too much for Langbein, who had to stumble back to her stand for a lie down. At the next festival he ordered another 1.2 million copies of her follow-up, Savour The Pacific, while also putting up his hand for the one yet to be written. "I just managed to keep my composure," says Langbein, "then I ran back to my stand for a stiff drink."

Exciting times. But after only three payments her publisher went bust and his debts of £400 million ($880 million) pushed the European book business into a mini-crisis. It took some formidable legal power to wrench Langbein's ownership rights from the rubble.

"From there I had to start all over again and on a much smaller scale. You could say I've been slowly rebuilding ever since."

Focusing on the New Zealand market meant her print runs plummeted from six or seven figures to four at best and that was never going to satisfy her ambition. Always thinking big, she got a export development grant and hired three American specialists to figure out what she stood for. Their work was distilled into three words: "Feed Your Life."

"That was the best thing I've ever done," says Langbein. "Prior to that I was just going along with no business plan and no structure. They gave me a direction, not only about what I could do but what I shouldn't, and that has helped people understand what I do even if they've never heard of me. I wouldn't be where I am without it."

She moved her work online and, shortly after posting 10 clips of herself demonstrating simple recipes, everything suddenly went from interesting to exciting again.

Somehow, someone important at FremantleMedia saw her clips and decided she was ready for the big time. Langbein pitched her concept of filming it at the family's second home in Wanaka, where she could present simple food in a relaxed, Kiwi style with Middle Earth as a backdrop. The camera loves it and she's hopeful that the viewers in the eight countries it'll soon be screening in will love it too.

The call giving her the go-ahead arrived as she was eating lunch in Cannes. The next time she was there it was for the international MIP television content market where she found enormous promotional billboards of herself set alongside Jamie Oliver's.

"That really showed how much they were supporting me and that was hugely exciting ... but I keep telling myself that we're only getting started. I've always thought globally and I really want to showcase New Zealand to the world. Of course, we'll never feed the whole world forever, maybe we provide a morning tea. [We have to] start thinking of ourselves as a premium exporter of the finest products. That's where our future lies and it's where I want mine to be."

Hopefully all Langbein's judder bars are behind her.

Annabel Langbein: The Free Range Cook starts tonight, TV One.

- NZ Herald

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