The rise and rise of Annabel Langbein

By Greg Bruce

Already one of New Zealand’s top names in home cooking, Annabel Langbein is taking on the world. Greg Bruce talks to her about her unstoppable rise.
Annabel Langbein outside her lakeside home in Wanaka. Photo / Aliscia Young
Annabel Langbein outside her lakeside home in Wanaka. Photo / Aliscia Young

On a recent weekday, at Annabel Langbein's grand and lovely Newmarket home, at which she hardly spends any time anymore, a staff member brought in a plate of bran muffins and a plate of chocolate brownies and placed them on the coffee table in front of her, drawing from Langbein a critically appraising look.

The staff member, possibly aware of the stare, said: "Muffins aren't perfect yet, Annabel, but they're for your feedback."

"Thanks Jane," Langbein replied, genially.

Jane left and Langbein continued to stare uncertainly at the plate. "The muffins look like they're a bit hard and dry," she said, "but we can have a go."

Langbein's is an absurdly appealing life, viewed from the outside, on television, in books and magazines, and also from the inside - certainly from the inside of this house, a quiet suburban idyll just a few hundred metres from Broadway.

Her life is now lived mostly in Wanaka where, above the lake, she and husband Ted have built the small-but-beautiful home that forms the backdrop for her television shows. The Newmarket house is now given over mostly to the staff of her thriving business, Annabel Langbein Media, who help prepare her recipes and produce her mega-selling books and hugely popular television shows. It is still home when she is in Auckland, though, and it will always be the family home, where her children Sean and Rose grew up, before moving overseas for their university educations.

She cut and generously buttered a chunk of one of the muffins. "They're healthy," she said, as if to mitigate for their apparent dryness. "They've got lots of bran in them." She lifted the muffin chunk to her mouth, and exclaimed, "Oooh, they're really dry."

Nevertheless, possibly in the spirit of product development, she ploughed on, her use of butter particularly noteworthy. As she ate, she was looking through her phone for an email she wanted to share. "Do you mind if I tell you this?" she asked. "Because it's actually one of my moments."

The email was from a viewer in Wisconsin, who had started watching Langbein's cooking show Annabel Langbein The Free Range Cook: Simple Pleasures recently, with her 5-year-old son. The child had quickly become a fan and had insisted that his mother buy Langbein's cookbook, which, the viewer explained in her email, he had then used to help her cook a dinner of sesame burgers and crepes with blueberry sauce.

"After dinner," the viewer wrote, "I expressed [to my son] my surprise and delight in how well the dinner went with him in charge. When I thanked him and said we would never have had that dinner had he not spearheaded the whole enterprise, he said, 'Thank Annabel. She inspired me.'"

When she finished reading the email, Langbein looked up from her phone, her eyes red and moist. "Isn't that nice?" she said. "That made my own life feel useful."

She spoke persuasively and enticingly about the redemptive power of cooking and about how food could make the world a better place.

"It's about eating together," she said.

"If you're going to sit together, you have a conversation. And then that opens you up to ideas and you're not just sitting in front of a screen and having a passive experience, you're actually having a dialogue with another human being who could have different views. We always said in our house, 'The table is the safest piece of furniture in the house.' You can talk about anything and you should feel allowed to talk about anything there."

I took a bite of the muffin. "These muffins are quite good," I said.

"No, no," she said, dismissively. "Noooooooo," she added, more comprehensively. "I can make them much less dry and lighter and moister."

I believed her.

Annabel Langbein at home in Wanaka. Photo / Aliscia Young
Annabel Langbein at home in Wanaka. Photo / Aliscia Young

New Zealand's second-biggest-selling book of 2010 was the global publishing phenomenon The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, which sold 51,440 copies. The biggest seller was Annabel Langbein's The Free Range Cook, which sold a frankly absurd 111,621 copies that year.

That is no trivial difference, but nor is it an outlier when it comes to Langbein's recent books. Her string of successes have led the publishing industry to coin the term "the Annabel effect" for the noticeable upturn in the industry every year she publishes a book.

In a single week, during the lead-up to Christmas 2010, The Free Range Cook sold more than 10,000 copies. To put that in context, Nadia Lim, who is widely considered Langbein's main local publishing rival, released a bestselling book in May 2015 called Easy Weeknight Meals, which sold 7417 copies across the entire year.

In 2014, a new book, Annabel Langbein: Through The Seasons, was again New Zealand's biggest-selling book of the year, shifting 28,000 more copies than the next biggest seller, The Great New Zealand Cookbook.

Since 2010, Langbein's books have all been reliable best-sellers, but The Free Range Cook helped define her for the modern age. It put the woman who had long been an integral part of the New Zealand food scene firmly at its centre.

Television is what has made Langbein famous but it is books that have made her rich. Sales of The Free Range Cook totalled nearly $5 million in New Zealand alone and, like all her books, it was self-published.

She is, famously, not a trained cook. She cooked for a few months in a newly opened restaurant in Gisborne once as a very young woman, but she ended up there almost by accident and with the heavy support of Elizabeth David's classic 1954 cookbook, Italian Food. She didn't much like cooking in a restaurant though. She felt constrained by the hours and the repetition.

A desire for freedom runs through her. She traces this desire back to a trip she took to San Francisco with her parents when she was 17.

"San Francisco was this cauldron of change and ideas," she says. "There were musicians like Joni Mitchell and all these other people who had crafted this sense of their own life and independent thinking. And I think that was a very potent moment in time for me, when the world spun on a different axis."

It's like music in a way - once you know a few songs, or basic recipes, you can riff on them with the ingredients you have to hand and play with them to make them suit your mood.
Annabel Langbein

From 18, she spent two-and-a-half years living largely in the bush in the Ureweras, trapping possums and jumping from helicopters to catch live deer for money.

"You would take in a sack of rice, and then basically forage," she says. "So you'd shoot deer and take watercress and take in some carrots and onions, but you were living about three-and-a-half hours from the road and I had a motorbike, but you walked the last hour and a half to a hut, and cooked over a fire.

"When I came out, I just wanted to cook. And Mum had given me [legendary American chef] Julia Child's Mastering The Art Of French Cooking when I was about 14 and I would come out with whatever it was that I had hunted or gathered or fished, and then go to that book and make something incredibly extravagant. I had this sense of almost like a physical need to cook."

She moved to South America for a couple of years in her early 20s and ended up in a small coastal town in Brazil, where she cooked small, crunchy croissants in the afternoon, drawing a steady stream of people knocking on her door, wanting to buy them.

It was a seminal moment, she says, when she realised that something that gave her pleasure could also support her lifestyle.

Returning home, she began work as a microwave oven demonstrator, then started a catering business for television and film shoots. She wrote an article for The Listener about her travels, and that led to her first regular food-writing gig, a fortnightly column in that magazine. She started doing some consulting work.

She was at a point where she knew that she wanted to build a career around food, but she didn't really know how, so she wrote to Julia Child, long before Child had been played in a major motion picture by Meryl Streep, asking for advice. Child wrote back, suggesting she go to the conference of the International Association of Culinary Professionals in Seattle, which Langbein did. She loved it and was inspired, she says, being surrounded by interesting, clever people doing catering, food styling, consultancy.

People kept asking her what New Zealand food was like and, as she described it for them, she realised that New Zealand needed to get the word out about its food. She decided she would be the one to do it.

Langbein is now on television in 93 countries. In the United States, her show airs on the public broadcasting network PBS, with its 350 separate local affiliates. Each affiliate gets to decide whether to screen the programme and most have done so, meaning 93 per cent of US households have now had the opportunity to see it.

Last year, at the US-based Taste Awards - the premier awards for the lifestyle entertainment broadcast industry - she won the people's choice award for best home chef in a series, an award previously won by both Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay. Her first TV series, which aired in New Zealand in 2010, was called The Free Range Cook, tying in with the title of her best-selling book of the same name and with the way she wants to be seen.

Her cooking is ingredient-driven. "I love to cook the landscape," she says, "which means I take my inspiration from what's in season in my garden or the farmers' market."

One early spring in Wanaka, for instance, she took a shoulder of lamb, picked artichokes, celery and parsley from her garden, braised the lamb with white beans, rosemary, lemon zest and garlic, and sauteed the artichokes and celery to add near the end with a blast of crisp, fresh parsley and a splash of brightening lemon juice.

"It's like music in a way - once you know a few songs, or basic recipes, you can riff on them with the ingredients you have to hand and play with them to make them suit your mood. I try to keep it easy and simple and let nature shine."

Since 2010, the words "free range" have attached firmly to her and almost everything she has done. They are on almost every publication she has produced since then, they are on all her television shows, and they are at the top of the home page on her website, above even her name.

Australian-based media consultant Bernard Macleod, who has helped Langbein develop her television presence worldwide, says that establishing Langbein's brand and values through her television and publishing presence in the United States is crucial to her ability to build her business there, selling books, cookware products, gardening products, promoting other people's food lines, or anything else that can attach to the free range brand.

Branding is no easy game, though. Langbein's business manager, Christine Arden, says she is a complex person. "When I first came here to work with her, in terms of her brand, I very quickly was going to put her in a little box and the little box was all about sustainability and being a greenie, and very very far left in terms of living off the land. She is that, but she's all these other things too."

Arden says Langbein is sophisticated, a strong business woman, a nurturing wife and mother, likes a girls' night out, is really handy.

"She's a very can-do person. I think she's an amplification of the Kiwi can-do bloke but she's also really feminine and she's also got the richness of not just being a young, pretty blond thing. She's done a lot."

Apart from all that, her city and country homes are attractive, her kitchens and food are attractive, her lifestyle is attractive and she's attractive.

Food writer and friend Lauraine Jacobs, who describes Langbein as "New Zealand's Martha Stewart" says, "A lot of Annabel's lifestyle is kind of what probably really sold.

"Today's audience," she goes on, "buys into that whole thing of 'I want to be you'."

Langbein often gets recognised overseas. The Turkish Government recently asked her to write a book for them. She's been asked to do work in Serbia. Her life has hints of looming international stardom. Langbein says she feels like she is just at the start line.

She also says that she has never been so broke in her life. "We've made really big investments into America and really big investments into ideas, going, 'I hope that works'."

The risk is all up-front and the bulk of returns are in the long term but that is a fairly accurate summation of her career. By the time she first appeared on television, she had been self-publishing cookbooks for more than 20 years.

Macleod says: "What Annabel has is extra-ordinary depth in terms of both the length of time she's been in the market and her experience in what people want to cook, and how. What I'd say about Annabel is that she has an incredibly high level of perseverance, extraordinary vision of the long term, which I don't think many others have ... She's been around for a long time and she's got a plan to be around for a lot longer."

What is that plan? For how much longer will it run? Where will she end up?

"I don't see a horizon," Langbein says. "It's in me to think, 'Why not?'"

- Canvas

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