Kiwi celebrity chef: Annabel Langbein

Few cooks can perfect the garden to table cycle as effectively as Annabel Langbein – the New Zealand television chef whose fresh, simple approach to food and life has created an international following.

But, even though she made her global television debut in 2010, Langbein is as down-to-earth today as she was when she first turned her hand to cooking for a living more than 20 years ago.

Now one of New Zealand’s most celebrated chefs with many cookbooks, awards and business achievements to her name, Langbein promotes a healthy, less complicated way of living, sustained by home-grown, fresh food, easily prepared and lovingly shared - an example of how life ought to be.

Developing passion

Given her upbringing, it’s hardly surprising Annabel Langbein became a passionate gardener and cook.

Her father Fred worked in the city, but would come home each night and tend his vegetable garden and bees, while her mother Anne was a natural cook and home science university graduate who, with great skill and flair, provided an interesting diet and put extra effort into presentation and table settings.

Langbein says her parents had come out of the Second World War and were therefore thrifty and resourceful, though "ours was no dour, mean-spirited household. Each evening my mother took the trouble to set the table with candles and a pretty posy from the garden, and we gathered to discuss the day’s happenings."

Self-sufficient hippy

Langbein says she entered her teens in the 1970s as a fully-fledged hippy and feminist, who railed against domesticity, consumerism and the urban world in general. She left school and home at the age of 16 and moved to Taranaki, where she lived an alternative lifestyle with friends on the Whanganui River - growing vegetables, cooking over a fire and living off the land.

"For several years I hunted and fished for much of my own food; caught eels, ran trap lines and jumped out of helicopters for live-deer recovery as a means of making a living. What I caught I cooked, experimenting endlessly in a learning process that drew where it could from what I had seen in my mother’s kitchen. For the most part, my learning was unfettered by tradition or the rules of any particular school. Some things worked, others failed."

Horticulture and cooking

Langbein admits she has never formally learned to cook, although later in her career she completed a couple of residential courses at the Culinary Institute of America in upstate New York. Instead she chose to study horticulture at Lincoln University in New Zealand - a decision that proved thoroughly worthwhile.

"Understanding how plants grow is incredibly useful when it comes to cooking," she says.

Langbein’s first foray into the culinary world was in Gisborne on the East Coast of the North Island, when a friend asked her to chef for his small restaurant. She then started up her own Auckland catering business, and has been in the business of food ever since.

Food writer and media host

Since 1984, Langbein has worked in the media, as a food writer for a number of magazines and hosting weekly radio talkback food shows, as well as working as a food presenter on television.

Her television show Annabel Langbein - The Free Range Cook went to air in New Zealand in 2010, winning a Culinary Quill from the NZ Guild of Food Writers.

Distributed by international media giant Fremantle Media, it has now screened in 93 countries while the accompanying book achieved massive popularity in New Zealand, and was published in the UK, Australia, France, German, Dutch and Polish editions. Since then new television series and recipe books have continued to flow.

In 1991, Langbein established the Culinary Institute of New Zealand, a specialist food marketing consultancy, and was responsible for numerous marketing and media campaigns for New Zealand food manufacturers, retailers, and exporters.

She became involved in promoting New Zealand food offshore - working at world expos in Seville, Spain and Taejon, Korea. Langbein was also a judge for the Julia Child Book Awards for three years, and for seven years worked as a company director for Kapiti Cheese.

She is an active campaigner against the entry of GM (genetically engineered or modified organisms) into the food chain and sits on the Sustainability Council of New Zealand, which is committed to keeping New Zealand food, fibre and native ecosystems free of genetically modified organisms.

Cookbooks

Now the author of  21 books, Langbein has been published internationally in nine languages, sold millions of copies world-wide, and won a number of food writing awards.

Her book Annabel Langbein The Free Range Cook was named New Zealand's 2011 'Book of the Year' and won the NZ Bookseller's 'Choice' award in the same year. The Best of Annabel Langbein - Great Food for Busy Lives won the 1999 NZ Guild of Foodwriters ‘Recipe Book of the Year’. Savour the Pacific, which has also been successfully published on the international market, won the ‘Best Photography in the World’ award at the World Cookbook Awards in Perigueux, France, and a Ladle at the World Food Media Awards in 2001.

Married to Ted Hewetson and mother of Sean and Rose, Annabel Langbein continues to travel extensively with her publishing business. And, while she gains inspiration from her trips, admits she still finds it difficult to be out of the kitchen.

Auckland & Lake Wanaka

Langbein's time is now divided between a large family home in Remuera, Auckland, and a lakeside property in Wanaka, in the South Island.

The family’s 9.3 hectare property beside Lake Wanaka is in a picturesque setting at the foothills of the Southern Alps. The semi-remote site has been extensively planted with thousands of trees, and two large vegetable gardens - taking advantage of the Central Otago climate to grow a wide variety of fruits and vegetables.

The Free Range Cook television series films on location at the Wanaka property, and focuses on Langbein’s hunter-gatherer abilities - from catching crayfish to collecting honey. The show follows her easy, fun approach to cooking where she uses basic facilities in the family’s log cabin to prepare fresh, simple fare and presents it with inimitable style.

The television show is now into its third series, and The Free Range Cook has produced three recipe books.

Langbein says eating home-grown, home-cooked food is part of the way her family lives today.

"It connects us, even if only in a small way, to the rhythms of nature. Wandering around my garden at the end of a busy day to find something to serve for our evening meal is incredibly satisfying. So, too, is the daily ritual of setting the table, lighting some candles and sitting down together to enjoy simple, freshly cooked food. Working professionally in the kitchen for the last 20 years has also taught me that along with good-quality ingredients, confidence is the key to cooking success."