Words by Samantha Brennan
Annabel Langbein is the free-range cook. The New-Zealand native has made an impression worldwide with her television show and cookbooks that showcase easy dinner ideas, healthy cooking tips, home baking and more, and all in step with her love of seasonal ingredients and keeping it simple. Her second tv series, Annabel Langbein The Free Range Cook: Simple Pleasures, debuts on Foxtel’s LifeStyle Channel this month, and her new cookbook of the same name is available now (here’s a sneak peek inside).
I was lucky enough to speak with Annabel while she was in Sydney promoting the new show. Her approach to everyday family food, balancing work and home, and seeing opportunities to cook as chances to slow down rather than feel overwhelmed, seemed all at once so simple and yet so smart, and so very relevant. I hope you enjoy this chat with Annabel as much as I did.
What exactly is your free-range philosophy?
I’ve always had cooking in my life. My mother was a fantastic cook and she always said I came out of the womb with a wooden spoon. At quite a young age, I realised it was a great way to feel useful and successful, and anchored – if I’m ever out of sorts with myself in life, I always go to the kitchen. I’ve always been a gardener and a cook, so when I developed the premise of my television series and the books around it, this idea of a free-range life just became a good way to show all the ways food can connect you – if you think about it, food is the conduit to connect us with nature and the environment, to connect us with our own culture and other cultures, and connect us with family and friends, and connects us to our own creativity. People feel life is so busy, there’s a sense of always being in a rush, and I would say, what do you want the rhythm of your life to be? What will you look back on if you’re constantly rushing? Why not think about it differently – not “I’m too exhausted to even think about dinner”, but “I’m going to take some of my life back here, and I’m going to make this a high point of my day”. I see my job as making this as simple as possible. If I can make it easy for you to feel confident in the kitchen, it’s a simple way to start building a good life. I often think I’m my own best audience, because I’m a busy working mother, and I can show people how simple it is to use fresh ingredients as the basis of what you eat.
Tell us about your new show, Simple Pleasures.
It’s an evolution. In the first show, we built one big terrace garden out of the wilderness, and now there are three. I planted 67 packets of seeds, and everything in the book – apart from avocadoes and citrus – came from the garden. We want to show people how easy it is, and also have that seasonal variety. I do a lot of garden recipes, which are very simple ideas.
You film and produce the show at your home. How do you maintain balance?
We bought our kids up at the family home in Auckland, which is a lot bigger than the cabin where we film. I spend about half my time there, and I have an office there. The little cabin is where we live and film – though when we film we tend to camp, because there’s not enough room! But it is a challenge, especially when you’re the kind of person who gets excited by ideas, is I’ve learnt to stop. My husband really taught me this, is you say, the office and the work will always be there. I walk out, I shut the door, I light some candles and put music on. I change my clothes, because I feel that’s like a change of mood, poor a glass of wine with my husband or friends, and cook something simple and be in the moment. I think that’s what cooking is good at doing, bringing you back in the moment.
People can connect with you and your food through your television show, your books and your website, and there’s a real sense of community around your recipes. How important is this?
I don’t want it to be about me, I want it to be an inclusive experience. We’ve just started a community page on the website (www.annabel-langbein.com) so people can contribute. That’s the great thing about cooking, you never stop learning. I love travelling because I’ll go to that hole-in-the-wall place and they’ll be doing something great with silverbeet or lentils. I love the creativeness that comes out of home cooking.
What’s your approach to family food, both everyday cooking and on special occasions?
I think this is the most fabulous thing – my husband is quite adamant about it and we did it a lot when the kids were little. The first thing you do before eating is light some candles, and set the table. Even if you’re eating beans on toast, you create a sense of occasion around it. You change the lighting and these little things create this ambience. And no matter what we were eating, we always ate together at the table. When our kids were little, their friends would come over and say, “Your family spends so much time sitting around the table!” But now the friends come back to have dinner with us, because they love that the table is the place where we talk and share ideas and challenge each other. It’s a safe place and if you don’t have that experience, and you’re just engaging with the screen, at what point do you have a dialogue? When I was away a lot and the kids were little, my husband would light the candles at breakfast. The kids went to stay with friends one occasion we were both away, and they told us they didn’t know it was breakfast because the candles weren’t lit! I think the idea of what is everyday food and what is special occasion food is less about what you are eating and more about creating the sense of occasion with a special wine or adding extra courses. On our kids’ birthdays, we set their plate with fresh flowers all around their setting so they felt important. So it’s about rituals rather than thinking you have to spend a lot of money and slave away in the kitchen for hours.
What three words best describe your family kitchen?
The heart of my home. Where everyone congregates, feels welcome and can have fun.