Annabel Langbein once made a living trapping possums and jumping out of helicopters to catch wild deer. So how did she become New Zealand's most respected food celebrity, with a lifestyle anyone would covet? Gareth Renowden finds out.
Annabel Langbein's front door is virtually hidden behind a pile of boxes packed with cookbooks ready for shipping. I have to ring several times until someone hears me. Once inside, I find myself in a huge, noisy kitchen full of people buzzing around, chopping, mixing and tasting. On the central island, I spot a mound of cellophane noodles neatly laid out next to piles of mint and coriander, ready to be used in the spicy shrimp salad Langbein is preparing to cook. The smells are making me wish I hadn't eaten a hotel breakfast.
I'm with Langbein at her house in Auckland, New Zealand, where she's spending the afternoon cooking for her family, testing recipes for her upcoming Healthy Grills cookbook for Williams-Sonoma and hatching plans for future projects, including a cooking show. One project she's especially excited about is the cooking school she wants to open near her cabin on Lake Wanaka—a short drive from the Central Otago wine region—where she frequently spends time with her husband, Ted Hewetson, and their kids, Sean, 14, and Rose, 12.
Langbein's exceptional energy, charisma and cooking talent are part of the reason why she has become New Zealand's best-known food personality, selling more than a million copies of her 12 cookbooks. Another huge part of her success has to do with her ability to help even novice cooks prepare dazzling, difficult-sounding Mediterranean- and Asian-inspired dishes. In all her cookbooks, including Cooking to Impress—Without Stress (available in the United States) and Assemble—Sensational Food Made Simple (arriving here soon), Langbein demystifies the act of cooking, showing how specific techniques can be mastered quickly, then used to create a range of delicious and attention-getting dishes.
A perfect example is her spicy ginger pork. Ready in just 30 minutes, it's full of the vibrant flavors of fresh ginger, cilantro, garlic, sesame oil and Thai sweet chile sauce. The recipe is versatile and has equally delicious results when using poultry instead of pork, just as her spicy shrimp salad can be made with squid or chicken.
"Over the years, I've noticed that people are always surprised at how easy it is to get great results," Langbein says. "You don't need layers of knowledge and lots of technique. What you need are good ingredients and the confidence to handle them well. I try to show people how easy it is to gain that confidence."
It's hard to believe Langbein once made a living trapping possums and jumping out of helicopters catching wild deer for New Zealand's nascent venison-farming industry. A series of adventures eventually led her to cooking. In the early '80s, with a horticulture degree but no clear career goals, Langbein and a group of friends built a 52-foot catamaran, intending to sail round the world. They set off from Wellington at 8 p.m. on an autumn night, knowing a storm was about to hit. "I was just stowing my gear when the first wave came through a porthole and soaked my bunk," Langbein recalls. "Then I was sick every 15 minutes for the 10 days it took to sail round to Gisborne." That's where she got off, to leave world travels until later in the decade.
Langbein ended up spending the next two and a half years living in Gisborne, Chardonnay capital of New Zealand. She worked in the vineyards, did some possum-hunting and eventually met the man who would become her husband. "I was trapping possums in a patch of bush—poaching them, actually—when I heard some horses approaching. I escaped up the nearest tree, and when the horses passed underneath I looked down, spotted a young man and thought, He's cute!" Langbein and Hewetson met properly a few years later, and married in 1991.
Gisborne was where Langbein began to develop her interest in food, first by cooking in a small restaurant; she ultimately set up her own catering business in Auckland. "I learned everything from Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking," she tells me, "and when I was thinking about how to do more in the world of food I wrote to Julia, asking her for advice. She was kind enough to write back and suggest that I join the International Association of Cooking Schools (now called the International Association of Culinary Professionals), so I did." Langbein sold her business and flew to Seattle to attend the group's annual conference. "That was 21 years ago," she says. "It really opened my eyes. I met fantastic people and realized there was a whole lot more to the world of food."
These days Langbein is a frequent traveler; she's recently back from Kuala Lumpur and Borneo. Inspirations from her trips often end up in her recipes. They also help her find new ways of using some of the exotic produce she grows in her Auckland garden, like persimmons, guavas, cherimoyas (a green-skinned fruit that tastes like pineapple and papaya) and tamarillos (a red, tart fruit popular in New Zealand). As we walk through the garden, she picks some limes to use in a risotto she'll serve with seared New Zealand scallops and roasted red pepper soup.
I ask Langbein if she has any plans to grow truffle trees—my personal obsession, since I own a truffle farm in the South Island's Waipara Valley—and it turns out she does. She developed an interest in them when she traveled to France's Périgord truffle region to visit her friend Danièle Mazet-Delpeuch, the former personal cook to French president François Mitterrand. Though it took me just about nine years to figure out how to grow truffle trees in New Zealand, something tells me Langbein will come up with an impressive, no-stress solution in no time.
Gareth Renowden, author of The Truffle Book and The Olive Book, lives on a farm in New Zealand's Waipara Valley, and writes a blog called On the Farm (limestonehills.co.nz).