As they prepare to unveil an exciting new chapter, Annabel Langbein tells Sophie Neville why she’s entrusting daughter Rose to carry on the family mantle.
This time last year, Annabel Langbein wasn’t feeling great. Her adult children, Rose and Sean, were living overseas, the global pandemic was raging uncontrollably around them, and sleepless nights were many. The devoted mum was worried they’d get sick, that they might not be able to access medical treatment in the overwhelmed hospital systems of the US and England, and she knew that if her children needed her, she’d have no way of getting to them.
Now, though, it’s a different story. A beaming Annabel has her 27-year-old daughter Rose with her at home in Wānaka, and son Sean, a junior doctor, is safe for now in London. After a terrifying year, the international cooking star simply couldn’t be happier.
“It’s just wonderful to have Rose here and I feel so incredibly lucky,” she says, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with her stunning mini-me over a Zoom call from the lakeside home she shares with husband Ted Hewetson. “Last year was horrible, actually. I felt really helpless a lot of the time.”
Today Annabel, 63, and Rose are make-up free and relaxed in jeans, casual T-shirts and sneakers. It’s a far cry from the day before, when they gamely played dress-ups in a slew of gorgeous designer dresses for our much-anticipated photo shoot. Covid lockdowns haven’t made the logistics easy, but the patient pair are all smiles as we chat through our screens.
They’re talking to us about Summer At Home, a joint cookbook that rose out of the ashes of their own Covid-19 experiences. The book is a collection of delicious, modern and approachable recipes all created on the Langbeins’ stunning ideal world, she and her boyfriend Hamish, who are living in a cabin on the property, would still be travelling the world.
But they’re determined to make the best of these uncertain times, and Rose is relishing this special time with her mum and dad – not to mention the opportunity to create Summer At Home from scratch.
“Annabel was my guardian angel who looked over my shoulder the whole way,” says Rose, who eats a mainly vegetable-based diet. “She was especially helpful with recipe testing, because everyone knows that no one can write a recipe like my gorgeous mother can! Her dishes always work, you know that with her recipes you’re going to be successful in the kitchen.”
The way Annabel and Rose see it, combining their skills has meant having “this trusted authoritative figure with a slightly more contemporary approach”.
Tells Rose, “I like the idea of it being relevant for my generation, and I think a lot about how I can inspire people in my age group and younger to get out there and cook. There is so much joy to be had by enjoying food.”
Rose and Hamish, a digital product designer, were living in New York when the global pandemic hit the city early in 2020. Almost overnight, Rose lost her job as an art director for a major restaurant company, and the East Village where they lived became virtually deserted as people fled the city.
Luckily, Rose found another job working remotely for a start-up appliance company, but it wasn’t easy for her and fellow Kiwi Hamish, who were locked down for seven months in their tiny flat as the pandemic spread.
“We were really scared,” tells Rose. “Not just about getting it, but also about passing it on. We had a lot of elderly people in our building, so we were very cautious – we bleached everything that came into the house, we left our shoes outside, we wore gloves, masks…”
In London, Rose’s older brother Sean, 29, was working around the clock at a public hospital in Croydon. For Annabel, it was incredibly stressful knowing her children were so far away, both in close contact with the virus.
“Sean spent his days intubating Covid patients,” says Annabel, the tears flowing as she recalls those worrying months. “I was so worried he was going to catch Covid, which he did in the end, but thankfully he recovered.”
Annabel hasn’t seen her son for more than two years, a situation she finds particularly painful. The family are trying to get him home for Christmas, but with MIQ spots so hard to come by, she’s not holding out much hope.
“It’s really awful – part of me was saying, ‘I’m going to jump on a plane and go see him,’ but the other part of me knows that I could get stuck in Europe, and I’m not really up for that.
“We talk a lot and have video calls, but it’s not the same as holding the people you love in your arms and giving them a big hug. Not in a million years could we have imagined this.”
With travel off the cards, life for Annabel has changed immeasurably, but the great upside to these uncertain times has been having Rose home. The mother-daughter duo love nothing more than cooking together, spending time in Annabel’s incredible garden and enjoying long family dinners.
“When our family has dinner together, you don’t just go ‘gobble, gobble’ and off you go. It’s an occasion,” says Annabel. “You always have a good kōrero – it’s life around the table – candles are lit, wine is flowing, and it often takes hours.”
The women share a strong bond over their love of food and cooking, but Annabel laughs as she tells us it hasn’t always been this way. When Rose was little, she was, as her mother puts it, “the world’s fussiest eater”.
“You have no idea! She would only eat white food – potatoes, bread, cheese and pasta – that was about it,” says Annabel. “She would sit under the table and cry if there was broccoli on her plate and she wouldn’t come out until it was off.”
Rose quickly points out, with a laugh, that part of the problem was her mother’s early adoption of organic gardening. “The broccoli was always covered in caterpillars, so I’d have to pick them all off first which was a bit off-putting, even if the vegetables were delicious.”
While it was frustrating, Annabel says she always did her best to avoid making a big deal of it. Food should never be a battle, she says.
“They do grow out of it. I didn’t make a thing of it, because then you end up with people with eating disorders. My children always had a choice – dinner or Weet-Bix.”
While Rose always loved baking with her mum as a child, it wasn’t until her teens that she really started to appreciate Annabel’s culinary passion. Sharing a kitchen feels like the most natural thing in the world, they say.
“We’re like a four-armed creature,” laughs Rose. “It probably looks like total chaos and there’s stuff flying around, but it somehow all comes together.”
“We’re so seamless,” says Annabel. “When we cook together, it’s almost like a language, we can finish each other’s sentences and we can finish each other’s dishes. We’re not following recipes and we barely even need to discuss what we’re making – we just seem to know and understand.”
When we cook together, it’s almost like a language, we can finish each other’s sentences and we can finish each other’s dishes
While Rose looks like her dad, Annabel says there is no doubt that her daughter has taken after her in personality. They describe their brains as “spider-webby”, with ideas and creativity flowing fast.
“We think so alike. The ideas go out and about and everywhere, and then it all comes together and somehow it all makes sense to us. We both need a project, we need to be creating something or working on something. It makes us feel alive,” says Annabel.
And like her mum, Rose is a free spirit; independent, adventurous and curious. When she finished school at 17, she bravely travelled to Jaipur, India, on her own, where she spent four months volunteering at an orphanage.
There, she lived in very basic conditions (her bathroom consisted of a cold water tap and a bucket) and she was the only person who spoke English.
She’s also spent time living in Melbourne, Paris, Sweden, Mexico and New York, and travelled extensively in between.
While worrying about your children can be a natural part of parenting, Wellington-raised Annabel says she’s always tried to follow her own parents’ example by trusting Sean and Rose to make good decisions.
“I’ve always tried not to put fear into her mind, or put up obstacles about why certain things might not be a good idea,” she says. “That’s the interesting thing about trusting your children… If you’re overprotective, the child can lose confidence not only in themselves but they can find they’re not able to be themselves.”
Rose is quick to add that she’s not nearly as wild as Annabel was in her younger days. She says she loved reading every word of her mother’s recently published memoir Bella: My Life in Food, including rollicking stories like leaving home at 16 to live commune-style in the bush, living in a squat in South America in her early twenties, where she was shot at by fascist police, and laying eyes on her husband Ted for the first time, while hiding up a tree.
“I’ve always known Annabel is a badass,” says Rose, with unabashed pride. “She’s so cool, she’s the real deal. She’s so authentic, and has so much knowledge… She’s built this awesome career and written all these books, and she’s done it with her beautiful brain and charisma. I have so much respect for her. And she’s been the most wonderful mother.”
While Rose has memories of a very happy childhood, Annabel has recently spoken out about her regrets over working too hard when her children were young.
She travelled overseas often as her brand grew to global heights, and worked long hours building her publishing business. Husband Ted kept the home fires burning, and the family usually had a Swedish au pair living with them to help hold the fort, but Annabel looks back now with regrets.
“I got really burnt out because I was trying to juggle too much. I didn’t have to do it, I just felt that if I stopped I’d never get back on the bus again. It wasn’t a reality though, of course I could have taken time out, but in my head I thought that would be the end, it would all come crashing down.
“The rat race is getting faster and faster, and then suddenly you go, ‘This is my life– what do I want to spend my time doing?’”
She and Rose have spent a lot of time talking about it. Rose has tried to reassure her mother she never felt she missed out. In fact, she believes her independence is in part thanks to her mother’s work ethic.
“I think Annabel missed out, but I don’t feel like I missed out at all. We always spent time together in the weekends and the evenings. And maybe it made me more resilient because I wasn’t totally reliant on my parents.
“I think it was quite good for me, I learnt to get on with it without being wrapped in cotton wool by my mother. It also meant I have a gorgeous relationship with my father. He’d light candles for us when we ate our porridge, plait my hair, take us camping. He was wonderful.”
But Annabel hopes that when Rose has a family she feels empowered to spend more time at home, rather than succumbing to a societal pressure to do it all. Annabel looks back now at her own upbringing, when her mum Anne stayed at home to raise her and her siblings, Tim and Prue, and she feels nothing but gratitude.
“I railed against my mother, because my generation were all about what your career was going to be. She had a university education but she chose to stay at home and look after us, and I thought she was a doormat for doing that. Yet now I realise how lucky we were that we were so nourished.”
After more than 30 years at the helm of her cookbook empire, Annabel is happily heading in a new direction. She has new writing projects in mind, and even a film she’d love to make. But she’s utterly thrilled that Rose is here to continue the Langbein food legacy, and will support whichever way she wants to take the family brand. First up is their cookbook and a website relaunch.
Says Annabel, “I feel excited that the company Ted and I have created can have a legacy, but the direction of that legacy is Rose’s call. In a way, she’s leading now and I can help and support her, and I’m so happy to do that. She’s got this drive and energy, and if she needs me, I’m here. But I don’t have to be the one leading the charge and that feels great. It’s invigorating.”
While she’s lapping up every moment of having Rose here at home, she knows it won’t last forever. As soon as borders reopen, her adventure-loving daughter and her beau will pack their bags and head off again – this time to Lisbon, Portugal.
“I think we’ll be ready for a change of scenery,” says Rose. “We’re both curious and love trying new places. And the great thing about Europe is that if you don’t like somewhere, there’s always somewhere else pretty close you can try.”
But no matter how long she’s gone, Annabel will always be grateful for this precious year she’s had with her girl.
It’s so nice to have a daughter. I love having a son, but there’s something very special about having a daughter; we’re women and there is a difference.”
Adds Rose, “Mothers and daughters can have quite complicated relationships, because we can be quite critical of each other… There can be underlying expectations and tension around that. But for us, I feel like we’re through that and there’s nothing but pure love, kindness and respect.”