The Big Interview
Annabel Karmel’s contribution to the world of food and nutrition for babies and children is second to none. In fact she is the world’s best-selling author on the subject – at home finds out what drives her.
What made you want to become a best-selling author on children’s nutrition?
My first child, Natasha, died at 13 weeks – she was born healthy but she caught a viral infection. I don’t think you ever really get over the loss of a baby. However, a year later, I found myself giving birth on my staircase at home – it was so frightening, having gone through what I did with Natasha. Thankfully, Nicholas, was fine when the doctor finally arrived two and a bit hours later. But as I got stuck into motherhood, I felt quite vulnerable when he didn’t eat properly. At that time, I couldn’t find any exciting books for recipe ideas so I simply made my own – foods that were delicious and tasty. Talking to other mums made me realise very quickly that it wasn’t just me who felt recipe books for babies were bland and boring. No one really knew when to give your baby fish or eggs or when you should start weaning. So I just started researching it all. I felt passionate about wanting to give my child the very best start in life and that’s how it all started. My aim was to get more mums to give their babies fresh food.
What, and where did you study?
When I finished school in London, I was a musician and singer – I played the harp. I was lucky to have performed with the likes of Liberace, Denis Waterman, Queen Elizabeth and Boy George! Being a musician means you have to be dedicated and disciplined, you have to practice, you have to learn your notes and you also learn to be slightly experimental in terms of playing musical variations within a theme and then sticking with the ‘piece’ until you get it right. In many ways, the principles are not a million miles away from what I do now. The dedication and discipline required as a musician helped me to get my first book finished and eventually published. And even now, I’m always testing recipe after recipe – making sure it’s just perfect. Nothing overly fancy; just food that the whole family loves to eat.
Where do you get your ideas?
Experience gained as a mother plays a big part in my creations. I’ve recently launched a fantastic range of baby-feeding equipment called Make your own for Boots – it’s very funky and different from anything else that’s on the market. Being a mother, I know that when I used to freeze baby food in ice cube trays, they were just too big. And what about baby food grinders? They don’t exist – well not until I included one in my new range. It’s the first time the UK baby market has seen anything like it – and so far, the feedback has been fabulous. This is what I love doing – making a difference to people’s lives.
If you hadn’t gone along this path of work, what would you have done?
I think I would have been a counsellor of some sort. I am definitely a people person. And if that wasn’t possible, then I’d be a food critic!
What aspect of your work do you love doing?
Conceptualising, meeting the babies, going to shows guest-speaking at events, writing for magazines, writing my books and of course creating my recipes.
What do you least enjoy about your job?
Oh, I loathe the business side. I find it all intensely boring. The contracts, paperwork – I’d rather do away with that and stick to the creative side, dreaming up new ideas for the next big thing!
How does your husband cope with your success and fame?
He’s totally supportive and always has been. He is used to coming home to a kitchen full of ingredients, new recipe dishes etc – even my three kids tell me they’ll ‘come home after mum’s done all her testing!’
Do you find it difficult spending time with your children when juggling a demanding career?
Well, this is a great profession for me – working from home has meant I can always be with my children. I feel it’s been really important for them and for me cos of what I’ve gotten out of being with them. There is nothing bette than seeing yor children eat and enjoy the food you have prepared with them. Nicholas will be off to university this year and I feel secure in the knowledge that he’ll eat well while he’s away. It’s great to know that.
How have your children influenced your work?
Well, my oldest daughter, Lara, was really fussy about her food – she liked noodles and nothing else so I got involved with foods around the world and of course, all of them taste recipes for me and ask their friends to do the same – I’m never short of kids to test my creations.
Do your children cook and how did you encourage them to get into it?
I don’t think any of them will be cooking in a restaurant any time soon but yes they can all cook a fairly ok meal. They started cooking at seven or eight years old. Their birthday parties were the only ones where everyone would turn up and there would be nothing to eat just a table full of ingredients. We’d spend the next hour making fairy cakes, cheesy feet and pizza faces and hey presto everyone loved it, but you should have the seen the mess. I was known as the only mum who told the parents to send their kids in old clothes that they didn’t mind getting dirty!
What’s been the proudest moment of your career?
This year I was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s Honours List. I didn’t believe it until I saw my name in the newspaper. I felt proud that I had been able to make a difference to people’s lives and it made me realise there was a lot more I want to do to help other children. When I wrote my first book it was as a legacy to my daughter Natasha. I found it very difficult to come to terms with losing her but I would never have written my books if she had not come into my life.
What is your favourite dish to cook?
It has to be my Cottage Pie recipe. It has loads of onions and red pepper in it and is three layers thick – mashed carrot and swede first, peas on top and then a layer of potatoes. I put it in a glass dish so that you can clearly see the layers. And there is a Japanese-style salad dressing that’s just lovely. It’s a pinky-orange colour and my kids love it, too. I also create children’s menus for restaurants – Harvey Nichols has an exclusive menu in their restaurant.
Do you ever crave naughty foods?
Yes, of course I do! I absolutely love chocolate and I just can’t finish a meal without something sweet. I adore peppermint chocs and ice cream, too.
How do you keep fit?
I’m a real gym bunny. I try and go around two to three times a week for an hour. I’m not fond of the treadmill – running is so boring! I just do a general workout with weights and resistance machines. I love being active – it makes me feel good. And I love skiing. It’s another of my passions!
What makes you relax?
Bridge! There are lots of rules to learn but once you get going, it’s addictive and so much fun. Monday nights are my cerebral nights when I get together with seven other girlfriends for an evening of Bridge!
Describe an ideal weekend spent with the family
We love to play board games in winter, just sit around as a family and catch up with each other. Or I’ll go shopping with the girls for clothes and cosmetics. If the weather is nice, we throw on our rollerblades and whiz around a park.
What were the last CDs you bought?
Joe Jackson and Bob Sinclair. Mostly my son downloads music for me onto my iPod – that’s the advantage of having a teenager.
What’s your favourite TV programme?
Desperate Housewives. Is that unoriginal? I see bits of myself in all of them!
Do you have a favourite beauty product?
I don’t spend lots of money on expensive brands. My fave skincare product at the mo is the Olay Regenerist range – it’s great for my skin. I’ll use products from The Body Shop, too.
What’s next for you career-wise?
I’m really excited about my stand at the Practical Parenting show in Earl’s Court, London next month. I’ll be meeting mothers and families and sharing my tips – it’s what I love. And it never feels like work to me.
There’s a lot more work planned in America. I’ve made contact with a New York-based paediatrician and am working on book ideas after clinching a deal with publishers Simon and Schuster. I’d like to build a brand of Annabel Karmel food and am working very hard to make that happen. I feel like I have laid the foundations for even bigger things to do with baby feeding – I even want to get into baby highchairs! My website is a great source of pleasure and eventually I want to build a community on there, too. I’m just nuts about children and hopefully I’ll be able to create a family business my own children can join, if they want to. I’m just waiting for the day they have their kids – I’ll have a whole new generation of food testers!