Annabel Karmel

Af­ter the tragic death of her three-month-old baby, the only ther­apy for Annabel Karmel was cook­ing. Now, 23 years af­ter her first cook­ery book was pub­lished, she’s Bri­tain’s most suc­cess­ful child food en­tre­pre­neur. Shiva Ku­mar Thekkepat meets her

Friday - - EDITOR'S LETTER -

The Bri­tish au­thor on how she turned to cook­ing af­ter the tragic death of her baby.

A nnabel Karmel calls her­self a ‘mumpreneur’ – her term for a work­ing mother who is also a suc­cess­ful en­tre­pre­neur. In Annabel’s case, the ‘mum’ part is far from su­per­flu­ous – she was a busy mother of three at the be­gin­ning of her hugely suc­cess­ful ca­reer.

But she didn’t start out try­ing to teach chil­dren to eat healthily. It only hap­pened af­ter the tragic death of her three-month-old baby girl, Natasha, in 1987, of en­cephali­tis, a vi­ral in­fec­tion caus­ing in­flam­ma­tion of the brain. Even as she was try­ing to come to terms with the tragedy, Annabel, 50, and her hus­band, Si­mon, an oil bro­ker, had an­other child, a son called Ni­cholas, in 1988.

While griev­ing for her lit­tle girl, Ni­cholas bought his own prob­lems - he was a very fussy eater, and Annabel was con­cerned that he wasn’t get­ting the nu­tri­ents a grow­ing child needs.

“He was the world’s worst eater, and it was very dif­fi­cult to care for him, so close af­ter Natasha’s death,” says Annabel. “I was run­ning a play­group for chil­dren then, and af­ter talk­ing to the other moth­ers, I re­alised that all the chil­dren were dif­fi­cult eaters.”

De­cid­ing to take mat­ters into her own hands, Annabel started de­vis­ing meals to make her son eat right. She still re­mem­bers the first thing she con­cocted in her kitchen to make sure Ni­cholas eat healthily.

“He wouldn’t eat chicken, but he loved ap­ples, so I made tiny bowls of a mix­ture of minced chicken, onions, za’atar, a lit­tle bit of chicken stock, and sprin­kled grated ap­ple over it. Ni­co­las loved it, be­cause the ap­ple gave it the flavour he liked. I still make them – they are so pop­u­lar!”

Thrilled that Ni­cholas liked her con­coc­tion, Annabel started ex­per­i­ment­ing with food. “I would bring the recipes that I cooked into my play­group, and the other mums loved the strange things that I made,” she says.

She would mash av­o­cado with banana, and ap­ple with sweet potato. “Com­bi­na­tions like these were un­heard of,” she says. “People said ba­bies like bland-tast­ing food, and I thought ‘why would they, when we don’t?’ I tried bland stuff on them first, but they weren’t in­ter­ested. So I tried cheese, gar­lic, curry pow­der, herbs and they loved it. No­body had ever both­ered to make baby food tasty or in­ter­est­ing be­fore, but it be­came an ob­ses­sion for me.”

As her recipes kept grow­ing, so did her fan club. “I was mak­ing recipes for Ni­cholas and giv­ing them to other moth­ers. They would say to me, ‘Wow, this is so good. You should write a book on feed­ing chil­dren’,” says Annabel. “So I de­cided to write a cook­ery book, aimed at first-time moth­ers cook­ing for their chil­dren.”

No­body thought any­one would buy a book with just recipes for ba­bies and tod­dlers, but for Annabel – still griev­ing for her daugh­ter – it was a form of ther­apy.

Af­ter two and a half years of hard work check­ing and recheck­ing recipes to en­sure they were per­fect, she sent off the first man­u­script of The Com­plete Baby And Tod­dler Meal Plan­ner to a pub­lisher. How­ever, it was re­jected. She sent it to 14 other pub­lish­ers but none ac­cepted it.

It didn’t de­press her, be­cause Annabel had not ex­pected much from the ven­ture. “It took me 18 months to find a pub­lisher, and it was fi­nally pub­lished in 1991,” she says.

Her first book was a huge suc­cess, sell­ing over four mil­lion copies. “It was pub­lished in 25 coun­tries and trans­lated into many lan­guages, and has be­come the ab­so­lute guide to feed­ing your child,” says Annabel. “It has ev­ery­thing you need to know, from the first food ba­bies eat, to fam­ily food, when they sit with you at the ta­ble and start us­ing cut­lery.”

Since then, Annabel has never stopped writ­ing. “That started me off on many books, like lunch boxes for fussy eaters,” she says. To­day, she has 37 ti­tles to her name. “There re­ally isn’t a mother in Eng­land who doesn’t have one of my books – they are so com­mon there,” says Annabel.

In 2006, Annabel was awarded an MBE (Most Ex­cel­lent Or­der of the Bri­tish Em­pire) for her out­stand­ing work in child nu­tri­tion.

She was then com­mis­sioned by Marks and Spencer and Boots to work on their food ranges. “Then I thought maybe I can do my own range and I took my range of ready meals to su­per­mar­kets,” she says.

In 2007, she was cho­sen as one of Bri­tain’s six iconic chefs by ITV’s

This Morn­ing. In 2009 she won a pres­ti­gious Caterer & Hotel­keeper Ex­cel­lence in Food Award for her chil­dren’s meals, as well as Mother

and Baby mag­a­zine’s Life­time Achieve­ment Award.

The next year Annabel won the me­dia cat­e­gory of the First Women Awards, which recog­nise women at the top of their pro­fes­sions who are leading the way for the next gen­er­a­tion. In 2010, Annabel launched a range of snacks, and

most re­cently a line of purées. “These prod­ucts are all based on recipes from my books,” she says. “They are tasty, healthy, and things chil­dren like.”

A nnabel is pas­sion­ate about im­prov­ing the way chil­dren eat, and her menus fig­ure in leisure re­sorts, re­tail out­lets and nurs­eries in the UK – from But­lins to BHS and Legoland to Asquith Nurs­eries – serv­ing up more than a mil­lion chil­dren’s meals each year.

“I want to give chil­dren a bet­ter life,” she says. “Here in the Mid­dle East, there’s a mas­sive prob­lem with di­a­betes and obe­sity, so if you can con­trol it in the be­gin­ning by get­ting chil­dren to eat healthy, it’s bet­ter than treat­ing af­ter the dis­ease has taken hold.”

Annabel is also an ad­vo­cate of eat­ing sen­si­bly. “Some ex­perts don’t rec­om­mend giv­ing eggs to chil­dren, as they might be al­ler­gic to them,” she sniffs. “If you ask me, they can eat eggs from six months – I’ve sci­en­tif­i­cally proven that. Eggs are a won­der­ful food.

“If chil­dren grow up with­out be­ing ex­posed to germs they won’t de­velop any an­ti­bod­ies at all. It’s hy­giene hy­poth­e­sis. We have moth­ers wrap­ping up their chil­dren to pro­tect them against the el­e­ments, not giv­ing them fish, eggs, wheat, or cow’s milk. It’s not a good way to bring up chil­dren. My feel­ing is un­less there’s a his­tory of al­lergy in the fam­ily, give them eggs, fish and milk. But see a doc­tor first.”

Cook­ing for chil­dren has now taken over Annabel’s life com­pletely. She has a team of people who work books, so I can cater to all tastes,” she says. “I am sen­si­tive to the dif­fer­ent cul­tures and what they eat. I love to ex­per­i­ment and learn all the time.”

A con­ser­va­tive es­ti­mate of the num­ber of recipes Annabel has de­vised so far amounts to an in­cred­i­ble 5,550! “Each book has about 150 to 200 recipes.”

Annabel cooks ev­ery Tues­day, all day, from 7.30am to 8pm, and de­vel­ops around 10 to 12 recipes in that time.

“My team and I re­search the recipes dur­ing the week,” she says. “I test them on chil­dren and fam­i­lies. The recipes have to pass dif­fer­ent tests be­fore they make it into my book. It’s im­por­tant that the chil­dren like them, not just that I like them.”

‘Kids like strong-tast­ing food like olives and hum­mus. They like things you just wouldn’t ex­pect’

with her. “I de­velop the recipes, do my re­search, talk to moth­ers about their chil­dren, what their prob­lems are, what they’d like to see, what they can’t find.

“I work with Tesco su­per­mar­kets in the UK – I am their baby ex­pert. I am on their videos and do their Face­book chats. I ed­u­cate moth­ers and their chil­dren re­gard­ing healthy eat­ing, and I’d like to do some­thing like that here. I am will­ing to put in per­sonal ap­pear­ances for that.”

Annabel finds the Mid­dle East to be a big mar­ket and vis­its Dubai four or five times a year. “I visit su­per­mar­kets, go on tele­vi­sion and ra­dio, talk to mums,” she says. “It’s very im­por­tant to keep in touch. For me, it’s 100 per cent or noth­ing.”

The mix of na­tion­al­i­ties and cul­tures here is no prob­lem at all for Annabel. “You’ll find a mix of In­dian, Chi­nese, among many oth­ers in my

S o what do chil­dren like? “Chil­dren like dif­fer­ent things from adults,” says Annabel. “They don’t like food that’s all messed up like stews and things like that. They pre­fer ‘sep­a­ra­tion’ foods like crisps.

“Kids like strong-tast­ing food, like olives and hum­mus. They like some things you wouldn’t ex­pect.

“It also de­pends on how you present them. Cut up sand­wiches in dif­fer­ent shapes, put fruit on straws

A and they’ll like it. I’ve been do­ing it for so long now, I have a child’s mind for food. I know what’s at­trac­tive to chil­dren. And be­cause I have so many chil­dren pass through my home, there’s al­ways people to test my food on. I even go to schools to test my food.” nnabel’s three chil­dren – Ni­cholas, 25, Lara, 23, and Scar­lett, 21 – have in­her­ited her taste for cook­ing. “I taught them all to cook, and even now, on a Fri­day night, they all cook for us,” she says, smil­ing. “Even when they were young, they would choose a recipe, I would chop up the in­gre­di­ents for them, but the rest of the stuff they would do by them­selves.

“But they don’t want to join me; my son is in oil and gas, and my daugh­ters are start­ing a fash­ion busi­ness.”

Like ev­ery­body else, they like to eat out oc­ca­sion­ally, but at the end of the day, they al­ways come back to the home-cooked favourites. “Like my salad dress­ing, they used to take it to schools in bot­tles,” says Annabel. “They loved it so much they poured it over their school meal! It’s a nice feel­ing.”

Annabel is also in­volved in char­ity work. “I am a pa­tron of a lot of char­i­ties,” she says. “One of them is a hospice for chil­dren in Eng­land, where the chil­dren, all around the age of 13, have ill­nesses that are un­treat­able, and we try to make their lives bet­ter.

“I help the par­ents and their sib­lings. I or­gan­ised a char­ity re­cep­tion where we raised mil­lions of pounds for them. I also work for Save The Chil­dren, among oth­ers.”

So, how does this su­per­woman man­age it all? “I don’t sleep, I stay up very late,” she laughs. “I got up at 2.30am this morn­ing, there were in­ter­views with ra­dio sta­tions, then I li­aised with a busi­ness as­so­ciate in Aus­tralia, then one in the US – there’s al­ways some­one awake in some part of the world who needs to be spo­ken to, and I love it!”

But what re­ally makes her tick is her fam­ily, and that they still can’t get enough of their mum’s cook­ing. “My chil­dren can’t live with­out cer­tain things that I make, and are al­ways ask­ing me for recipes,” says Annabel.

“They still han­ker af­ter my cook­ing. They love the food I guess, that’s why my girls still stay at home. Food is what makes the fam­ily.”

Cous­cous Salad Sal­mon with tomato and sweet potato purée Chicken and ap­ple balls

Mini fish pie

par­ent­ing annabel was in Dubai in Fe­bru­ary to talk to moth­ers about child nu­tri­tion

Up­dated from the 1991 ver­sion, Annabel Karmel’s New Com­plete Baby and Tod­dler Meal Plan­ner was pub­lished in 2008

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