Interview: Annabel Karmel

By Simon Round, September 12, 2008
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Her recipes and supermarket food have earned her global fame, but negative media coverage still hurts


Annabel Karmel may be the country's best-known and top-selling author on children and family food but when people attack her work, it hurts. Although she is a fixture on the best-seller lists, she has been sneered at by interviewers from more than one newspaper.

Sitting over a dish of sea bream in an Italian restaurant in London, she says she cannot understand the criticisms.

"There have been interviewers who have made up their mind about what to write about me before they even met me. I gave them some of my books, I cooked them some food, and they were very nice during the interview. Then they wrote really horrible things about me.

"I'm very sensitive to criticism. It's easy to criticise, but if you open up one of my books you will see that there are very few ingredients for each recipe and very few steps. It's all about making healthy food that doesn't take long to cook. I'm aware that mums are very pressed for time."

Others see a conflict between Karmel's stated aim to get more mums cooking for their children and her increasingly ubiquitous range of ready-meal products sitting on the supermarket shelves. She, however, sees no such contradiction.

"Some people will cook and some will never cook. To be honest, there are times when even the most dedicated cook just can't find time to make something fresh in the kitchen. I just wanted to make sure that there is a healthy, quick alternative."

Karmel claims to understand the pressures that busy women have to deal with - mainly because she is one of the busiest of the lot.

In the past 16 years, she has practically become synonymous with cooking for children - if you buy a book on what to cook for your children it will almost certainly be one of hers.

However, since 2005, she has become practically a one-woman industry dominating the high-street.

For a start, there are the "Eat Fussy" ready-meals for children which hit the shelves in Sainsbury's last year and are now the market leader.

Next are the follow-up meals to be launched at Tesco this autumn which take their inspiration from exotic cusines from around the world. Curry for kids? "They love them," says the 51-year-old mother of three.

On top of that there is a range of cooking sauces (all containing hidden vegetables, because, Karmel contends, children will not eat them), and she has also been introducing her meals at theme parks and holiday resorts, including Butlins and Alton Towers.

Oh yes, and between now and the end of next year, she will be publishing six new books as well as a new quarterly magazine on children and family cooking which hits the shelves this autumn.

Helped by a staff of five at her Central London offices, she works almost without break - even her holidays usually involve some kind of work component. Clearly, this is about far more than making vast amounts of money. She agrees that her motivations are powerful. "I'm very passionate about what I do. I couldn't do this amount of work unless I was very committed. I have no time off whatsoever and my private life has been very much curtailed.

"It's taken 16 years to build up trust and I don't want to let anyone down if they are buying Annabel Karmel products and books. So I drive myself very hard because I'm a perfectionist."

And yet this was not a planned career. Her commitment to children's nutrition came about by accident - a tragic accident at that. Her first daughter, Natasha, died following an illness at three months. Before Natasha's birth, Karmel had been a professional harpist. After her death, she never went back to it.

"When Natasha died I wanted to do something which would give some meaning to her short life. My son, Nicholas, who was born afterwards, was a very fussy eater so I spent a lot of time coming up with recipes that he would eat. I got the idea to write a book, which became the complete baby and toddler meal planner.

"In part, it was therapy to get over her death and also a legacy to her. I fully intended that I would write one book and then go back to my life as a musician, but it was so popular and struck a chord with so many mums that I decided to write more. So far I have published 16." She says that there was no way she could do the amount of work she does now when her own children were younger (they are 16, 18 and 20 now). She would work until they came home from school then devote her afternoons to them before returning to the computer or the kitchen at 8pm. Now her time is hers, she is devoting herself to her career.

The fact that she has little time to herself does not bother her. "I always enjoyed life as a musician although there is a lot of travelling and practising so it could be lonely. However, now I have found what I love to do and that's my work. I'm really happy with that."

There is just as much travelling when you are as internationally as successful - and ambitious - as Karmel is. But she is determined to bring more countries into the Karmel empire and besides, she enjoys spreading the word. "If anything, I prefer work travel to holiday travel. You tend to meet a lot more people and get much more of a feeling about the country you are visting."

Her recipes are now translated into more than 20 languages, including Russian and Serbo-Croat, and she is successful in Australia and increasingly so in the United States. The travelling also gives her an opportunity to indulge in one of her great hobbies - reading.

Such is her timetable that she is only able to read when she is away. She also struggles to fit in her other hobbies; bridge, skiing, looking after her new dog ("he's the love of my life"). Oh, and then there is the cooking, which she still classes as a hobby.

"My son, Nicholas, was the problem eater. He's not any more. He comes home from university every weekend and demands Friday night dinner." She does not mind however. After all, without him, she would probably still be playing the harp.

Got a fusspot? Try these five tips

Annabel Karmel recommends five easy ways to improve your child's eating habits:

1. If your children won't eat vegetables, conceal them in other foods. For example, extra vegetables can be added to pasta sauce.
2. Be strong. If your children are being fussy about a dish you have made, do not cook them something different. When they are sufficiently hungry, they will
eat it.
3. Make a healthy snack between meals; for example, cheese, fruit or raw vegetables.
4. Train your children's feeding habits. If your child has never tasted sugary cereals, he will not demand them.
5. Think laterally. If you child likes milk but not fruit, make a strawberry milkshake. If he likes peanut butter, try chicken with satay sauce.

 

    Last updated: 2:49pm, October 6 2008