Question and Answer - Annabel Karmel on her Recipe for Success

Lots of people ask me how I got started, what inspired me to write my first cookbook and how I succeeded in raising standards of children’s food. It’s been an exciting roller coaster of a ride, and becoming a leading authority on children’s food, with three beautiful children, two dogs and an MBE to boot is more than I could ever have hoped for.

I thought I would share an insight into how I carved out a successful career and fulfilled a passion for creating delicious, nutritious meals for little ones.

Did you get into cookery as soon as you left school?

No, I started working life as a musician as I loved playing the harp. I studied classical music at the Conservatoire in the Hague Holland and then continued at the Royal College of Music in London.   My very first job was playing at the Savoy hotel in London, which was pretty amazing. I was really lucky as a musician, I played both classical music at the Festival Hall and around the world and made a  CD with the likes of Julian Lloyd Webber and also played Cinderella in pantomime with Denis Waterman and Rula Lenska, I even made a video with Boy George.

I’m sure my parents encouraged me to play the harp because they knew very few boyfriends would want to help me carry it around and that would keep me focused on my work!

I even had a recording career - and the records and CD’s are still available if you want to hunt them down at car boot sales, on eBay or in a charity shop!

So what inspired you change direction and write you first book on feeding babies?

It was the tragedy of losing my first child Natasha, who was born healthy but who died at 13-weeks-old from a viral infection that led me to change direction into the field of nutrition.

It wasn’t a diet-related illness that led to my daughter’s death but I just felt I wanted to give my next child, Nicholas, the very best start in life. I felt quite vulnerable when he didn’t eat properly but the only books I could find had quite bland recipes, so I started adapting all the healthy foods we ate as a family like soups, into things he could eat.

I then started sharing my recipes at my son’s playgroup and they went down a treat.  All the mums kept asking me for more recipes and then they said I should write a book so I spent over 2 years researching child nutrition and testing recipes and I wrote my first book, the Complete Baby and Toddler Meal Planner.

Was it easy to get published back then?

No, it was tough.  Around 15 publishers turned me down before Simon and Schuster published it in the US and then Random House agreed to give me a chance – and 27 books on, I’ve never looked back. In fact, my very first book, the Complete Baby and Toddler Meal Planner, has stood the test of time as it is still the UK’s number one best-selling book on feeding babies and children after 22 years. I keep on updating it to keep it fresh and up to speed with all the latest research.

I would say that my career as a musician has helped me as an author and a chef.  The dedication and discipline I developed whilst playing music definitely helped me to get my first book finished and gave me the flair to experiment with food and develop new, wholesome recipes.

What motivated you to then go on to make baby food and ready meals that we find in supermarket aisles today?

In an ideal world, we would all spend time preparing good, healthy homemade food, but with parents working harder than ever to keep their families on track, spending hours in the kitchen just isn’t feasible for many of us.

That’s why I came up with delicious, healthy and quick mealtime solutions for those busy days. I use the same principle as my recipes – healthy fresh ingredients that are salt and fat controlled, for a guilt-free solution for busy mums.

From my delicious Organic Baby Purees and sauces to my best-selling chilled toddler meals and Fuss Pots, they taste just like home cooked – and even the fussiest of eaters will love them.

If you had to try your hand at something else what would you do?

I’m passionate about food so I’d love to try my hand at running a restaurant or delicatessen. I’d also love to step into the shoes of a restaurant critic. As long as my job involved tasting and experimenting with food, then I’d be in my element.

What was the most unforgettable event in your life?

It has to be the birth of my children, particularly the birth of my son which happened on the staircase at home with no one there except my husband.  I was lucky enough to fall pregnant with my son Nick three months after Natasha passed away, but he certainly made a dramatic entrance!

I had my three children all close together, which meant that our household was quite chaotic, especially as I was busy writing my books at the same time. But they have grown up to be very close, and I’m so proud to see them carving their own careers.  And we still eat together as a family often – they love my home cooking!

Have your children developed a love of cooking from you?

Yes, they love to cook. Some of my happiest memories of my children growing up was spending time with them cooking and baking.  Not only did it create memories that will last a lifetime, but it was a great opportunity to teach them all sorts of invaluable skills – especially the importance of eating a healthy, balanced diet.

At their birthday parties, I would just lay out a host of colourful ingredients and let the children loose on making pizza faces and decorating fairy cakes.  They never forget.

Children learn by watching and doing and you’ll be surprised how many skills they pick up by cooking with you. Once your children have mastered the basics and are cooking confidently, allow them free rein to cook a meal by themselves.  I used to get my children to cook a meal every Friday.  Each month they would pick a recipe and as the weeks went by, they would get better and better at it. It wasn’t always plain sailing, but they had so much fun. We let them invite their friends over as well and it gave me a break!

What are your favourite foods?

I have so many it’s difficult to choose. I love fish, especially seafood and sushi. And I love pasta – I wrote a whole book on pasta called Top 100 Pasta Dishes.  I definitely have a weakness for chocolate.  I love dark chocolate - anything with ginger or cherry liquor. Haagen-Dazs Belgian Chocolate ice cream can also be found in my freezer too!

There’s also a dessert I love which originally came from a restaurant in London called the Caprice. It’s semi frozen berries with a hot white chocolate sauce. It tastes divine.

Whilst healthy eating is important, it’s also good to have a treat or two.

What is one of your proudest moments?

Back in 2006, I was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for my outstanding work in the field of child nutrition. I didn’t believe it until I saw my name in the newspaper.  I’m passionate about making a difference to people’s lives, and this award made me realise that there was a lot more that I wanted to do.

In fact, in June I was honoured to host a 10th birthday celebration for Julia’s House, a hospice for terminally ill children and their families, at Number 10 Downing Street. Samantha Cameron and other well-known household names came in force to show their support and raise awareness of the great work the charity does. If I can help special charities such as Julia’s House raise donations and carry on their good work, it makes my job even more worthwhile.

What’s your favourite cook book?

I love Katie Stewart’s Good Food and anything by Delia Smith - full of straightforward and relatively simple ideas that we can all do. A bit like my recipes I suppose.