Annabel 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.”
Annabel 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 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 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.”
So 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 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.”
Annabel’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.”