Annabel Karmel comes bounding into the room like a bundle of sunshine. With her yellow dress and immaculate makeup, she seems a world apart from the drab Bloomsbury bar where we meet.
For millions of parents, Karmel is a household name, with major supermarkets stocking her baby and toddler food. It was her first book, the Complete Baby and Toddler Meal Planner, which brought her international fame in the early 90s, and is a non-fiction bestseller in the UK, having sold almost five million copies.
Karmel is candid and colourful, but she admits that there is a sad side to writing that initial book.
She says the idea was brought to fruition by the tragic loss of her daughter. “I tried for many years to get pregnant and eventually gave birth to a little girl called Natasha, who died when she was three months old. It really changed my life and made me think about how we can help children and make their lives more healthy.”
While Natasha didn’t die of a dietary disease, Karmel was conscious that the only thing parents can really control is what their children eat – or try to control at least. And in fact, when her son Nicholas was born a year later, she realised just how fussy these little humans can be.
“You can’t believe how small they are and how stubborn they can be,” she smiles. So the celebrity chef devised some dishes for her toddler that were cleverly disguised as tasty, while also being nutritious at the same time. And it wasn’t long before other mothers were asking Karmel for her recipes.
Part of the problem back then – and arguably even now almost three decades later – is the amount of conflicting advice parents are given.
“No one knew what to give babies,” she says. “Parents bought these jars that didn’t taste like real food, and which weren’t particularly nutritious.”
Karmel, who is now a mother of three, saw a clear gap in the market, and set about to write the book, working closely with nutritionists from Great Ormond Street Hospital for more than two years. “I wanted to make sure it was based on scientific facts, not old wives tales,” she says.
You’d think, with scientific credibility and the mass of stressed parents crying out for guidance, that publishers would rush at the chance to print the book. But that wasn’t the case.
“The difficulty was, no one saw baby books as being commercial, and a publisher only wants to publish something if it will make money – so I couldn’t have chosen a worse subject matter from that perspective. But as a mother, I understood all the anxieties parents had because they were my anxieties too. So I knew that was the type of book that would help other mothers.”
After contacting 15 publishers and getting nowhere, Karmel eventually hit the jackpot with an American company. The popularity of the book in the US then spurred Penguin Random House to get on board, publishing it in 25 countries.
Sometimes people think that to be an entrepreneur, you have to invent something new, but you don’t
The London-born chef now has 44 cookery books under her belt, all of which include recipes aimed at children and families.
Her success has put her in plain sight of the major retailers, including the likes of Marks & Spencer, Boots, Asda, and Sainsbury’s – all of which have wanted a piece of the Karmel pie, and have collaborated with her to develop nutritious food ranges and weekly meal plans for young children.
Karmel is intent on world domination, having recently tapped the Australian market with a frozen food range, which is being dished out by supermarket giants Coles and Woolworths. And she isn't stopping there. China is next on the horizon, where she plans to launch a baby food range through the country’s most popular social app, WeChat.
When you think that, in 2016, there were nearly 17m babies born in China (by comparison, there were 700,000 infants born in the UK), the potential in that market is huge.
But Karmel stresses that her company is not just focused on putting food and books on shelves. “We want to educate mums; it’s not just about pushing the product, it’s about encouraging them to home-cook as well.”
She tells me that a huge number of toddlers are iron deficient, and that homemade meals are the only way to ensure children get the right minerals and fatty acids.
With the UK’s obesity crisis continually hogging headline news (it’s estimated that 40 per cent of British kids aged 10 and 11 are overweight), I ask what Karmel thinks of the newly introduced sugar tax. “It’s only a tax on soft drinks, which is a very small microcosm of what kids consume,” she says, pointing to sugary cereals and the the plethora of junk food targeted at young children.
While Karmel praises the government for taking action, she says parents are more canny now, and questions whether we need a nanny state. “Really it’s about getting your child to enjoy healthy meals, so they won’t crave the bad food.”
Building trust among parents – who, of course, want the very best for their children – is a huge achievement, and Karmel now has a loyal fan-base who are always hungry for more.
The chef will devote Tuesdays to experimenting with new recipes. She also continues to work with nutritionists. “Research is always changing; for example, now they are saying you should give your child peanut butter at six months – otherwise your child has a propensity to have an allergy because you’re desensitising them to peanuts.”
Karmel is now looking to get investors on board to help expand her business, casting her entrepreneurial eye on the digital side (her app is already one of the most popular in the Apple Store's food and drink category).
You could argue that her success rests on the simplicity of her concept. “Sometimes people think that to be an entrepreneur, you have to invent something new, but you don’t,” she says.
Of course, the first (baby) steps are often the hardest when starting a business, but now there’s no stopping this godmother of kids’ food.