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Living life with relish: an interview with Prue Leith

March 15, 2014

Prue Leith doesn’t leave anything to chance. Her Mother and Grandmother both went senile at the age of 80; at 74 years old, Prue has the next six years of her life mapped out. She knows exactly what she wants to accomplish before she becomes an octogenarian in case she meets the same fate. There are no signs of any diminishing mental capacities now though. Dressed in a stylish, colourful tunic, her sharply cut short hair elegantly streaked with grey, this businesswoman, cookery writer and author is relaxed in her armchair but totally in charge of our conversation. She’s in Dubai for the Emirates Festival of Literature and I’ve been granted an interview, which is simultaneously an honour and extremely nerve-wracking.  Forward planning, attention to detail and focus on the end result are essential skills for recipe writing but Prue Leith combined these attributes with ambition and energy setting up a cookery school, a restaurant, a successful contract catering firm, sat on the board of a series of companies (including British Rail) and has written five novels.

However, I am slightly abashed when I put my treasured copy of Leith’s Cookery School (published in 1985) into her hands and she announces that she hasn’t written a recipe for over 20 years. The Leith’s Cookery Bible is updated every year that’s why people think she’s still involved in cookery books. “I tell them if I don’t like anything but otherwise have nothing to do with it.”  She she sold her business, in order to spend more time traveling and to write fiction. When I ask her when she sold the business she replies that it was when she was 55  “As you’d know if you’d read my autobiography” she quips; I sink slightly lower into my chair.

Zadie Smith confessed on Desert Island Discs that looking back on previous novels made her cringe – a bit like reading your teenage diaries. I soldier on, asking Prue if she has a similar view looking back on her old tomes, mentioning that (heaven help me) some of them look a bit dated. She’s looking through the pages of Leith’s Cookery School fondly. It’s one of the first cook books I ever bought and with a series of 42 menus delivered as lessons, guides you through different skills and techniques. Prue chuckles when I mention turned carrots and potatoes. “Look at that” she says pointing to the picture of a whole fish, “you’d never leave the head on these days”, adding  “They’re still good recipes”. “I made that with my son the other day” she refers to a black and white picture of  “shoulder en ballon with sweet port gravy. “He wanted to eat roast lamb but without bones. I hadn’t made it for about thirty years.” I admit to Prue that I had only read my way through most of the book as at the time as I couldn’t afford the ingredients. However I did leap in to the final lesson and bone a turkey, “Oh well done” she approves. I sit up straighter again.

Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course was the book that everyone owned in the early 1980s and she went on to have a successful television career. I suggested to Prue that as her recipes were as practical, useful and foolproof as Delia’s, did she ever think that she should have been more prominent on our screens. She denies this with gusto, pointing out that doing television is very time-consuming and it’s very difficult to guarantee the end result as you are out of control of so many things (the oven, the ingredients, the timing). She does enjoy live demonstrating in public though; and in recent years she’s been part of the judging panel for Great British Menu. She positively beams when describing how she enjoys the company of her co-judges Matthew Fort and Oliver Paton, how she arrives at the studio and someone does her hair and gives her a necklace and then she gets to eat food cooked by the best chefs in the country. “I like being fussed over” she says. Her turquoise-housed ipad is whipped out of a blue straw bag to explain how she fills her time when there is a bit of hanging about during filming.  When asked to name any memorable culinary highlights she sidesteps a bit and says that she prefers simple food. “The problem is I can never remember who the chefs are” she explains. “Oliver knows them all”. When ‘in the trade’ she kept current with all the latest trends, chefs and restaurants and ate at many different places. Now she prefers to go to the same restaurant “round the corner”, although she’s at pains to explain that she still eats out at top restaurants now and then. She still keeps a finger on the pulse of the industry.

Commenting on the Emirates Festival of Literature Festival she smiles with pleasure and explains “Authors like to get together with other authors. And if they don’t treat you like a second class citizen, give you a nice room and do nice things like take you out in the desert, then it’s very pleasant.” She goes on to compliment the service in the hotel, the efficiency of the organisation of the festival and says “They are very good at buttering you up here – I like that”.

She signs my books, poses for a photo and then is gone; seizing her next moments to be filled.

Postscript: Who am I to refuse Prue Leith? I read Relish, her autobiography, in one sitting. She may sound British from her clipped accent but there’s a very un-English honesty and straight-forwardness about the account of her life which may be attributable to her South African birth and upbringing. Central to the book is her long-term affair with the husband of her mother’s best-friend, in tandem with her extraordinary career. Her catering business was built on using the best ingredients, cooking from scratch and not cutting corners and she still prefers uncomplicated food. But she’s not too principled to use a packet soup mix and frozen peas when on a fishing trip in Iceland. She’s been campaigning for years for better school food and a return to cookery lessons and while she admits to quick pang of pique when Jamie Oliver gained more interest overnight with one programme than she had beavering away, she quickly gives him credit for his genuine concern and likeability.

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41 Comments
  1. March 15, 2014 7:54 pm

    Lovely post and how great to be able to interview Prue Leith. I used her Cookery Course and another of her books a lot back in the eighties. They’re still on my shelves but not really used now. Maybe I should take another look!

    • March 15, 2014 9:11 pm

      The recipes can be a bit dated and photography is horrible but the principles and methods are still absolutely spot on.

  2. March 15, 2014 8:58 pm

    What a fascinating opportunity! My interest is definitely piqued – off to check out ‘Relish’ on Amazon…

  3. March 15, 2014 9:56 pm

    She was so outspoken yet endearing at the LitFest. She questioned Michelin why they never gave her restaurant a star and they sat down with her, went through reports of their visits and on one occasion the bread wasn’t very fresh. She remembered that her baker was off sick that day! Relish is sitting next to me. Can’t wait to read it now that I’ve read your post 🙂

    • March 16, 2014 8:30 am

      She’s very keen on getting things right – which is why the Michelin thing bugged her. But yes, who else would ask them directly?! I think you’ll enjoy Relish – very illuminating about Prue and the catering industry.

  4. andreamynard permalink
    March 16, 2014 1:22 am

    Love your honest account of the interview, sounds apt for Prue Leith. You’re very brave – I would’ve been totally daunted, especially after some of her lines.

    • March 16, 2014 8:28 am

      She had a twinkle in her eye the whole time so it wasn’t too daunting. I opened with “I’m a food blogger not a journalist so my interview technique is that I don’t have one” She replied “I don’t think there is a technique”

  5. ramblingtart permalink
    March 16, 2014 7:50 am

    What an interesting woman, brash, opinionated, but definitely interesting. 🙂 You were very brave to interview her and stick with it when you knocked you down right from the get go. I’m always fascinated by the history of people like this. It helps understand why they do what they do, why they behave how they behave.

    • March 16, 2014 8:27 am

      She wasn’t unkind when she said that and much warmer in real life than I expected. I think she gets tarred with a ‘cold’ label which rankles with her. She’s achieved so much and her autobiography is astonishingly frank about some things.

      • March 16, 2014 9:07 am

        I love her and ate at The Apprentice in Dartmouth. I’m going to look for her book to read 🙂

      • March 16, 2014 12:14 pm

        Somewhere to put on the ‘must visit’ list when I’m in Devon.

  6. March 16, 2014 12:03 pm

    Excellent post. I remember having lunch at Prue Leith’s house in the 70’s…she introduced me to real jelly and custard….home made bitter orange jelly and creme anglaise..wonderful.

    • March 16, 2014 12:14 pm

      Wow Roger – that’s some name-dropping. Her house in Gloucestershire? Real jelly and custard too – I approve whole-heartedly.

  7. March 16, 2014 12:44 pm

    What a fantastic post and how lovely to be able to interview such a lovely woman.
    Have a super week ahead Sally.
    🙂 Mandy xo

  8. March 16, 2014 12:47 pm

    Great post, thank you xx

  9. March 16, 2014 3:32 pm

    Sally, you constantly amaze with the posts that drop into my inbox, wonderful stuff. Love your honesty in the interview – it must have been refreshing for her as am sure far too many try and uber-schmooze their way out of such a spot. Am inspired to dig out my copy of PL and add the biog to ‘the list’!

    • March 16, 2014 7:01 pm

      Thanks Ginny. I don’t want to give the impression that she was mean because she wasn’t – we had a nice chat…actually she chatted I listened. Very different from John McCarthy who I picked up from the airport (now I’m name-dropping).

  10. March 16, 2014 9:32 pm

    Great article and wonderful lady.

    Cheers,

    Rosa

  11. glamorous glutton permalink
    March 17, 2014 1:54 am

    I’ve always had a soft spot for Prue Leith. I first met her in the 80s when she did the catering for Jasper Conran’s shows, who I was working for at the time. She introduced me to wonderful food and completely new flavours and combinations. GG

    • March 17, 2014 7:09 am

      Amazing GG – you’ve had some great experiences.

  12. March 17, 2014 9:33 am

    Such an outspoken lady and your post captures her in all her honesty. I am sad that I couldn’t make the most of Litfest, coz Lil Z celebrates her bday in an extended manner.

    • March 17, 2014 9:42 am

      I think she just doesn’t beat around the bush (unlike me) which is why she’s been so successful in business. Belated Happy Birthday to little Z.

  13. March 17, 2014 11:45 am

    I haven’t heard about Prue Leith. Thank you for introducing such a legend through your fascinating account.

    • March 17, 2014 12:17 pm

      Thanks Anita, She’s South African but really made her mark in UK. An inspirational woman for many reasons.

  14. March 18, 2014 10:32 am

    And to think I almost missed this post. Really very interesting and, as per usual, superbly written. I have always been a bit scared of Prue – the no-nonsense demeanour and quick opinion – but also have a respect for her candour, especially at a time when women were not supposed to have strong opinions. And I think she has mellowed on GBM – she really does look like she enjoys herself with the other two. I will go away now and tear through the linked article in The Telegraph and perhaps get her autobiography. She sounds like quite a woman. And you were quite the perfect interviewer. You will have given food bloggers a good name with her. Thank you.

  15. March 18, 2014 12:38 pm

    Oh that’s the familiar face from the Great British Menu. What a frank lady, what an interesting lady. I enjoy reading about women who have achieved something in the public eye, I’m always intrigued as to what kind of grit, principles and passion are behind it all. Thanks Sally x

  16. March 18, 2014 1:01 pm

    This was a great lovely interview with a grand dame of British cuisine! She rocks! 😊

    • March 18, 2014 3:20 pm

      Thanks Sophie – she does indeed

  17. March 20, 2014 1:56 am

    Another fascinating interview! You handled it very well!

  18. March 22, 2014 12:03 am

    She sounds like a fascinating lady and like you, I might have been a bit daunted interviewing her. Like many, I know her best from Great British Menu although she’s accomplished so much in her life. A great write up and lovely photos.

  19. March 23, 2014 12:27 am

    I have an ancient copy (circa early nineties, I think) of the Leith’s Cookery Bible which she co-wrote with Caroline Waldegrave, and I still refer to it occasionally.

  20. April 22, 2014 12:50 am

    I did a course at her cookery school many years ago – of course, she didn’t actually teach – but I remember how rubbish I was at turning carrots and what a nonsense it seemed. I have never done it since!

    • April 22, 2014 8:31 am

      It is nonsense isn’t it – I just hated the waste and the faff at the time. Other things were much more useful though.

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