Living life with relish: an interview with Prue Leith
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.
- Great British Menu judge Prue Leith says TV chefs have made us a nation of couch potatoes (dailymail.co.uk)