Chapters In My Life: Prue Leith

Chapters In My Life: Prue Leith

Prue Leith CBE needs little introduction. As a caterer, restaurateur, cookery writer, TV chef and novelist, she is a legend who has been at the top of the British food scene for nearly 60 years, as well as a leading figure in campaigns to improve food in schools and hospitals. Having spent her childhood in South Africa, she fell in love with food while studying in Paris, and the rest is history. Here, the Great British Bake Off judge shares some of the key moments in her life and hopes for the years ahead…

Chapter One: Childhood Years And My Love Of Horses

“I was born in 1940 and grew up in Johannesburg. My mother was a very successful actress, my father was a businessman, and I was the daughter between two brothers.
“My childhood was completely dominated by my love of horses; I was just mad about the idea of horses – from My Friend Flicka to Black Beauty, I read every book I could get my hands on. When I was six or seven, but hadn’t learnt to ride yet, I recall one of my father’s friends asking me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I replied that I wanted to marry a horse, to which my father said, ‘You realise that if you marry a horse all your children will be centaurs, don’t you?’. I was thrilled with this and thought it would be fantastic!
“My parents weren’t horsy at all. As an optional extra, I learned to ride at school and was absolutely determined to have my own pony. I nagged and nagged until finally, when I was about 12, they relented and bought Laddie for me. He lived on a farm and cost practically no money at all because he had been lame for many years and stood on three legs, which made him unsaleable. I wasn’t at all happy with him being on a farm because I only got there during the school holidays, so my parents agreed he should come to Johannesburg and he stayed in stables just outside town. I adored Laddie – basically, I wanted him at home and preferably in my bedroom! One day I rode him back to our house and installed him on our back veranda, which I transformed into a sort of stable putting up a makeshift rope fence from one side to the other to keep him in. The next morning, Laddie had left us and bolted for freedom. We lived in the suburbs and, in those days, the servants congregated in the street to meet their friends and there were always people hanging around – so it wasn’t too difficult to track him because, as I walked along the streets, I asked everyone if they’d seen a horse trotting past. They had and I followed his route – Laddie had crossed an enormous dual carriage main road and had found his way to a field with other horses!
“I went on being mad about horses until I discovered boys…”

I went to university not really knowing what I wanted to do but I was always very enthusiastic about what I was doing at that very moment – nothing has changed, even now I’m in my 80s!
I went to university not really knowing what I wanted to do but I was always very enthusiastic about what I was doing at that very moment – nothing has changed, even now I’m in my 80s!

Chapter Two: My Schooldays

“I didn’t pay much attention to school and I wasn’t very good at it. I was lazy and busy with other stuff. When I was 15, and still mad about horses, I asked my father if I could leave school to go and work at the stables. I thought it would save him all this money as I’d be off his payroll. He insisted that he could well afford my education and that I had to stay at school until I got my matric (which was the equivalent of A Levels). He said: ‘You have to get that, and I don’t mind how long you stay at school…you can be 30, but I can afford it.’ I realised, bloody hell, he’s serious, I have got to pass my matric. But what I hadn’t realised was that, in order to pass, I had to pass Afrikaans. This was dreadful news, as I had long been banished from the Afrikaans lessons, and the teacher refused to take me back into her class. I used to sit in the library during these periods where I discovered that the Afrikaans magazines they had were all women’s magazines, and were full of love stories about farmers’ sons falling in love with the village school mistress and so on. The school was not exactly a convent, but it was run by nuns and everything was so pure, so I thought these stories about romance were terrific and that is how I learnt Afrikaans…and I got a first in my matric!
“I went to university not really knowing what I wanted to do but I was always very enthusiastic about what I was doing at that very moment – nothing has changed, even now I’m in my 80s! I loved the theatre and, with my mother being an actress, I spent a lot of my holidays at her theatre company so thought I’d be an actress. I joined the drama school and, because my mother was rather famous, they obviously thought I’d be a star too. But in reality, I was rather bad at it but still wanted to work in the theatre so I went to art school, thinking I could do stage design. The head of the art school was a German sculptor and, one day, he stood behind me watching me draw. He asked: ‘What are you doing in my life class?’ I replied: ‘I’m trying to draw.’ He said: ‘Give it up, you’ll never be any good.’ Of course, nowadays, no one can tell children they have no talent or that you’re in the wrong job, but I was glad he’d said that because I was enjoying myself and might have spent three years trying to learn. I then had a tiny bash at architecture school, but that didn’t last long as I realised I needed maths and I wasn’t any good at that. Finally, I ended up trying to do a BA in French and logic, I don't know why logic but, anyway, studying French. At the end of my second year, we had to do some exams and, having sat three out of the six, I was convinced I’d failed, so I didn’t bother with the remaining three and went off to the beach. I actually passed them and should have had a go at the others, but it was too late by then, I’d already quit!”

Chapter Three: Discovering My Love For Food

“It was 1960, I was 19, and I decided to go to France to learn French properly, that was my next enthusiasm! The idea was I could be an interpreter at the United Nations. I did a course at the Alliance Française to get my French up to speed, then went to the Sorbonne for a few months to do their cours de la civilisation française and read things like Baudelaire. Of course, you can’t live in Paris and not become interested in food and this is where it all started. I did a bit of work washing up in a restaurant and even tried to get a job at Maxim’s, but they only allowed women into the kitchen at 5.30am to peel the potatoes and skin the onions. I wouldn’t have been allowed to chop them or get to learn anything, so that failed and I decided to move to London in 1961.
“I applied for the advanced course at the Cordon Bleu, which I rather bluffed my way into. I was a bit big for my boots and don’t know why I thought I could do the advanced course when I couldn’t cook at all, but I knew I didn’t want to do a whole year and my principle was let’s start at the top. To get into the advanced course you had to have done their beginners or intermediate course or worked in a restaurant. I said I’d worked in one in Paris, and luckily they didn’t question me too deeply…I’d only worked a few Saturday nights as the washer up and hadn’t done any cooking at all. One white lie was a very big black lie!
“I was lucky, however, as they put us in twos. The woman I was paired with had a café and she was a very good baker and knew the basics of pretty much everything; also, she hadn’t had a white South African privileged childhood when you never went into the kitchen. She taught me everything really.”

Chapter Four: Setting Up My Business & Restaurant 

“While I was still at Cordon Bleu, people would ring the school to ask if they could have someone to help at a party. I was living in a bedsitter in Paddington and started cooking for people’s dinner parties. I remember one woman in Holland Park, a rather grand lady…she had a hatch between her kitchen and dining room, and I could hear the conversation. I had made an asparagus galette and one of her guests commented how absolutely delicious the food was and said to the hostess, ‘You must give me the name of your cook’, to which she replied, ‘Oh no, that girl in the kitchen is just doing the washing up, I made that.’ I was so indignant and wanted to pull the hatch open to say this is not true, but I was desperate for work and realised that wouldn’t do me any good. But what I did do is that I put my business card in every pocket of her guests’ coats. The next day the head of Reed International’s secretary rang up and said her boss wanted to meet me as he’d been at the dinner party the night before. Along I went, and he said that it wasn’t just my cooking that had impressed him but my marketing skills.
“At the time, I also started doing some writing and published my first cookbook. I just loved cooking and was passionate about food and wanted to open a restaurant. Of course, you can’t start one without any money so I continued with the catering to prove myself, not so much to amass a pile of money – though I did make quite a lot – but so the bank would believe in me. I opened Leith’s in Notting Hill in 1969. I employed a chef and didn’t work in the kitchen myself – just the once and I managed to stab the second chef! I was still cooking in the catering company and running the marketing for both businesses as well as working front of house in the restaurant.
“I opened my cookery school in 1974. The catering business was growing quite well – we had premises in the City, but I could never get the kind of cooks I wanted, I always felt we had to retrain them. I wanted to do what I call English country house cooking, very simple, French-based food, but nothing fancy. I’ve never liked the carved radishes that look like hand grenades! Mostly, I hired middle-class girls who had been to the Cordon Bleu or working-class lads who had been to catering college. These lads were fantastic on technique, but they had no love of food, no interest in the dishes and did not taste things unless forced to. They had gone to catering college because someone at school had told them they were too stupid to go into the army, or whatever; it was really a low status profession and they had no pride in it. Whereas the girls were very enthusiastic but less good on technique. I wanted to combine the two. Caroline Waldegrave had been my head cook and had gone off travelling in America, but I knew she was the one I wanted to run the school and I sent her a fax offering her the job. Funnily enough, when I first hired her as a junior, I rang the Cordon Bleu for a reference. I remember them saying: ‘Caroline Burrows?’ as she was then…’You really want to hire her? She was the naughtiest girl in the school.’ I decided that was a good thing.
“Both businesses grew and grew over the years. Sadly, my father died when I was 21, and my one regret is that he did not live to see me actually succeed at anything. He had always been so patient about what I wanted to do, even though he had, at times, got to the stage of eyes to heaven and despairing of me. Throughout my career, and especially when I was made Businesswoman of the Year or got my CBE, I wanted to say ‘There you are dad, I’m not completely flaky!’”

Chapter Five: Disasters At The Daily Mail

“When the Mail started Femail in the 70s, I became their cookery writer. The editor David English was keen to get Lady Elizabeth Anson (the Queen’s cousin) to write their cookery column, but she was a party planner and had to admit that she could neither cook nor write. She knew me well as I did a lot of catering for her parties and she suggested to him that I’d be good.
“I went to meet the editor who wanted me to write as Lady Elisabeth Anson. I thought this is not what I want, and I’ll be doing all the work, so I came up with the idea that one week I would write her column and the next I’d write one under my name. He bought it! He obviously wanted her and she wanted me to do her ghosting, so I managed to twist his arm. As her, I wrote all the posh stuff – the society things, dinner party menus etc – and I did the mince on toast, the tatties, the simple things.
“I have to admit to some terrible boo-boos during my time at the Mail. The first was on one of the recipes I wrote for Lady Elizabeth – a crème brûlée with spiced stem ginger in the base. I wrote one ounce of ginger instead of stem ginger; one ounce is the whole pot, it would blow your head off. The editor’s wife made this and that was me nearly out of the door. The worst was my recipe for Oxford marmalade, which includes a couple of tablespoons of black treacle. In those days I wrote by hand and didn’t cross the ‘t’ in ‘2 tbs’ so it became ‘2 lbs’ of black treacle. You wouldn’t believe how many readers do exactly what they’re told. The telephone switchboard went white hot with readers calling up, saying ‘I’ve got all this goo in the pan, now what do I do?’. Two pounds of black treacle would have cost a fortune; in fact, it cost 19 shillings and tuppence, as we had to pay this out to all the people who complained. As my punishment, I had to sit by the phone and take all the calls, and there were plenty. One sensible woman said she realised there had been a mistake and asked how many oranges and how much sugar she needed to get the proportions right – I worked out it would make 185 jars, literally industrial quantities. I also must be the only person who has ever emptied the Daily Mail office. It was during the IRA letter bomb attacks and we’d all been given very specific training as to what to do if we saw a suspicious parcel – we were told that if there’s something squashy it’s probably Semtex and if you can feel wires it’s bad news. One morning, I found a parcel on my desk which I thought was unmistakably a bomb; it had a squashy bit in the middle and I thought I could feel bits of wire too. I rang the post room, as instructed, and the police came to remove my ‘bomb’. The entire building was evacuated. Of course, it was a false alarm and, when I opened the parcel, inside was a piece of marmalade toffee with a dental brace embedded in it and two teeth, as well as a very angry letter and a bill for this chap’s orthodontist! Still, I managed to survive as cookery writer of the Mail for four years!”

Chapter Six: Marriages & Children 

“I was married to Rayne Kruger for 28 years. He was a writer and 19 years older than me. I first met him when I was 12 – he was a friend of my parents and had come to South Africa as he was writing a book about the Boer War. I then caught up with him again when I was 20, we fell in love and we had a long, secret affair which was all a bit tense as his wife Nan was my mother’s best friend. Over the next few years, I was busy with my business and didn’t really want to get married; it was just too close, too difficult. And I never fussed about him not wanting to marry me – I didn’t need to be married – until I got to about 34 and began wanting a baby. I tried to leave him but that didn’t work and, in the end, we came clean – in 1974 we got married, we had a baby, and lived happily ever after. I have to say his wife was absolutely wonderful about it all.
“Rayne didn’t really want children, as he had brought up three of his wife’s (her first husband had died in the war). He felt he’d done that but recognised I badly wanted children. So, we did a deal: we agreed we’d have one and adopt one – I wanted the experience of bearing and having a child, and I was also quite happy to adopt. Daniel was born and we then adopted Li-Da when she was 16 months old. There is a six-month age gap between them, which is an unnatural gap, of course, and a lot of people – including my mother – were against us adopting. We did consult a psychiatrist who, having seen Daniel in his office pulling papers out his drawers, decided that he’d be fine as he was so confident. His worry was Li-Da. She had been rescued from the Khmer Rouge, her parents had probably been killed, she had been flown first to Thailand then to England. The mother of the family who were going to adopt her here died; she then went to Canada; then France with a woman who was going to adopt her but then couldn’t because her marriage was falling apart. The poor girl had three of four mother figures and three different languages all before she was two. The psychiatrist said she couldn’t not be damaged, as he didn’t believe you could put a child through so much trauma. However, when we saw Li-Da, she was absolutely perfect and lovely, and has been ever since. I suppose we were taking a risk but then you do take risks with you own children.
“Rayne died in 2002. I met John [Playfair] eight years later, and we’ve been together for ten years now, married for four – he’s eight years younger than me. But we’ve only officially moved in together quite recently, into our new house!”

Chapter Seven: My Campaigning

“During the Harold Wilson government, there was a great move away from manual and domestic work.  He thought home economics in schools was ridiculous, that technology and business would take care of everything, machines would make ready-meals and that women would be liberated from cooking and washing up. I was so shocked by the lack of food education in schools and wanted to get involved in the debate. I’ve always been opiniated, a bit of a bossy boots, but didn’t feel anyone would take any notice of me, as I was not a politician and didn’t have any degrees.
“I’ve always loved art, particularly modern art, and was already a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and I realised that if I could get onto the council that would be a good thing. I only knew one woman on the council, Heather Brigstocke, the high mistress of St Paul’s Girls School. I rang her to ask her how I should go about it and she said: ‘Consider it done.’ That’s how things happened in those days, it was all about who you know, not what you know. So, I wormed my way onto the council and knew I’d then be able to get onto the education committee and, with FRSA after my name, people would take note. And it did help, no question.
“I started agitating and banging on doors and trying to get the government to listen. I got the RSA to start a charity called Focus on Food, which Waitrose supported really hugely for nine years. We had a bus that went round teaching primary school children to cook. The bus was amazing – its sides came out to make a huge square classroom.
“One thing led to another and I sat on various government task forces and, in 2007, ended up chairing the School Food Trust under Labour which did quite a lot of good work getting cooking back into schools. Then the Tories came along and had the bonfire of the quangos and that went, but the work still went on – though it didn’t get funded by the government, it had to become a charity.
“Now I’m absolutely delighted because this government is actually aware of the importance of food, and has set up the National Food Strategy, headed by Henry Dimbleby. I was also instrumental with the latest NHS hospital food review and am pleased to say that all eight of its recommendations have been accepted and funded. There’s a move in the right direction, but I still think they’ve got it wrong in schools with the obesity problem.”

Chapter Eight: The Great British Bake Off

“I was offered to take over from Mary Berry on Bake Off when the programme moved to Channel 4. Of course, I had done a fair amount of television before – 11 years of the Great British Menu with some of the best chefs in the country, as well as My Kitchen Rules which wasn’t a great success. I absolutely adore Bake Off, it’s such fun. It wouldn’t be fun if I didn’t like Paul Hollywood, but we get on so well. It’s a very friendly production company, a lot of the cameramen have been there since the very beginning and so have the home economists (and I’m glad to say some of them have been trained by Leith’s).
“Of course, for the last series we were all in a bubble and filmed in a hotel in Essex; I hope we go back to Welford Park in Berkshire for the next series – it’s a lovely house owned by a family called Puxley, it’s just a nice, comfy place to be and their library is our green room. The judges don’t spend a lot of time on set – we’re not allowed to get too chummy with the bakers and we don’t spend time with them the way the presenters do. We have a lot of free time and, over the years and hours spent in the library, I’ve written a couple of books, Sandi [Toksvig] did an awful lot of knitting and wrote a play. Paul watches the telly – he likes racing, motor and football, boys’ stuff! I don’t know what Matt Lucas does as I’ve only done the bubble with him and we were in separate shepherd’s huts between shots.”

The Next Chapter…

“I didn’t write cookery books for 25 years – from the mid 90s I was mostly writing novels and my autobiography. But when I got Bake Off, my agent kept saying I should write one as I had a new and much younger audience. I thought that would be a fun thing to do and wrote two new books, the last with my niece Peta Leith – it’s a vegetarian cookbook and really nice. I love vegetarian food…well, I like all food, everything! I’m now mulling over doing another book, but I haven’t got very far with it as yet.
“I also started writing a novel but stopped after three chapters. These days publishers tend to tell you what you can and can’t write. Sadly it’s all about political correctness and I was being told I couldn’t have my fictional characters behave the way I wanted, so I quit. I still think it’s quite a good novel so I might go back to it. It’s sitting there, which I’ve never done before; I’m a great finisher – I start something and plough on until it’s done. But I do realise that if I don’t get on with it I might die before I finish it! I don’t want to leave an unfinished novel. My ambition is to get one of my novels to the screen. I did get one quite far into the option stage and into development, but the company went under because of Covid, so I’m back to square one.
I love business. When I sold mine, I didn’t miss it at all but I did find myself drawn into other people’s businesses as an investor. My daughter is a filmmaker and she and a couple of friends are starting a production company and I’m a shareholder – that is quite exciting and it’s nice to be working with her. My character is very greedy, I always want a chunk of something and want to be involved, so I find it very difficult to say no when people offer me things. I’m getting better at being picky though, but I have got a lot of stuff going on. I’ve enjoyed lockdown and being at home for a bit, walking the dogs, just cooking for two and I’m hoping I won’t being pulled back into everything – which is my character of course – where I’m just running around and never at home. It might be a struggle!
“Mainly, I’m looking forward to seeing the grandchildren – we have eight between us. I’ve missed my family, which is the worst of lockdown.”

The Vegetarian Kitchen by Prue & Peta Leith is out now.

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