She could soon be heading up Bake Off, but until that is confirmed, Prue Leith talks to Susie Mesure about ‘rampaging children’, ambition and fattening cakes.
From her sofa perch in Soho’s House of St Barnabas members club, Prue Leith is laying into “rampaging children” in restaurants and their “exhausted parents”.
She flits from berating unimaginative restaurateurs for serving kids dire food and British parents for not wanting to feed their children anything decent, to urging chefs to let kids share their parents’ meals for free and suggesting schools should ban packed lunches “because parents can’t resist putting in chocolate bars”.
Leith has views on hospital food, too. “I once watched my mother lift a cloche from her plate. A grey lake slowly flowed to the edge. Next to this foul-smelling sludge was a pool of watery mash and some khaki peas.
“All the staff do is reheat frozen meals and lay trays with difficult-to-undo packs of cutlery, sweaty squares of cheese, cheap biscuits and dabs of marge,” she says.
The 77-year-old is headline gold, or would be if she could give me the headline I’m after: confirmation that, yes, she will be the new Mary Berry when Love Productions starts filming the next series of The Great British Bake Off for Channel 4. She has – by her own admission – an ego to match Paul Hollywood’s, a brightly-coloured wardrobe to compensate for Berry’s jackets and is desperate to do it, but has yet to sign a contract.
“I’m an egotist and a show-off and very gregarious. I’d love to do it. I love the idea of ordinary people cooking. But they’re busy casting the Mel and Sue roles and they won’t sign off on me or anybody else until then,” she says, resplendent in a red jacket, multi-coloured glasses, and a shrieky, stripy shirt.
“But they know Paul and I would get on very well.” The duo have been practising on camera; after 11 series of the BBC’s Great British Menu, plus one of My Kitchen Rules, for Channel 4, Leith is more than comfortable on camera.
The anticipation must be torture for someone as highly “organised and bossy” as Leith, who remarried last year to John Playfair, a retired clothes designer. For starters, as the new vice-president of the Sustainable Restaurant Association she wants to be able to plan her diary.
But I catch her telling the organisation’s chief executive that she isn’t sure she’ll ever be any use to them. Or maybe she will, if Bake Off’s producers opt for someone else, like Rachel Allen, the Irish celebrity chef who is also in the running and a “very good baker”, according to Leith.
If she does get the call, Leith would like to see more savoury bakes.
“Baking is a wonderful way to cook. It’s so lovely. You put something in the oven and something else comes out. It’s magic. But they don’t have to be sweet things.”
She favours “raised game pies; savoury quiches; wonderful flans”, admitting she is “quite an old-fashioned cook, really”.
That said, she’d rather watch cakes rising on the screen than attempt too many in her Cotswold home – “it’s pretty fattening stuff” – but admits she’s a sucker for the River Cafe chef Ruth Rogers’ polenta cake made with lemons or oranges.
“Everybody likes watching cakes. Part of the success of Bake Off is because we all love to think about cakes and see cakes. So you sit there watching, sort of instead of eating it, although it’s not quite as good!”
Missing out would give Leith more time to help the SRA persuade its members to feed children better, starting by serving them more vegetables.
“Restaurants could make veg part of every single meal they served. If every meal came with veg some children would eat it,” Leith says, her voice quiet against the gentle buzz of the bar we are sitting in.
But what’s in it for chefs, I wonder, given that french fries are quick and cheap. “Why should they care? Parents would feel better about taking children out if they knew they would be getting healthy food.
“As a nation we don’t seem to think it’s a good idea to feed children very good food. We seem to think it’s okay to feed them deep-fried rubbish.”
She suggests restaurants should let kids eat for free if they share their parents’ main course. “The food is never the thing that costs money in a restaurant, a child only eats a very small portion.”
Leith, of course, was a restaurateur herself back in the 1970s and 1980s. And a cookery book writer. But not a chef, although she did run the cookery school that still bears her name, with Caroline Waldegrave. (Leith sold up in 1993.)
“I know everybody thinks I’m a wonderful cook but I’m not. I’m a very good cook but I’m not Raymond Blanc!”
Before worrying too much about what children are eating when they go out, Leith warns that parents should ensure their kids are “bearable”.
She winces, remembering a recent lunch at the Victoria & Albert museum when “whole tables were leaving because there were rampaging children running between tables.”
The parents, she adds, “were taking no notice of them at all because they were exhausted by their bad behaviour, which is their own fault.
“Parents on aeroplanes or in restaurants think, ‘Oh well, they can’t come to any harm so I’ll just have a drink and forget about them.’ It’s an absolute nightmare.”
Her old-fashioned views extend from baking to parenting: “Modern children seem to have to be at the centre of attention. It would be quite good for them to realise they’re not the centre of the world.”
In person, Leith is every bit as forthright as you’d imagine from a woman who has been the sole female in numerous male boardrooms, not to mention having made her career in the testosterone-heavy world of 1970s restaurants.
I bristle when she pauses, mid-rant about what parents put in lunchboxes, to ask “Have you got children? I bet you can’t resist giving them a little treat.”
She is unapologetic for being ambitious. “I wanted to make lots of money. Why don’t women say what they want, why wait to be asked? Do women intuit that it is unacceptable to appear ambitious?”
Despite her many culinary connections, Leith would love nothing more than to be known for the second career she embarked on 15 years ago, swapping food writing for fiction. Though she’s not always keen on her previews.
“People can do more than one thing, so I get irritated when reviewers patronisingly refer to me having ‘rustled up a soufflé of a plot.’ It’s lazy and glib,” she says.
That said, she would be delighted to be known as a novelist. “I’d die happy if someone said, ‘Oh, you’re Prue Leith? The novelist.”
She’s on her eighth book and lives in hope that her Food of Love trilogy will yet be made into a television drama; it has been optioned by Stephen Fry’s company Sprout in partnership with Parallel Films.
Something tells me that if she gets that call from Love Productions, Leith might yet get drawn back to cookery book writing.