She’s a judge on the Great British Menu, so why does Prue Leith think most cookery shows are like cheap wallpaper? Grace Hammond reports.
Prue Leith isn’t easy to pigeon-hole.
While still best known perhaps as the restaurateur who has been a formidable presence in British catering for the last 40 years, she is also a health campaigner, charity founder and novelist.
More recently she’s also turned from fiction to fact, penning her autobiography Relish – My Life on a Plate, which is as much about the love affair which led to her first marriage as it is about the business of food.
However, it’s the latter which has provided the backdrop to much of her life, from founding Leith’s Restaurants in the 1970s to her most recent role as no-nonsense judge in Great British Menu. Perhaps not surprising for a woman who shows no hesitation in telling chefs where they’ve gone wrong, she’s equally as critical about her own performance in front of the cameras.
“I’ve never really enjoyed television very much because I’m very vain,” she says. “I can’t watch myself, I think ‘Oh no, look at that fat woman’. And I hate my voice. But I was persuaded because it is quite a serious cooking show. It’s about the top chefs in the country. It’s not a sensational, inventive programme. On a lot of these cookery shows you can feel the studio forcing people to be loud-mouthed or aggressive or furious.
“But I agreed to be on Great British Menu because I couldn’t resist the ego trip. I adore being referred to, even as a joke, as ‘the talent’.”
The new series, which begins next week, sees celebrity chefs competing to create a menu to celebrate the London 2012 Olympics and brings Leith back together with fellow judges Matthew Fort and Oliver Peyton. She knew both before they joined the show and insists they are far more knowledgeable than she is.
“Matthew, damn it, can even tell how high up the mountain a Welsh lamb has been grazing, and Oliver can tell you it’s Welsh. Sometimes I’m not even sure it’s lamb.”
Much of Leith’s success has been down to her forthright approach and when it comes to rival cookery shows she feels no need to tread carefully.
“I only watch them very occasionally and I’m frankly not interested in them,” she says without missing a beat. “Cookery shows are like wallpaper on television. They are very cheap to produce so everybody does them. Whole afternoons are packed with food programmes. They’re interesting enough in a vague sort of way, in the background, but I wouldn’t sit down and watch a programme. There are exceptions – Australian Masterchef is brilliant. It’s light, interesting and well done, although the British one’s not bad either.
“But I think there are too many food programmes on telly. I’d rather the audience was cooking in the kitchen than watching somebody else cook on telly. I remember one person saying to me, ‘I love cooking, I’m mad about it’ and I said, ‘What kind of cooking do you do?’ and he said, ‘Oh, I don’t do it – I just never miss Nigella’.
“I’m obsessed with the idea that cooking is creative, wonderful to do and gives great pleasure to the doer and the eater. It’s a better way to spend your life than sitting in a row like The Royle Family stuffing your face with pizza.”
It’s one of the reasons why she has campaigned long and hard for healthier eating in schools long before Jamie Oliver started banging the drum. As former chair of the School Food Trust it was under her watch that the Let’s Get Cooking scheme was launched.
Each week, tens of thousands of children and parents up and down the country attend one of the clubs where they learn to cook something new, then go home and try the recipe out on the family.
At the last count there were more than 200 clubs in Yorkshire alone and like many her achievements it’s down as much to a steely determination and hard work than any innate skill in the kitchen.
“Whether I really deserve to be sitting in judgment on great chefs and pontificating about food is debatable,” she says, admitting at 72 she’s delighted the BBC decided to employ her. “I was never the chef at Leith’s Restaurant. Had I been, we would not have achieved our Michelin star. I have never been a fanatical foodie, bent on ever more invention, originality or perfection. I’ve been perfectly happy to nick ideas from other chefs, follow recipes and leave innovation to better cooks.”
South African by birth, Leith’s father worked for an explosives company and her mother was an actress. She had a privileged, happy childhood and when the family moved to London in the early Sixties she set up a successful catering company and later opened Leith’s Restaurant.
Aside from a dozen cookery books, she now notched up seven novels and her autobiography is as candid as you might expect from a woman who once said, “When you get to 52, food becomes more important than sex.”
Charting her life in the Swinging Sixties, through to her early amorous encounters, much of the focus is on her 13-year affair with South African writer Rayne Kruger, the husband of her mother’s best friend.
He eventually left his wife and married Leith two days before the birth of their son, Daniel. Soon after, they adopted a Cambodian daughter, Li-Da. The couple were married for 25 years until Kruger’s death in 2002. She admits that her two children would have preferred her not to publicise her private life, but Leith feels she couldn’t possibly have left it out.
“Rayne was the most interesting, charismatic man I’d ever met,” she reflects, admitting she threw herself into work when he died to help avoid the grieving process. “Immediately after he died, I went into one of those stages that many women do of becoming over-active. I just wanted to do stuff in order not to think. The first four years were really grim. But Rayne always said, ‘You will have the courage to face your future with enthusiasm and joy’ – and he was right. But even now, 10 years later, I still miss the evening conversations when we would touch base.”
Four years after his death, she met up with an old friend Sir Ernest Hall, the property developer and entrepreneur who transformed Halifax’s Dean Clough Mills from redundant industrial building into thriving art space. The couple’s late-flowering love affair ended recently, for a few years she found herself spending much of her time in Yorkshire, walking around the ruins of Bolton Abbey and dining occasionally at her favourite restaurant, the Angel at Hetton.
Having achieved so much in business, she is finally reaching a point where she wants more time for herself. She loves fishing and has a trip to Norway planned, and hopes to spend more time with the grandchildren.
“I’ve just been revamping my house (in Gloucestershire) and I long to be able to do the things I’ve always wanted. At the last count I had 66 books which I’ve bought but haven’t had time to read.”
She has spent her life working, whether organising other people’s parties (from Elton John’s outrageous caveman party to formal balls for thousands), running restaurants or writing novels. And she still serves on the board of Orient Express Hotels. She’s now planning a trilogy of novels about a family in the restaurant trade, allowing her to trace the changes in food and restaurants from post-war Spam to Heston Blumenthal gastronomy. For now, there’s no sign of slowing down.
“Maybe one day I will finally settle down to reading all those books and watching all the classic movies I’ve missed,” she says. “Maybe.”
Relish: My Life On A Plate by Prue Leith is published by Quercus, priced £16.99. Available now.
Let’s get cooking
Let’s Get Cooking is the national network of cooking clubs for children and families which Prue Leith started during her time as chair of the Schools Food Trust.
During its first five years, the scheme is using £20m from the Big Lottery Fund to set up the first 5,000 clubs.
By the end of the end of the initial phase, it is hoped more than 1.1m children, family members and members of the local community will have increased their cooking skills and their intake of nutritionally healthy food through attending one of around 5,000 clubs.
For full details of clubs across Yorkshire visit www.letsgetcooking.org.uk