Prue Leith has never been afraid to speak her mind and now she is well into her 70s she doesn’t show any sign of curbing her sharp tongue.
When we speak her bugbear is the state of food in our hospitals, but in the past it has been school dinners, the dangers of sugar and celebrity chefs to name but a few. It is for good reason one of her brothers nicknamed her “Mersey Mouth”, after the Mersey Tunnel.
But here is a woman ahead of her time.
As head of the School Food Trust, when she raised the problem with school meals and the dangers that high levels of fat, salt and sugar posed to our young she was dismissed as nannying. Now she has been proved right, although it did take Jamie Oliver’s high profile intervention to actually precipitate change.
“It does frustrate me that I had been lobbying for a long time about school meals and sugar. But at least things are now being done and we are moving in the right direction at last. It doesn’t really give me any pleasure to be proved right. When I started at the School Food Trust they used to call me the Food Tsar and ‘nanny’. People said ‘How dare you tell us what to feed our children’. There was a lot of hostility at the time. But I do think that has all changed as we have seen the consequences.”
Where Jamie Oliver may have used shock tactics to get his message across, Prue Leith believes in facilitating change from the inside, by sitting on government committees and working with the decision makers. However, her passion is by no means any less than the celebrity chef’s. “I remember making some speech saying that sugar was addictive and the sugar lobby came down on me like a ton of bricks, but now I have been proved right,” she says. While she does believe we are heading in the right direction, she says she is frustrated by the speed of that change.
“When I took the job at the Schools Food Trust in 2006 I remember thinking this job should be done in three years,” she recalls. “I said, ‘If you make it law that children have to be fed the right food and give heads the money you will soon have everyone eating healthier and I can retire after three years.’ I now realise that it is a battle for life. Every generation is going to have to keep telling people what’s good and what’s not good for them. I am sure we are making progress, but the battle is never won.
“It was easier when people just ate three meals a day, rather than snack all the time.”
This may all sound a bit doom and gloom, but Prue Leith is proud of the work she did at the Schools Food Trust.
“We had £20m to set up school cooking clubs called Let’s Get Cooking, and it one of the things I am most proud of.”
The Let’s Get Cooking programme was created with the aim of establishing a national network of clubs to give children and non-cooking parents of all ages the skills and confidence to cook nutritious and tasty meals from scratch. It has gone on to create more than 5,000 clubs in England, reaching more than 2.5m people.
An evaluation of its impact was published in 2012, finding that more than half of participants (58 per cent) reported a healthier diet after taking part and 92 per cent using their new skills at home.
“The clubs are great fun and run with the children and parents so no one feels like they are being preached to. One of the best cookery lessons I ever went to was in a school where they were going to make bread. The Home Economics teacher didn’t turn up and so another teacher stepped in. He said ‘I don’t know how to make bread, let’s all learn together.’ I thought that was fantastic.”
She also founded Focus on Food, which teaches children in school to cook, and also trains teachers to teach cooking. They have a fleet of pantechnicon buses which turn into fully-equipped teaching classrooms. Today, Focus on Food also has a cooks’ school in Dean Clough, Halifax.
Prue Leith was born in South Africa to a well-off family. She was sent to England to boarding school. She went to Cape Town university but admits to having “flunked out” and managed to convince her parents to pay for her to go to the Sorbonne to improve her French. But it was the food and wine which caught a young Prue’s eye.
She was particularly influenced by the woman she worked for as an au pair, who went to three different shops to buy her baguettes, croissants and gateaux. It was an introduction to fresh locally-produced food which was to stay with Prue Leith throughout her career. She decided to move to London and enrolled in the Cordon Bleu cookery school.
“My first job was as cook for a firm of solicitors,” she recalls. “I graduated to cooking dinner parties for the partners’ wives and then catering for bigger events – weddings and parties and balls.”
This led to her Michelin-starred restaurant Leith’s in Kensington Park Road which opened in 1969.
In 1975 she founded Leith’s School of Food and Wine which trains professional chefs and amateur cooks.
“I have always had an obsession with vocational training,” she says. The group reached a turnover of £15m in 1993, when she sold up. Due to the success of her own business she was invited on to other people’s boards, unusual at the time for a woman. She first joined the British Railways Board, and then Safeway, Halifax, Whitbread and Woolworth.
She has resigned from most now and will soon leave the board of Belmond Hotels, which she says she will really miss. In 1990 she won the title of Veuve Cliquot Business Woman of the Year. Writing has always been another of her passions, and not just cookery books. She has written five novels and has been a columnist and food writer for a number of national newspapers.
“I’ve always written something. Stories at school, a play when I was at university (thankfully never published, but it was performed, and it was dire). My first cookbook was Leith’s All Party Cookbook, really a manual for caterers, illustrated with library pictures of Victorian banquets and picnics,” says Prue.
A dozen cookbooks followed, the best of them, she says, being Leith’s Cookery Bible. “I reckon it’s so popular because the recipes work. So they should, they have hundreds of students and dozens of teachers testing them almost daily.”
But she says she always wanted to write fiction and started seriously when her children were little. She has a son, Daniel, and daughter Li-Da who she and her husband Rayne Krugar adopted from war-torn Cambodia, She was married to Rayne for 28 years. Twenty years her senior, he died in 2002. She writes about how she coped with widowhood in her autobiography Relish: My Life on a Plate.
She may be taking a back seat from some of her more high-profile roles, but Prue has just agreed to become patron of the Malton Food Lovers Festival. “I love the idea of a food festival involving so many different organisations and children I think it’s great and I am happy to be involved,” she says.
“Above all I like the fact that is fun. It is alright telling everyone about their five-a-days and to exercise constantly, but where’s the pleasure in that? People will eat healthily if you make it fun and that is where something like Malton Food Lovers’ Festival comes in.”
• Malton Food Lovers Festival: Saturday May 23 and Sunday 24.