Prue Leith: ‘We shouldn’t be so screwed up about food’
I meet Prue Leith in the lift on our way to Galvin at Windows, which sounds like the name of a hair salon but is actually a rather ritzy restaurant offering modern French haute cuisine on the 28th floor of the Hilton, Park Lane. Despite the acreage of empty dining space on offer, at midday, in the middle of the week, we are seated next to the other diners to enjoy the panoramic views over west London. The guests are mostly out-of-towners, longtime gal pals meeting up for an annual chat over Pinot Grigio, or couples on the brink of becoming engaged. But the room prickles with excitement when the 79-year-old takes her seat.
Leith has enjoyed a decades-long career as a restaurateur, businesswoman, novelist and broadcaster, but her celebrity has taken on a new dazzle since appearing on the global television phenomenon The Great British Bake Off, the reality show in which amateur bakers are whittled to a winner according to their ability to produce self-portraits in choux pastry, or recreate Blackpool Pier with breadsticks. She took the job in 2017 when the show’s makers moved it from the BBC to Channel 4, a controversial moment. Many doubted the woman who had snatched the pastry fork from the fingers of former presenter Mary Berry, who chose not to make the move, but the critics have been largely silenced. Last year’s finale drew a live audience of more than 7.5m, and there exists a fairly broad consensus (well, in our house anyway) that the Leith-era GBBO is better than ever.
This week the show returned for a 10th series, as 13 new contestants entered the tent to proof their bakes and have their “soggy bottoms” prodded by Leith’s co-host Paul Hollywood. Notwithstanding a nasty leg injury, Leith retains her crown as contessa of the cake house.
Few are better qualified for the title. Born and raised in South Africa, Leith founded her first catering company in 1960, aged 20, on graduation from the Cordon Bleu cookery school in London. She opened Leith’s, her first restaurant, in 1969; the Prue Leith School of Food and Wine followed in 1975. She has written numerous cookbooks, nine novels and has held a number of non-executive director positions. None of her previous work, however, has had the same extraordinary reach.
“I don’t think anybody understands why it became so amazingly successful,” says Leith of GBBO’s tremendous popularity. “I think it’s partly that people like eating cakes, and the vicarious pleasure of seeing all that cake. But also because nobody’s out to humiliate anybody.”
In many ways GBBO has come to represent those things western society is said to be lacking: comradeship, dedication, the celebration of ordinary domestic skills — and filthy innuendo. “I don’t get most of them, but Paul is always seeing huge rudeness,” says Leith of the low-level smut that glazes almost every GBBO interaction. “But what is interesting is that Bake Off is genuinely watched by every age, and all sexes, cooks and non-cooks, and every class. People may be stuck on a benefits budget and eating really not good food but they’ll watch Bake Off.”
Nevertheless, having campaigned for many years about the hideous levels of sugar in our diets, I wonder if Leith doesn’t feel a bit guilty about taking the dough for a show that oozes with the stuff. She shrugs off the charge of hypocrisy. “I just feel that any way that gets kids into cooking is a good thing. I think it’s the start of a — I can’t bear the word journey, but if you ask people how they started cooking, they nearly always made cornflake cakes with chocolate at school, or they watched their mother baking. They don’t say, ‘I watched my mother making roast chicken’.”
Naturally, Leith is all about getting the kiddos interested in cooking. She was served food prepared by house staff for most of her childhood. Her mother, Peggy Inglis, a famous actress in South Africa, never went near a kitchen, and her father, Sam Leith, was too busy producing dynamite for ICI to teach her how to bake. But even as a tree-climbing tomboy, Leith was able to knock out a few rock buns. She believes all children should be encouraged to cook, but does have some reservations about the generation of young gastronomes emerging as a result of the new foodie culture.
“I do find it a bit odd when a 10-year-old comes up to me at a book signing and asks me how to improve a tiramisu,” she laughs. “And it’s scary when children with very middle-class tastes ask things like: ‘What kind of gremolata should I serve with fish?’ I want to say: ‘What’s the matter with a bit of ketchup?’ ”
No ketchup at Galvin’s, but there is a choice of three menus, mostly written in French and offering a range of dining opportunities. “Well, I don’t want the dégustation — that’s when they keep bringing you lots of little bits and pieces and talk to you about them all the time,” says Leith as she quickly edits the options. She settles on a starter of stuffed courgette flowers, followed by a smoked duck salad. I opt for the mackerel starter with crème fraîche and rocket, and then the hake. We drink water. I destroy the bread basket.
Leith has always been passionate about food and the business of its production. She first discussed the challenges of running a catering business with the Financial Times in 1972, and her take on managed growth seems as eminently sensible today as it did then. When she opened Leith’s, she was mentored by Albert Roux, with whom she would shop for vegetables because he had a refrigerated van. She recalls him sniffing the air “like a bloodhound”, in search of overripe melons, and learning to share his obsession for seasonal ingredients. “If I have bought two ready meals in my life it’s a lot; I can’t remember any,” she says of her fondness for the cooking pot. When she sold her cookery school in 1993, she had educated a generation of professional chefs and enthusiastic amateurs, and was turning over more than £15m a year. The catering academy she founded in South Africa, in 1995, continues to place chefs in the top restaurants in Africa each year.
But while she’s always been political about food, she understands the subject is fraught with danger. She caveats the idea that food in Britain has improved enormously in recent years by saying that access to better food is still “a privilege” offered only to those “who can afford to pay it”. And she’s reluctant to be prescriptive about what we should and shouldn’t eat. “I hate the idea of demonising foods. Yes, I do think there’s a problem with sugar . . . But I don’t see the point of making a sugar-free cake.”
Neither is she much interested in faddy diets. “We shouldn’t be screwed up about food. What really upsets me is those people who spend a huge amount of money on supplements and purges. That obsession with the clean gut, I just think, is nonsense. The body has a perfectly good method of evacuation,” she says with the crisp-vowelled erudition of a character in a Paul Bowles novel. “And it’s not a purge.”
And where does she stand on veganism? “In a way I quite approve of veganism because it does mean we eat less meat as a nation and that means some of us can feel less guilty about the fact we’re eating it. There’s a better argument, I think, for veganism than there is for vegetarianism. It’s more logical because then you don’t have any animals and you accept that there are no domestic animals. But I’m sentimental about it; I still want to see cows and sheep in the fields.”
Leith has always delighted in food and feeding people. I wonder what advice she has for someone like me, who loves food but regards cooking as unendurably tedious.
“I think it’s to do with confidence,” she replies. “If you’re a good cook, then all that stress of, have I got the right ingredients, and am I doing the right thing — which spoils the pleasure of cooking — goes away. I just love it when you’ve got lots of raw ingredients. If I’m in a market I have to really be disciplined about the temptation to buy everything. They look so great when they’re still raw and they’re shiny . . . It’s very sexy.”
I’ll tell you what isn’t sexy: the two plates that have just been delivered to the table. The food is so fussily presented as to be almost unrecognisable. “I can’t remember what I ordered,” says Leith, as she tentatively pokes a bit of duck around the plate. My mackerel, meanwhile, has been served alongside a slice of bread on which a dozen little spheres of sauce have been blobbed. “Bread with blobs on, that’s descriptive,” observes Leith drily of my flair for gastronomic language.
She wanted to come to Galvin’s because the proprietor is a friend, and she was being loyal, but just as on GBBO her verdict is all the more brutal for the sense of dismay with which she delivers it. “This is vaguely disappointing, isn’t it,” she says sadly when the second course arrives. “They made the same mistake as with the first thing. It was quite nice flavours but there are too many of them and an altogether overpowering sauce just tastes . . . ” She sighs. “It’s just a bit of a waste of time.” The courgette flower wilts in shame.
Knowing that I might face that kind of criticism, I would never dare cook Leith anything, although she insists she’s quite happy to be catered for. How often does that happen? “Not very often,” she admits. “I made a bit of a mistake with both of my husbands, probably because I’m bossy. When I married my first husband [the writer Rayne Kruger, who died in 2002], he could do a really good fry-up and make an omelette. Then of course I took over and he stopped making breakfast and then he just never, ever cooked again. And I did the same thing with my second husband [John Playfair, a fashion designer, seven years her junior, whom she married in 2016].
“He wooed me on two meals,” she says. “One was haggis — which I absolutely love — and he did a very good job of that. Then the next time he bought two really beautiful Dexter beef fillet steaks.” And then, as he was about to start prepping, she started back-seat cooking — the cardinal sin of kitchen etiquette. “I could not bear the thought that he was going to put these steaks into a not hot enough pan,’’ she says. Suffice to say, she has since had to do all the cooking herself.
Leith married for the second time when she was 76, at a point in life when she was happily reconciled to the idea that she might never meet another partner. Compared with Kruger, a somewhat reclusive intellectual, Playfair sounds a jollier chap. He ferries her to her various book tours, most recently to promote The Lost Son, her eighth novel and the last part of a trilogy that Leith says I must mention on threat of death from her publisher. He also adores her primary, bold “matchy-matchy” style, has opinions about whether she should continue to dye her hair, which she has lately allowed to silver and about which they disagree, and has helped to re-socialise her in the Cotswolds where, for 40 years, she has kept a home.
We order coffee and I ask Leith the inevitable question asked of any woman who has carved out a phenomenally successful, varied career. How did she make it work? “Well, I owned the company so I could arrange the schedule side,” she says of the delicate negotiation of balancing work and family life. “And I’m brilliant at delegating. Everybody knows in my house never to say, can I help, because I always say: ‘Yes. Could you just take the rubbish out?’ ”
But she’s unapologetic in her assertion that equality in the professional kitchen is still a long way off. “People often ask me why women don’t have more Michelin stars, and why are all the top chefs men? It’s because men won’t stay at home and look after the children at night; that’s the beginning and end of the story. You don’t get a Michelin star by doing the tea room or lunchtime restaurant,” she says.
Leith worked hard throughout her children’s lives. “I was a terrible mother and a terrible grandmother,” she says, without regret. Nonetheless, her children seem to have done all right. Her daughter Li-Da, born in Cambodia and adopted by Leith and Kruger in 1975, is a film-maker who recently adopted a baby herself. Her son, Danny Kruger, a former speech writer for David Cameron, has been appointed as Boris Johnson’s political secretary.
I studied history with Kruger at Edinburgh University and remember him as having a dazzling mind, though I’m intrigued to discover that today he’s a Tory-supporting Christian. “He’s trying desperately to get the Tories to have some sort of joined-up communities policy,” says Leith. The clan all seem committed to the idea of the Big Society. Last week, Leith joined a government review into hospital food that will look at, among other things, bringing more catering in-house and putting an end to embalming food in plastic.
“I’m absolutely convinced that there’s a latent desire in all levels of society to be involved and to do things with other people,” says Leith. “You see it in community ventures when people get together to dig a garden, or to do something or other. And a lot of that just doesn’t happen because there’s no encouragement. I think Mrs Thatcher was responsible for that, because Britain became not so much a me-too society but a me society. I think that overshadowed the idea that it should be about us.”
It’s an analysis that echoes her thoughts on the success of GBBO. Yes, we love the show because its participants are killing themselves to make show-stopping pâtisserie. But its real power is in the kindness at its heart. The contestants are nice to each other; they applaud each other’s achievements. It rewards culinary individuality and innovation, but it also celebrates compassion and a cub-scout can-do attitude. It’s about “us”.
“The lovely thing about Bake Off is that everybody, from the cameraman to the washer-up, knows that the main thing is to get the bakers to do the best they can,” says Leith. “But maybe kindness is something you don’t actually see on television any more — they’re all voting people off islands or trying to persuade them to have sex with each other or whatever.”
The bill arrives, and Leith is very kind to the staff even though she has dismissed the food as “not great”. She patiently twinkles for a picture so I can capture her in situ. When she smiles, her warmth fills the room. Heads bob up in recognition. It strikes me that, as someone who embodies the idea of one’s later years being a second act, Prue Leith takes the cake.
Jo Ellison is editor of How To Spend It
Prue Leith is appearing at the FT Weekend Festival, September 7 at Kenwood House, London. For more information, visit ftweekendfestival.com