An Evening with Prue Leith
We had arranged to meet at 6pm in the ArtBar of Bath’s Abbey Hotel where we were both staying, prior to the after-dinner talk Prue Leith was giving as part of the annual Bath Food Festival. Determined not to be late I was in the bar at 5.55.
Into the bar exactly on the dot of 6pm walked one of my culinary heroes – restaurateur, writer, culinary expert and broadcaster – the very charming Prue Leith.
An interest in cooking
Prue Leith’s interest in cooking developed in France. Born in South Africa and of her own volition unable to find a university course that she enjoyed, she eventually persuaded her father to send her to France with the aim of studying French.
Whilst in Paris she worked as an au pair and discovered that Madame, instead of heading for the nearest store, would make the time to go to several specialist shops in order to buy the freshest and best ingredients on offer.
They were then taken home where she produced simple but delicious tasting meals. Watching her Prue realised she wanted to cook.
One holiday back with the family in South Africa Prue persuaded Charlie, the family’s cook, that she wanted to make the meal that evening.
She split the mayonnaise and much to her chagrin Charlie stepped forward to rescue and save it.
As she said – if only she had realised earlier what a superb cook he was she could have learnt such a lot from just being in the kitchen with him.
A challenging career
She studied cookery at the Cordon Bleu school prior to joining a firm of London solicitors as their cook. From there she progressed to freelance catering and eventually her first restaurant – Leith’s.
Prue admits she really wasn’t the best at running a restaurant. The reason it was so successful however, was because in those days London had an appalling reputation for food; whereas Prue insisted on serving well-cooked, fresh food, nothing frozen or from tins.
Catering contracts quickly followed, with Prue realising she enjoyed organising events just as much as the actual cooking. As her business flourished she realised that to maintain high standards she needed to train her own cooks –the highly acclaimed Leith’s School of Food and Wine was born.
As things so often do one success led to another and before long Prue found herself on the board of various companies and involved with a number of charities. She is still involved with some of them but her career was to take a different turn.
A literary talent
Prue had always enjoyed writing, and indeed has written many superb cookery books: Leith’s Cookery Bible is certainly one of the three books I would want with me on a desert island. By the time I am rescued I would know, in theory at least, how to cope with any method of cooking.
I asked Prue which books she would like if she was cast away on a desert island – one of Hugh Fearnley-Wittingstall’s was a quick reply.
Then she thought about it, and said that actually she would like to take Hugh with her as well because he as was so practical; he could build the shelters, grow the food – and cook it.
There will be no more cookery books because Prue Leith has turned her hand to other forms of writing. Along with her frank, funny, sad and fascinating autobiography Relish, she has written several novels. Her favourite, she told me, The Gardener.
Did she have any career advice for today’s young people, I asked? Indeed she did – even if the job seems boring show enthusiasm, ask questions and be willing to learn new skills. Do that, she reckons, and you’ll succeed.
She told me of her affair with Rayne Kruger and how eventually they married, of her two adored children (one an adopted orphaned Cambodian toddler) and of her pride in their achievements, and of her overwhelming grief at Rayne’s death. Happily in her mid-70s she has once again found love.
By now it was nearly 7.30 and I excused myself to go and finish changing for dinner. When I came down 10 minutes later Prue Leith CBE, restaurateur, caterer, television presenter/broadcaster and cookery writer was still sitting there, happily chatting away to guests in the crowded bar. Two hours or so later she delivered her funny and self-effacing talk, 30 minute later as she sat autographing books, she was still chatting away.
Leith’s Cookery Bible; Relish; The Gardener and other books by Prue Leith are available through Amazon.