Prue Leith, founder of Leith’s Cookery School, is known in kitchen circles as a baking queen, but can she usurp Mary Berry as the nation’s favourite sweet-toothed judge in Channel 4’s new Great British Bake Off?
Words: Emily Manson
It’s a rare treat when an interview feels like a genuine chat. It helps that the cook, restaurateur, food campaigner and writer Prue Leith is a gregarious former journalist, but she’s also giddy with excitement.
I can’t place it at first, she’s delightfully upbeat – but perhaps, I think to myself, that is her default persona: ‘I really have had a very lucky life,’ is her opening gambit. She regales me with fabulous stories of getting started as a chef – in turn, interesting, funny, self-deprecating.
‘I tried to be an actress and artist, but failed at both,’ she smiles. ‘Then I flunked university before stumbling on cooking – I’d never thought of it as in South Africa where I grew up, we all had stuff to cook.’
Prue is set to become the new queen of baking, since Mary Berry has chosen not to follow Great British Bake Off to Channel 4
And now she’s set to become the new queen of baking, since Mary Berry has chosen not to follow the nation’s favourite TV show, Great British Bake Off, to Channel 4. Hosts Mel Giedroyc, Sue Perkins and Mary Berry all quit – swearing loyalty to the Beeb, – while Paul Hollywood has opted to stick with the programme.
Gogglebox’s Scarlett Moffatt and Spice Girl Geri Horner are both rumoured to be top of the list as potential presenters.
But back to Prue, who you may recognise as a judge from the BBC’s Great British Menu. Conversation moves swiftly onto her days as the only woman in the man’s world of fine dining restaurants and Albert Roux’s top tips on running a restaurant began by rummaging through Leith’s bins lamenting food waste: ‘That apple was only one third bad; you do not need to give half a duck per person…’
Moving onto her writing, she cheerily tells me how a lecturer once wrote off her chances of writing novels because she’d had a happy childhood. This, he informed her flatly, meant she would never write a good novel. Well, we’re talking today because her seventh novel has just been published – The Prodigal Daughter – part two of her latest trilogy.
She readily admits that it helped writing so many recipe books before and recognises the struggle of today’s unknown writers, urging aspiring authors to harness the powers of social media. She’s also frustrated by the way women’s writing is not taken seriously.
‘They call it chick lit, romance or commercial fiction, which is all faintly derogatory and means that great writers like Jojo Moyes or Clare Mackintosh are never reviewed seriously,’ she says.
The food industry is diet mad and our obsessions have gone too far. It’s no wonder that children and teenagers are struggling with body image issues
Her other passion of food, however, she believes is now taken too seriously. ‘It’s diet mad and our obsession has gone too far. It’s no wonder that children and teenagers are struggling with body image issues. It is just heart-breaking.’
Conversely, what hasn’t gone far enough is the sugar tax. ‘I suppose it’s in the right direction, but not far and not quickly enough,’ says Leith. As the former Chair of The School Food Trust, she advocates the Finnish approach, where food education is part of the school curriculum.
‘The Tory DNA still believes it’s about personal choice, but when parents don’t know about nutrition or how to cook, how can they be expected to pass it on? Schools need to take on the issue and the government needs to give them the money to do it.’
There’s so much to talk about, but then what I suspect is the real reason for her excitement surfaces. Part way through our interview she interjects, and tells me that there is one thing you also might like to know, in a slightly coy way.
‘I’m getting married again,’ announces Leith. Following the death of her first husband in 2002, which she describes as the worst time in her life, this is now ‘a new lease of life and we’re both hugely happy’.
Just like Angelica, the subject of her latest novel who gets a second chance at love, when it comes around again, you grab it with both hands and enjoy every moment.
So although this was a wonderful chat with the icon that is Prue Leith OBE and CBE, it’s also the first ever interview with the new Mrs Playfair. And perhaps the nation’s new queen of baking…