Prue Leith has made a name for herself internationally as a chef, restaurateur, author and entrepreneur. She founded the Prue Leith Chefs Academy in Centurion, which has trained many of South Africa’s top chefs. Internationally, she is well known for her role as a judge on The Great British Bake Off. She has published 14 cookbooks, a memoir, Relish and eight novels. Prue Leith’s career has included her own restaurants, catering and cookery school businesses. Prue has had a deep involvement with education and the arts: she chaired the first of the companies charged with turning around failing state schools and was Chair of the School Food Trust, responsible for the improvement of school food and food education. She started and led the campaign for contemporary sculpture to be exhibited on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square. She has been active in many charities and is the Chancellor of Queen Margaret University. She is an advisor for the Government’s Hospital Food Review. Among her awards she has a CBE, 12 honorary degrees or fellowships from UK universities, the Veuve Clicquot Businesswoman of the year, and her restaurant, Leith’s, won a Michelin star. Prue’s latest cookbook The Vegetarian Kitchen, which she wrote with her niece Peta Leith, will be released in March 2020.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I suppose my mama, who was a very well known actress in her day in South Africa. She was called Margaret Inglis. She was a theatre producer, a Shakespearian actress, she ran a company, she acted, she produced, she directed and she worked full-time. So I suppose in a way, her. My dad was a businessman, so I think I got my business instincts from my dad probably. Although, my mother had to run a company and was very good at it. So I suppose my mama…who was a terrible cook! In fact, I dedicated my very first cookbook to her.
You began your tertiary education at UCT where you studied quite a few different subjects…
I did. I couldn’t settle. I went to drama school first. I suppose because mum was an actress so I thought I’d do that. I love the theatre and then I very quickly realised that loving the theatre doesn’t mean you love acting. I swopped to doing theatre design at the arts school. In those days, once you were in university, you could swop around. I did that for a while and then the director of the school came and stood behind me in a life-drawing class and said, “What are you doing in my art school?” I said, “I’m trying to learn to draw.” He said, “Well I’d give it up now. You are never going to be any good.” I was rather grateful he said that because if I wasn’t going to have any talent, I didn’t want to do something I wouldn’t be any good at. I quit and I finally ended up trying to do a BA in French but frankly, I was spending so much time on Clifton beach, there was not much chance of me passing. Finally, I left after second year and went to Paris where I figured I’d learn French from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. When I got to Paris, instead of concentrating on Baudelaire and Bonaparte, I was more interested in boeuf bourguignon and became obsessed with food because you can’t really live in France without the food bug getting you.
When you started to develop a passion for food, did you ever imagine that it would turn into such a long and illustrious career?
No, I didn’t. Young people today are always told that they have to have goals and targets and map out their careers. I had none of that. I just followed my nose and whatever came up, I did. Because I’m quite enthusiastic, I would take on anything. When I was still at cookery school, I started helping other caterers and cooking at a party or something like that and then I started to get my own customers and it began to grow. What I think I’ve always been good at, in a way you might call it bullshit or you could call it marketing. I was quite good at talking up why they needed me. Once I was cooking a dinner party for a woman and she was rather a grand lady. It was quite an old fashioned kitchen with one of those hatches between the dining room and the kitchen. I could hear everything the guests said and I heard one of her guests say, “This is absolutely delicious, you must give me the phone number of the girl in the kitchen.” And she said, “Oh no, she is just there washing up.” I wanted to fling open the doors and go, “Hey! I cooked that!” But I didn’t and I thought, “I’m not going to take this lying down.” I had cards printed and I put one into the pocket of all the guest’s coats that were hanging in the hall and I wrote, “Your dinner was cooked by Prue Leith.” The next day, the secretary of one of the guests rang me and said, “My boss was so impressed with your dinner last night, would you come and do the director’s lunches?” It was a real breakthrough for me. When I finally met him, he said, “It was partly that I thought the dinner was delicious but I was so impressed with your marketing skills.” I suppose I’ve always had one eye for it. Sometimes it hasn’t worked but I think the thing about business is it’s really important not to have a failure at the very start. If the very first thing you do you fail at or you bust at, it mustn’t knock you back or knock your confidence and your ability to get up and do it again.
You started to achieve things at a very young age and had such a strong sense of entrepreneurship. How were you able to have such a strong sense of purpose as a young woman forging your own path?
I wanted to see people eating my food. I wanted to have a restaurant, not so much to have my name in lights but to corral people to eat my food. I had an idea that I’d see them do it but of course, you never do. You are in the kitchen, you don’t see it. I wasn’t always in the kitchen so I did see it. But I couldn’t start a restaurant. A restaurant was my aim. When I was in Paris getting to be interested in food, a restaurant I dreamed about would have been full of young people and there would be unknown artists on the walls and the food would be very inexpensive and they would be given table cloths that were very informal and friendly, like a club. But I hadn’t thought it through. You can’t have a small restaurant that charges nothing. By the time I actually could afford to open a restaurant, which was about 10 years later and by the time my catering business was doing really well, I had made enough money that I could impress the bank into letting me borrow some and I borrowed some from my mother who become an investor. I was lucky and privileged, I suppose. But I didn’t manage to do that restaurant for 10 years because I didn’t have enough money so of course, I had to do catering and actually, I saw more of customers eating my food as a caterer than I ever did as a restauranteur.
What would you say is the biggest lesson you learned during those early years?
I think one of the reasons I was successful, although I don’t think I consciously learned it as a lesson but I would certainly say it to young people now, is that you’ve got to understand that catering happens at antisocial hours. People eat on weekends. Inconveniently, they want to eat on Christmas Day. They eat in the evenings, they eat when you would like to be playing. The first thing you have to learn is that you will want to do this enough to give up your social life. Interestingly, your social life tends to be with colleagues in the same business as you because you will meet them after service at midnight in one of their restaurants or in a club or something and you will have a different sort of life. You might be off Monday or Tuesday but you are unlikely to be off on weekends. I think that’s the first thing. The other thing I learned really early on was that there is a fine line between being brave enough to take on something you’ve never done, which I would encourage you to do, but not to pretend that you are a master of everything. You just have to be honest with the customer otherwise you will fall flat on your face.
Your visit to South Africa coincides with quite a big milestone. What is that significance around this trip?
There are a whole lot of reasons why I’m here. One of them is the Prue Leith Chef’s Academy. I tend to come out as often as I can to see that they are still doing things right and actually, they are a great company and I don’t need to come as often. I haven’t been here for three years, so I really had to come. I thought it would just be so nice to have my birthday in South Africa because you don’t want to turn 80 in February in England which is the most miserable month. That’s another reason and then also because I’ve started having this collection of spectacles. We are launching them in South Africa, so I’m going round flogging specs and flogging my new cookbook which is out next month. That is a vegetarian cookbook and I’m on a slight mission to get South African’s to stop doing this ridiculous banting diet which is stuffing themselves with cholesterol and swallow a few veg. It’s good for us. I think the reason South African’s are so obsessed with the banting diet is because they really want an excuse to get more braai and more seafood and more meat. It’s not good for the planet, it’s not good for them and it’s very expensive. Vegetables are cheaper and healthier. I’m a carnivore. I would never give up bacon or a good steak but I really believe we should be eating better quality meat that hasn’t been force-fed to be tasteless and it’s so cruel.
You’ve written 14 cookbooks. What has the process been like of getting this one from an idea into a published book?
Well, to be honest, I wrote a vegetarian cookbook 25 years ago but my publisher in those days said, “If you have the word vegetarian in the title, we won’t sell a single copy. Nobody likes vegetarians and nobody will buy a vegetarian cookbook.” Chefs didn’t like vegetarians. Some of them would refuse to feed them which is simply crazy. I wrote a book but I called it Contemporary Cooking. It didn’t do very well but it’s a very good book. I’ve always felt I hadn’t made my point about vegetarian food. This time, I collaborated with my niece Peta and she was the head pastry chef at The Ivy. My original idea was that she would do all the fancy desserts and things that they do in smart restaurants that I can’t be bothered with. She can do the most exquisite things that taste amazing and actually, when we got talking about it, it turns out that what she really likes is rubarb crumble and treacle tart. She likes the same things I like. When we first started talking, we weren’t talking about a vegetarian cookbook. I knew she was vegetarian so I knew the dishes she would choose were vegetarian but I didn’t realise how much veggie food I would choose. In the end, we had hardly any meat in it anyway, so we just took all the meat out and made it vegetarian. I hope it’s not preachy. I’m not telling everyone that they have to be vegetarian. My selfish feeling is that if enough of the world is vegan and vegetarian then there is room for some of us to have some steak sometimes. I would like there to be some people eating meat but no factory farming and no cruelty to animals.
You’ve managed to accomplished so much in your career while continuing to use your platform to advocate for causes that are important to you. Why is that something that you dedicate time to?
I wish I could claim some sort of moral imperative that I want to save the world. I think everybody would like to save the world but it’s not that. It’s that I’m basically bossy. If you dropped a packet on the floor, I would pick it up. I am the sort of interfering type. If I see something wrong, I do want to fix it whether it’s a door handle or a moral problem. One of the causes that I am very heavily into at the moment is called Dignity in Dying. It’s really about the right to euthanasia. I think as you get older, you get more concerned about dying and I’ve seen a lot of people die who died the most painful, wretched death. My brother died of bone cancer which is unbelievably painful and morphine hardly touches it and they never gave him enough morphine anyway. The last three months of his life, he would get a morphine jab every four hours but he needed it every three hours. So for an hour in every four hours, he was screaming in agony. Of course, the consultants don’t see this. They come round when they’ve just had their morphine. It’s a big dirty secret. Anyone who works in a hospital or a geriatric ward know about how painfully people die and how there’s nothing they can do about it. I’m a big campaigner for that: for the right to choose. If they want to die, they should be allowed to die or helped to die if they need help. The other thing that I’m absolutely interfering about is food. I think that if our government spends our tax money on food in any way, it should be sustainable, healthy and good for the nation. They should be helping the health of the nation. There is a very good argument for spending the money wisely. At the moment I’m helping, I wouldn’t say leading but I’m certainly one of the main pushers of the Hospital Review panel for the new government. I was very reluctant to join it in the beginning. I was persuaded by the secretary of state that he is really hanging his hat on reforming the NHS and there is a big chunk of money and part of that is food. He convinced me but I said, “What about Downing Street?” He arranged for me to have breakfast with Boris [Johnson] in the garden of Number 10 which was hilarious and which was such a setup for the cameras but I did get my opportunity to say bluntly, “Are we going to get the money to do this?” And he said we’ll get the money. I have to believe him and we will report next month. If they do what we tell them, it will make a radical difference.
In the context of your career, what is something you are most proud of?
It’s nothing to do with food. One of my enthusiasms all my life, ever since art school has been art. One year, I was driving round Trafalgar Square and I saw this huge empty plinth which obviously was designed for an equestrian statue. So I thought, “That thing has been empty ever since I moved to London. Somebody needs to put back whatever was there.” I wrote a letter to the Evening Standard and of course, lots of people wrote in and said, “There’s never been anything on that plinth. It’s been empty since 1840 when it was laid out.” The reason was the William IV had commissioned the statue of himself and he was going to put it up and he died. He was so unpopular that nobody would pay to put it up so it didn’t ever get there. That was like a wet rag to me and I thought, “Just because nothing has been on there for 200 years, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t happen now.” I was just about to become the chairman of The Royal Society of Arts. I corralled my colleagues and we produced a little committee and it took us five years. The reason we got it through was because one of the members of our committee said, “If we had contemporary art exhibited and every year the commission came down, nobody would complain about that because by the time they’ve got their complaint through, the thing will be down anyway.” That cracked it. That’s what we did. In the beginning, everybody said, “No sculptors these days want to be on plinths.” It turned out to be absolute nonsense. Every modern artist you can think of has been on that plinth and of course they do because what better advertisement than Trafalgar Square. It’s been good fun.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
Janet Suzman; campaigner, director, marvellous actress. I think my all-time hero is probably Nadine Gordimer, who was one of the most inspiring novelists when I was young. And I suppose Doris Lessing. I’m a novelist but if I could write like Doris Lessing or plot like Nadine Gordimer, I’d be a happy woman and I’d be a much better novelist.
Prue’s latest cookbook, The Vegetarian Kitchen, will be released in March 2020.
Special thanks to Jenny Griesel.