Prue Leith opens up at the The Yorkshire Life Food and Wine Awards
PUBLISHED: 14:22 06 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:32 20 February 2013
The culinary queen was our guest of honour at the prestigious Yorkshire Life Food and Wine Awards. Anthony Quinlan talks to her
'I've had my finger in a lot of pies,' murmurs Prue Leith. She says this without a trace of irony or the hint of a smile and, for a second, we're not sure if she's speaking metaphorically or literally.
Because this is Prue Leith we're talking to: entrepreneur and former Veuve Cliquot Business Woman of the Year, newspaper columnist, TV presenter, judge of the BBC's Great British Menu, kids' healthy eating champ and chair of the School Food Trust. But she's also been a caterer, restaurateur, cookery school founder and all-round culinary queen. So you know fingers in pies. It could be a bit of both.
Prue was guest of honour at the annual Yorkshire Life Food and Wine Awards, where she presented the county's most prestigious dining prizes (thanks also to Look North's Harry Gration, who acted as the MC). In the world of food, Leith is a big, big name whose diary is always full to bursting; rather refreshingly, she doesn't try to sweeten the pill when we ask why she agreed to come north for the evening.
'I like platforms where, as chair of the School Food Trust, I can get my message across about school dinners, healthy food for kids and teaching children to cook,' she says unapologetically. 'I like to visit venues where I feel I might convert a few people or, as is the case with the Yorkshire Life Food & Wine Awards, attend an event which gets media coverage. A head teacher somewhere might see what I've said and think: "Hmmm. I'm not doing this quite right."'
The School Food Trust is a body set up by the government to help schools meet the new food standards that became law after Jamie Oliver's TV campaign. 'Those amazing Jamie programmes exposed the true horror of our schools,' says Prue. 'Not all of them, I may say, but some. The government were quick to act, prohibiting the sale of chocolates, crisps and chips and limiting the amount of deep-fried food pupils could have. Mind you, there's absolutely nothing to stop parents filling lunch boxes with rubbish.'
If she sounds exasperated, that's because she is. The SFT role can sometimes seem like a thankless task. Prue was visiting a school recently when 11 burger and chip vans turned up outside the gates at lunchtime. The head teacher told her: 'Look, I've got 1,500 children and only enough seats in the dining room for 100. I've also got a tiny kitchen.'
'The thing is,' says Prue, 'you can't make the kids eat what's on offer in the dining room. So we fight to get the children to like the healthy food being served.We fight to get the parents to co-operate in that task; and we fight to get the teachers to be brave and say to the local authority: "We need money to fix the kitchen!' and then tell the parents: "The Government might not legislate about what food your child brings in to school - but we can!".'
I tell her that my daughter isn't allowed to bring sweets or crisps into her school. 'Good,' she says. 'That means the head has courage.' No doubt about it. Prue and her team are passionate about getting our children to eat good, nutritious food. 'But we need to do it faster,' she says. 'I've been very lucky, because I've had business experience, I know what it's like to be a caterer, and I've worked at the top end of the restaurant industry. I'm 68 now, so I've only got two more years until sometime tells me I'm too old to do anything. I'd better get on with it.'
Prue says the School Food Trust is the most important role she's ever had - but if you ask her how she describes herself these days she'll reply: 'Novelist.' She's written three books and her fourth, Choral Society, is published in February.
'I used to own restaurants and write cookbooks,' she corrects (actually her cookbook, the Leith's Cookery Bible, is a best-selling kitchen classic which has been called 'the only cookbook you'll ever need'). 'But I don't think of myself as a restaurateur or a businesswoman anymore: I'm an author.' She laughs. 'But I can't pretend for a minute that this part of my career is more important to the nation. My novels are a very minor matter as far as literature is concerned.'
Choral Society is about the lives and loves of a group of women in their 50s who are facing widowhood and retirement. Prue was inspired to write about music because of her relationship with Sir Ernest Hall, the pianist and entrepreneur who is now separated from his wife (Prue was widowed in 2002).
'I come to Yorkshire an enormous amount,' says Prue. 'About three years ago I met Sir Ernest, the chap who put Dean Clough in Halifax on the map. He's now my partner, so I see a lot of Yorkshire, which is incredibly forwardthinking. When I was chair of the British Food Trust, and trying to get a festival of culinary arts off the ground, the most supportive Regional Development Agency was Yorkshire Forward. I think you're very lucky indeed.'
Leith started in the kitchen late in life and didn't cook because she didn't have to. She came from a privileged white South African family: her mother was an actress and her father was a businessman. 'We ate very well,' she says. 'Our cook was a Zulu, a lovely guy called Charlie. If I'd have only known it, I could have learned to cook at home. But because I grew up in a country where white people didn't cook, it was only when I went to France - where I had gone to learn the language - that I took it up.'
Working as an au pair for a French family, she drew inspiration from her employer. 'The lady of the house gave her children, aged 18 months and six months, exactly what she gave the rest of us, only three hours earlier. It was excellent food. Perfectly balanced. That was a revelation to me.'
After learning Cordon Blue cookery, Prue ran a successful catering firm (with contracts including The Orient Express and Glyndebourne), opened her first restaurant, in Kensington Park Road, London, and then founded the famous Leith's School of Food and Wine. The restaurant won a Michelin star, the cookery school has turned out thousands of graduates.
'I feel so proud when I hear of people running good restaurants and catering companies - and that they came from Leith's,' she says. 'It makes me feel like some old mother hen.'
Does she cook now? 'I'm not particularly good at it you know,' she says surprisingly. 'I'm averagely good. I can sit in judgement very well on Great British Menu, but that doesn't mean I can do any of it myself.' So how does she explain that Michelin star, then? 'Pahhh,' she laughs. 'I'm all right. I think the Michelin star was much more to do with my head chef than it was to do with me. I'm really good at finding good people to do things - and then I'm good at taking the glory. It's such a stress and a strain to have a Michelin - starred restaurant because you spend 20 years trying to get the star, and then the rest of the time worrying about losing it.'
Even the failures of her life have taught Prue Leith something, like the time she won the catering contract on the night Pavarotti sang in Hyde Park. 'We expected four million people and only a quarter of a million came because it pelted with rain,' she says. 'I was before my time, I think. I was trying to create really good food and there wasn't the market for it - and now there is. But would I change anything? No, I don't suppose I would.