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Turning over a new Leith
7:00am Saturday 14th April 2012 in Books
As a judge on the new series of BBC Two's Great British Menu, cook, writer and businesswoman Prue Leith talks about her limitations in the kitchen and her life away from it, as her autobiography, Relish: My Life On A Plate, is published.
By Hannah Stephenson.
Prue Leith's middle name should be Efficient.
Restaurateur, health campaigner, charity founder, novelist - it's exhausting just reading her string of achievements, let alone imagining what sort of superhuman organisational skills they must have required.
She has managed to squeeze in her autobiography, Relish, between myriad other commitments and finding time for her two grown-up children and two grandchildren.
In recent years, her no-nonsense approach as a judge in Great British Menu on BBC Two has attracted a whole new fan base, although she hates seeing herself on screen.
"I've never really enjoyed television very much because I'm very vain. I can't watch myself. I think, 'Oh no, look at that fat woman'. And I hate my voice.
"But I was persuaded because it is quite a serious cooking show. It's about the top chefs in the country. It's not a sensational, inventive programme. On a lot of these cookery shows you can feel the studio forcing people to be loud-mouthed or aggressive or furious.
"But I agreed to be on Great British Menu because I couldn't resist the ego trip. I adore being referred to, even as a joke, as 'the talent'."
The new series sees celebrity chefs competing to create a ground-breaking menu to celebrate the London 2012 Olympics, culminating in a four-course menu at a gala event with a glittering guest list of British sporting greats.
Leith knew fellow judges Matthew Fort and Oliver Peyton before they came together on the show and insists they are far more knowledgeable than she is.
"Matthew, damn it, can even tell how high up the mountain a Welsh lamb has been grazing, and Oliver can tell you it's Welsh. Sometimes I'm not even sure it's lamb."
However, she doesn't really watch other cookery shows. "I only watch them very occasionally and I'm frankly not interested in them. Cookery shows are like wallpaper on television. They are very cheap to produce so everybody does them. Whole afternoons are packed with food programmes.
"They're interesting enough in a vague sort of way, in the background, but I wouldn't sit down and watch a programme. There are exceptions - Australian Masterchef is brilliant. It's light, interesting and well done, although the British one's not bad either.
"But I think there are too many food programmes on telly. I'd rather the audience was cooking in the kitchen than watching somebody else cook on telly. I'm obsessed with the idea that cooking is creative, wonderful to do and gives great pleasure to the doer and the eater.
"It's a better way to spend your life than sitting in a row like The Royle Family stuffing your face with pizza."
However, she fears that there aren't many food shows which will inspire people to cook.
"Most people watch cookery as entertainment. I remember one person saying to me, 'I love cooking, I'm mad about it' and I said, 'What kind of cooking do you do?' and he said, 'Oh, I don't do it - I just never miss Nigella'."
But Leith's delighted that the BBC is happy to employ her at the age of 72 and loves it when the public approach her to tell her she doesn't look a day over 60.
"Whether I really deserve to be sitting in judgment on great chefs and pontificating about food is debatable. I was never the chef at Leith's Restaurant. Had I been, we would not have achieved our Michelin star.
"I have never been a fanatical foodie, bent on ever more invention, originality or perfection. I've been perfectly happy to nick ideas from other chefs, follow recipes and leave innovation to better cooks."
South African by birth, Leith's father worked for an explosives company and her mother was an actress. She had a privileged, happy childhood and when the family moved to London in the early Sixties she set up a successful catering company and later opened Leith's Restaurant.
Her autobiography is as candid as she is, charting her life in the Swinging Sixties, her early amorous encounters and then her 13-year affair with South African writer Rayne Kruger, the husband of her mother's best friend.
He eventually left his wife and married Leith two days before the birth of their son, Daniel. Soon after, they adopted a Cambodian daughter, Li-Da. She and Kruger were married for 25 years until his death in 2002.
She admits that her two children would have preferred her not to publicise her private life, but Leith feels she couldn't possibly have left it out.
"Rayne was the most interesting, charismatic man I'd ever met," she reflects.
She threw herself into work when he died to help avoid the grieving process.
"Immediately after he died, I went into one of those stages that many women do of becoming over-active. I just wanted to do stuff in order not to think.
"The first four years were really grim. But Rayne always said, 'You will have the courage to face your future with enthusiasm and joy' - and he was right. But even now, 10 years later, I still miss the evening conversations when we would touch base."
Four years after his death, she met up with an old friend and business colleague Sir Ernest Hall, and found herself falling in love. She later discovered he was bi-polar, a manic depressive with extreme mood swings. Their relationship lasted a few years before Leith felt she had had enough.
Having achieved so much in business, she is finally reaching a point where she wants more time for herself, she admits. She loves fishing and has a trip to Norway planned, and hopes to spend more time with the grandchildren.
"I've just been revamping my house (in Gloucestershire) and I long to be able to do the things I've always wanted. At the last count I had 66 books which I've bought but haven't had time to read."
She has spent her life working, whether organising other people's parties (from Elton John's outrageous caveman party to formal balls for thousands), running restaurants or writing novels. And she still serves on the board of Orient Express Hotels.
She campaigned long and hard for healthier eating in schools as former chair of the School Food Trust, long before Jamie Oliver started banging the drum.
She's now planning a trilogy of novels about a family in the restaurant trade, allowing her to trace the changes in food and restaurants from post-war spam to Heston Blumenthal gastronomy. For now, there's no sign of slowing down.
"Maybe one day I will finally settle down to reading all those books and watching all the classic movies I've missed," she says. "Maybe."
:: Relish: My Life On A Plate by Prue Leith is published by Quercus, priced £16.99. Available now :: Great British Menu starts on Monday, April 9 on BBC Two
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