A serving of energy
There’s much more to Prue Leith than cookbooks, as her autobiography amply demonstrates. She recently came to East Anglia to promote the memoir. Rachel Banham reports.
To say that Prue Leith has had a varied career would be an understatement. Cook, caterer, restaurateur, food writer, journalist, novelist, businesswoman, teacher, television presenter, charity worker and family woman. . . Prue’s life has been anything but dull.
But she still has an incredible lust for life, and her autobiography reflects her charm, humour and energy. Prue came to London in the early 1960s and, not long afterwards, opened Leith’s Restaurant. By the mid-1970s she was a food columnist on the Daily Mail, had published several cookbooks and opened Leith’s School of Food and Wine. But it wasn’t all work.
She writes with honesty of her affairs, her longing for children, the birth of her son, the adoption of her daughter and many other things besides. Prue visited Jarrold, Norwich, in January to discuss and sign copies of her autobiography, Relish.
She has many links with East Anglia. She has some family in Norwich and a friend in Bungay, and describes the area as “a wonderful part of the world”.
Already familiar to another audience through her appearances on the BBC2 programme Great British Menu, Prue explains that her publishers were keen for her to write an autobiography.
“It was the right time because I’m on telly and because if I do well with it I’ll be better known as a novelist,” she says. “My great aim in life is to be known as a novelist, not a cook. Not that I mind being a cook, of course I like being a cook, but I’m so pigeon-holed as ‘that cook lady’.”
“I have always written. I think writers write whether they are published or not – they have to do it. It’s a kind of disease really.
“When I was writing cookbooks that satisfied the bug, satisfied the itch to write, and so while I was writing cookbooks I was fairly content. Then I suddenly realised that I did not want to write another cookbook.
“I just felt there were younger, more enthusiastic cooks with better ideas, and I’d be writing the same old thing – what I always believed in and still believe in which is just good, simple, not messed around food…”
She then decided it was time to write the novel which she had had in her head for a long time. “I knew I would never write it if I continued to write cookbooks because you’ve only got so much writing energy and if you spend it on writing cookbooks you’re not going to have time or energy to do novels,” she says.
“So I thought ‘well the only way to do this seriously’ – because I was heading for 50 at the time…‘I’ve got to sell my business and stop writing cookbooks. Those are the two things that will force me to write a novel.’ So I did that.”
Prue has written 12 cookbooks. She says that people still ask about them, even though she hasn’t written one for about 20 years. She wrote her first novel at 55, and her fourth was published when she was 69. Her fifth novel, A Serving of Scandal, followed a year later.
As well as running her own businesses, Prue has been very active in the charity sector. She was chair of the School Food Trust, which she describes as the most important job she ever did. She describes her life as “hugely happy”.
“I’ve thought ever since I was about 50 that if a Sword of Damocles descended upon my head and that was the end of my life it would be perfectly fair because I’ve had such a great life,” she says.
“I’m 72 now and I have just been really lucky. I had a very happy marriage, wonderful children, and no tragedies and disasters except when my father died when I was 21. But he and my mother were very happy and we had a great childhood.
“I’ve had a successful career, I’ve made money, I’ve been healthy – very little to complain about really, in fact nothing to complain about. I hope it’s been a useful life. I don’t want to sound pompous and do-gooding. I’ve done it because I’m so interested.
“My instinct to tidy things up or to fix things is very strong. My instinct is to say ‘well, let’s do something about it’.”
Prue recently took a year off, mainly to promote Relish, and has spent time travelling “all over the place” including Burma and South Africa. She already has ideas for future novels and shows no signs of slowing down in 2013.
“I’d like to write and keep travelling,” she says. “I feel I want to see more of the world while I can.”
Relish: My Life On A Plate, by Prue Leith, is published by Quercus.
Visit Prue’s website at www.prue-leith.com
Prue is a judge on the BBC2 programme Great British Menu, alongside Matthew Fort and Oliver Peyton. “I think they make Oliver look a little bit more grumpy than he is, and me look a little bit nicer than I am,” she says.
“I do enjoy it. You arrive in the morning. Somebody does your hair, somebody does your face, somebody tells you what to wear, puts great necklaces around your neck.
“You’re sat in a studio, you don’t have to do any preparation, you don’t have to do any shopping, or buying or cooking or anything, you just sit there and the best chefs in the country feed you. What’s not to like? Mind you, by about 4 o’clock on a Friday afternoon when you’ve eaten eight courses or something it’s a little bit exhausting.”