“My main problem is that I have a lot of energy and I can’t say no,” says Prue Leith. The 82-year-old culinary star has maintained an eclectic career across the Atlantic for something in the order of half a century. From her start in the early 1960s as a caterer, she ran a Michelin-starred restaurant (Leith’s, a mainstay of the mid-century energy lunch scene), opened a cooking school, wrote several books cooking, not to mention a number of romance novels and a savory autobiography – and I have been a judge in competition programs. Born in South Africa, she became interested in food and cooking as a young woman schooled in Paris: “I was amazed that smart people took food very seriously”, she told me in a conversation earlier this fall.
Leith is best known for her most recent gig, as a judge on ‘The Great British Bake Off’. The show, which began airing in 2010 and became a somewhat surprising blockbuster, has been credited with a resurgence of interest in home baking and paved the way for a softer pattern of TV shows. -reality. That’s not to say the show is without its controversies. Despite the admirable diversity of its contestants, “Bake Off” isn’t always great at handling the cuisines of the world, as evidenced, most recently, by a clunker in an episode ostensibly dedicated to the food of Mexico. Still, many fans agree that the most dramatic thing to ever happen on the show was an incident, in Season 5, in which a contestant appeared to pull another’s ice cream out of the freezer. In 2017, for its eighth season, the “Bake Off” moved from the BBC to the more commercial Channel Four; the original hosts left, as did Mary Berry, a cooking legend who was one of the original two judges. It left her former partner, Paul Hollywood, a tanned silver fox of few words, in need of a new co-judge who could provide a foil for his deadpan, hard-to-please personality.
At the time, Leith took part in a rival cooking competition show, “Great British Menu”. In contrast to Berry’s quiet, understated judgmental style, Leith fills the “Bake Off” post like a whirlwind of brightly colored collars and benevolent, snobbish charisma. Gazing at the contestants’ cakes and cookies through an ever-changing array of oversized, stylish glasses, she seems thrilled to be delighted and is always especially thrilled when the contestants produce boozy cakes. Until criticism from eating disorder awareness organizations made her reconsider, she was inclined to praise her favorite sweets as “worth the calories.”
Leith told me that “Bake Off” gave him just the right amount of fame: “It’s enough to stroke my ego and do me good, but not enough to be a nuisance. She also has a new cookbook, “Happiness on toastand publishes an edited version of her memoir, in which she aptly discusses, among other things, her long affair with her late first husband, Rayne Kruger. In her spare time, Leith has been known to stir up trouble by voicing her support for Brexit. (Her son, Danny Kruger, is a Tory MP.) She spoke to me, via Zoom, from a turquoise-wallpapered office at her home in the Cotswolds, where the centerpiece of the room, a large chandelier, has been custom with a carefully balanced balance. teacups and garlands of pearl necklaces torn from her wardrobe. When the new yorker followed up to ask her what she thought of the response to the “Mexican Week” episode, she noted that the judges had set the challenges and added, “There would have been absolutely no intent to offend. This is not the spirit of the show.Our conversation has been condensed and edited.
You have had an extraordinarily long career.
I’ve done so many things, but that’s largely because I’ve lived so long. I’ve always been greedy, which I think is the long and the short of it. I was born and raised in South Africa, and I never thought of being a cook, mainly because I was born under the unjust apartheid regime, and certain jobs were reserved for different people. If you were a young white woman, you weren’t expected to go into the kitchen. Indeed, we had a wonderful Zulu cook, who had been a chef in a great restaurant in Johannesburg, cooking for us at home. I guess he could have taught me. But that didn’t occur to me, because at the time I was crazy about horses. In fact, when I was very little, I wanted to marry a horse. I had heard of an English woman who married her dog because she didn’t like humans. So I thought, why can’t I marry my horse? But I got out of that.
It was probably for the best.
My dad said to me, “You do realize your children will be centaurs, don’t you?
And then finally, in Paris, you found something to eat.
I was a student at the Sorbonne in the fifties. One day I was standing in line at a student canteen, where there were small self-service dishes, you know, grated carrots in one, and beans with a few almonds on them in the other. I’ve seen this dish with only three or four radishes in it, and a little knob of butter, and a little pile of salt, and a little bread. I stood behind a young man I didn’t know, another student, and said to him, “It’s not food, it’s just some kind of decoration!” I couldn’t understand it. He made me buy this little plate of radishes, then he sat down with me and he said, “Take the radish” – because it still had its stalk on it – “and scrape it in the butter, then dip the buttered end in the salt, then eat it, then continue with the piece of bread. He tasted then delicious. And I just thought, God, you can produce good food without ever cooking!
I also worked for a time for a French family. Madame cooked beautifully, and she cooked everything for the children just as she would for us, and they always sat down to eat. We didn’t go to a bakery to buy bread, cakes and croissants; we went to three different bakeries. From business owners to subway workers, everyone was talking about where the best steak frites could be found and where the raspberries were grown. I was amazed that smart people took food very seriously.
Was it a culture shock to move from France to England?
I was rather horrified at how boring English food was. It was all Escoffier, but he had been dead for decades, and no one had moved at all. I was from South Africa, where we ate mangoes, pineapples and passion fruit and had wonderful salads which had all sorts of things mixed in – whereas an English salad was just cucumber, tomatoes , lettuce and pickled beets, all put on a plate, no dressing. I thought they needed a revamp, really.
Have you always planned to open a restaurant?
When I was in Paris, I dreamed of opening a tiny cellar within a cellar somewhere, with a gallery of unknown painters hanging on the wall whose works customers could buy. Something very, very cheap, with incredibly good food.
Turns out, first of all, you can’t make money from a really cheap restaurant unless it’s huge: you need to have a lot of bums on the seats, so you need huge capital. And, second, the idea of combining art and food doesn’t really work. When people are in the mood to eat, they don’t really want to look at paintings; when they want to go to a gallery, they don’t want to sit down and eat a meal. So my dream wasn’t particularly practical, and anyway, I couldn’t afford it at twenty-one. It took me until I was twenty-nine to open a restaurant, by which time I had amassed a lot of customers through my restaurant business. I managed to persuade the bank to lend me some more money, and I had saved some, and my mother coughed up about eleven thousand pounds to get my restaurant off the ground. The whole thing cost about thirty thousand pounds then, so today it would have been more like three million.