The unlikely domestic goddess: How Prue Leith went from making cakes so hard they shattered knives to becoming, by accident, one of Britain's top cooks
Why did I make my career in food It wasn’t as if I came from a home that produced many gastronomic delights.
Back home in South Africa, where I grew up, my father’s idea of a treat on his birthday was a large tin of Campbell’s soup. It would arrive in a large, silver tureen on the table, along with a can-opener. Then, reverentially, Dad would lift the lid to reveal the hot tin, open it and pour it out.
I never asked why the soup came to the table in a can, but it made my mouth water. To this day, if I’m too bone-weary to eat, a bowl of tinned tomato soup will do the trick.
Queen of the kitchen: A young Prue Leith at work. The top cook had plenty of mishaps in her long rise to the top
/03/02/article-0-001774B500000258-421_468x605.jpg” width=”468″ height=”605″ alt=”Clueless: When Ms Leith first embarked on her cooking career, by her own account, she had no idea how to put together a wholesome and tasty meal” class=”blkBorder” />
Clueless: When Ms Leith first embarked on her cooking career, by her own account, she had no idea how to put together a wholesome and tasty meal
I must have had plenty of triumphs or my business would never have grown, but it’s still the horrors I remember. One of the worst was when I went to cook at Lord Verulam’s mighty house near St Albans, Herts.
I was doing poached salmon followed by roast beef fillet and strawberries for the 20-odd house guests. Not difficult. But when I arrived, I found the six-oven Aga barely warm.
I’d been sabotaged by Lord and Lady Verulam’s chef, an old boy who deeply resented not being trusted to produce the goods.
Before taking the weekend off, he’d locked up the coal store and deliberately failed to refuel the Aga.
Thankfully, the tap water was extremely hot, so I used it to poach two 10lb salmons. Then I searched the warren of kitchens and stores and found an electric tea urn, which I commandeered for boiling the potatoes. The beef had to go into the lukewarm Aga.
Afterwards, I can remember crouching between the fridge and the freezer, curled up foetus-style, racked with anxiety.
I was saved by the head butler, Declan. First, he failed to announce dinner, so drinks over-ran by half an hour. Then, when the guests were seated, he had his waiters spin out every action to funeral tempo.
Very slowly, they placed napkins on each guest’s lap. Very slowly, they removed the decorative service plates. Very slowly, they filled the water glasses. /03/02/article-0-0B67D68800000578-130_468x296.jpg” width=”468″ height=”296″ alt=”Token septuagenarian female: Having sold her business, Ms Leith these days works as a panellist on the television programme Great British Menu” class=”blkBorder” />
Token septuagenarian female: Having sold her business, Ms Leith these days works as a panellist on the television programme Great British Menu
As well as running the restaurant, I began writing a cookery column for the Daily Mail. All went well until I wrote a recipe for a ginger peach brule that called for an ounce of ginger. Tragically, I’d failed to specify that it was stem ginger — and, of course, an ounce of ground ginger is enough to blow your head off.
That wasn’t my only mistake. Once, I sent in a handwritten recipe for my Oxford orange marmalade, which required two tablespoons of black treacle. As I’d forgotten to cross a ‘t’, this appeared in the paper not as 2 tbs, but 2 lbs. And two pounds of black treacle is rather a lot for a couple of pounds of oranges.
The following day, the Daily Mail switchboard was white-hot with readers ringing in to complain about the sticky goo in their ruined saucepans.
The paper had to pay out 17 shillings and fivepence (87.5p) to each distressed reader to compensate them for the ingredients.
Just one day later, I found a letter bomb on my desk. I knew what it was because we were in the middle of the IRA letter-bomb campaign, and we’d all been told it was bad news if you could feel something squishy (Semtex) with wires.
So I cleared the office and a copper arrived to take away the envelope. After a couple of hours, the police told me to collect it. The contents A dental brace with two teeth, embedded in a lump of marmalade toffee. And a large orthodontist’s bill.
Despite such disasters, I started a cookery school in 1975. And soon, Leith’s catering company began to land some big, long-running contracts.
The first was for making lunch and tea for passengers on a train called the Orient Express. For the main course, we decided on a fish terrine, for which I needed small circular moulds. However, there were none to be found.
Eventually, I discovered that empty tin cans did the trick. I brought in piles of them from home, which must have made my staff think I lived on tinned food.
The truth was worse: they were cat-food tins. Benedicat, my Abyssinian, got through seven a week, so I sterilised them and removed the labels.
My most stressful near-disaster was when we got the contract for a Tate Gallery dinner for grandees, sponsors and potential donors. On the night, I arrived and my nose detected an unmistakable stink. The chef I’d employed had somehow allowed the mussel velout (soup) to ferment.
My only option was to hare off to my new school and try to make 70 pints of soup. But first, I went to a deli and bought them out of cream cheese plus tins of mussel, cream of artichoke, Vichyssoise and cream of onion soup. Then the teachers fanned out to the shops with instructions to buy more.
My life on a plate: Ms Leith's account of her career is extracted from this book, published this week by Quercus
We didn’t cook a thing — just strained out the lumps and whisked it all together. It worked: a few days later, I received a letter from the Tate organiser, singling out the soup as ‘unctuous and delicious’.
As the years flew by, I did less and less cooking, having found that I derived as much satisfaction from running a company as I did from making a perfect dish.
And, finally, when I turned 50 in 1990, I decided to sell the business.
Today, the restaurant and school are still going strong, and the catering side, owned by Compass, has continued to expand. Now aged 72, I’m planning a trilogy of novels, I’m on the board of Orient Express and I’m a judge on the TV series The Great British Menu, which involves eating food prepared by our finest chefs.
It surprises me that the BBC hasn’t decreed me too venerable to be on telly. Perhaps I survive because they like to be able to point to at least one septuagenarian female on the box.
Whether I really deserve to be sitting in judgment on great chefs is debatable. I was never the chef at Leith’s restaurant; I’ve never been a fanatical foodie; and I’ve always been perfectly happy to nick ideas from other chefs.
Very occasionally, I’ll show off by throwing a grand dinner party. But my idea of heaven is to be at the end of a huge table of family and friends, ladling out slow-cooked and wholesome cassoulet.
Adapted from Relish: My Life On A Plate by Prue Leith, published this week by Quercus at 16.99. Prue Leith 2012. To order a copy at 14 (P&P free), tel: 0843 382 0000.