Being the procrastination prone people that we students are, you’ll have probably come across Prue Leith by way of The BBC’s series The Great British Menu on which she is a judge. This was my initial knowledge of Leith and I had mentally prepared myself for a glorious 20 minute conversation on what is one of my favourite TV shows.
However, when doing background research I was staggered at the number of things which Leith has achieved throughout her career so far, leaving my previous line of inane questioning (“how do you manage to eat so much food in one day?”) somewhat redundant.
Leith’s professional career began in 1960 with the launch of what would go on to become Leith’s Good Food, a catering company which supplied food for events. Since then she has opened a Michelin starred restaurant, been a food columnist for various UK papers, held senior positions in companies such as British Rail and The Halifax Bank, worked closely with The Schools Food Trust, been awarded the Veuve Cliquot Business Woman of the Year in 1990, an OBE, a CBE, written her autobiography and published five novels. When asked how she managed to have such a glittering career she replies “I’ve got a lot of energy and have the nature that if something is bust then I want to fix it. In essence, I can’t help interfering in things I think I might be good at.”
On top of her OBE and CBE Leith has also been awarded no fewer than eleven honorary degrees from various universities. “Ridiculous isn’t it. I’m very flattered and pleased to have them but I’ve never actually finished a degree.” Despite being so decorated in the public sphere she claims that what she is most proud of is achieving harmony in her private life. She tells me a story of her son reading an article in praise of her in one of the papers: “My son asked me if I really ran all those businesses. I said, ‘Of course I do, why do you think I don’t?’ He replied ‘because you’re always here.’ He thought I lived at home and made cakes!”
Despite her glittering career in business and the food industry Leith explains that she considers herself “first of all as a novelist but the writing became secondary when the business became full time.” She wrote and co-wrote various cookery books but it wasn’t until 1995 that her first work of fiction, Leaving Patrick, was published and she made the move to becoming predominately a novelist. She cites Anthony Trollope as being her inspiration, explaining that, “he understands the business world, the commercial world, and what makes people work. If I could write a novel half as good as him I’d be happy.”
It wasn’t her fiction which grabbed the headlines earlier this year though. Conceived as a means by which she could raise her profile as a writer, in September Leith published her autobiography, Relish: My Life on a Plate.
In it she details the thirteen year affair which she conducted with (now her husband) the writer Rayne Kruger, then the husband of her mother’s best friend. The UK press seized upon this fact and all of the attention was focused on this salacious love story rather than on Leith’s career achievements. This is obviously something which irks Leith: “I knew it would be talked about but I didn’t think they’d concentrate on it that much.”
As I learned in preparation for my interview, it is well worth delving below the surface to find out a bit more about Leith and her quite remarkable career. Questions about consuming large quantities of food should probably be left to members of the University rugby tea