Prue Leith Can’t Resist

“My main problem is that I have a lot of energy and I can’t say no,” Prue Leith says. The culinary star, who is eighty-two years old, has maintained an eclectic career across the pond for something on the order of half a century. Since starting in the early nineteen-sixties as a caterer, she’s operated a Michelin-starred restaurant (Leith’s, a stalwart of the mid-century power-lunch scene), opened a cookery school, authored several cookbooks—not to mention a number of romance novels, and a dishy autobiography—and been a judge on competition programs. Born in South Africa, she became interested in food and cooking as a young woman attending school in Paris: “I was astonished to find that intelligent 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 broadcasting in 2010 and became a somewhat surprising blockbuster, has been credited with reviving interest in home baking and paving the way for a gentler model of reality-competition shows. This is not to say the show is without its controversies. Despite the admirable diversity of its contestants, “Bake Off” is not always terribly good at handling global cuisines, as evidenced, most recently, by a clunker of an episode ostensibly dedicated to the food of Mexico. Still, many fans agree that the most dramatic thing ever to happen on the series was an incident, from Season 5, in which a contestant appeared to remove another’s ice cream from the freezer. In 2017, for its eighth season, the “Bake Off” moved from the BBC to the more commercially minded Channel Four; the original hosts departed, as did Mary Berry, a cookery legend who was one of the original two judges. This left her erstwhile 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 had been appearing on a rival cooking-competition show, “Great British Menu.” In contrast to Berry’s tranquil, understated judging style, Leith occupies the “Bake Off” job as a whirlwind of brightly colored necklaces and benevolently snobbish charisma. Peering at contestants’ cakes and cookies through an ever-changing array of snazzy, oversized glasses, she seems to delight in being delighted, and is always particularly thrilled when contestants produce boozy cakes. Until criticism from eating-disorder-awareness organizations caused her to reconsider, she was prone to praising her favorite confections as “worth the calories.”

Leith told me that “Bake Off” has given her just the right amount of fame: “It’s enough to stroke my ego and make me feel good, but not enough to be a nuisance.” She also has a new cookbook, “Bliss on Toast,” and is releasing a revised version of her memoir, in which she gamely discusses, among other things, her long affair with her late first husband, Rayne Kruger. In her free time, Leith has been known to stir up trouble by voicing her support for Brexit. (Her son, Danny Kruger, is a Conservative Member of Parliament.) She spoke to me, via Zoom, from a turquoise-wallpapered office at her home in the Cotswolds, where the room’s centerpiece, a grand chandelier, was personalized with carefully balanced teacups and swags of beaded necklaces plucked from her wardrobe. When The New Yorker followed up to ask what she made of the response to the “Mexican Week” episode, she noted that the judges set the challenges and added, “There would have been absolutely no intention to offend. That’s not the spirit of the show.” Our conversation has been condensed and edited.

You’ve had a career of extraordinary duration.

I’ve done an awful lot of things, but that’s largely because I’ve lived so long. I’ve always been greedy, which I think is the long and short of it. I was born and brought up in South Africa, and I didn’t ever think of being a cook, mainly because it was under the iniquitous apartheid regime that I was born, and certain jobs were just reserved for different people. If you were a white young woman, you were not expected to go into the kitchen. Indeed, we had a wonderful Zulu cook, who had been a chef at a top Johannesburg restaurant, who cooked for us at home. I suppose he could have taught me. But it didn’t occur to me, because at the time I was mad about horses. In fact, when I was very little, I wanted to marry a horse. I’d heard of an Englishwoman who had married her dog because she didn’t like humans. So I thought, Why can’t I marry my horse? But I grew out of that.

That was probably for the best.

My father said to me, “You do realize your children will be centaurs, don’t you?”

And then eventually, in Paris, you found food.

I was a student at the Sorbonne in the nineteen-fifties. One day, I was queuing up in a student canteen, where they had self-service little dishes—you know, grated carrots in one, and beans with a few almonds on top in another. I saw this dish with just three or four radishes in it, and a little pat of butter, and a little pile of salt, and a bit of bread. I was standing behind a young man whom I didn’t know, another student, and I said to him, “That’s not food—that’s just a sort of decoration!” I couldn’t understand it. He made me buy this little plate of radishes and then he sat with me and he said, “Take the radish”—because it still had its stalk on it—“and scrape it through the butter, and then dip the buttery end into the salt, and then eat it, and then follow with the piece of bread.” It tasted so delicious. And I just thought, God, you can produce good food without ever even cooking!

I also worked for a time for a French family. Madame cooked beautifully, and she cooked everything just for the children exactly as she would for us, and they always sat down to eat. We didn’t go to one bakery to buy bread, cake, and croissants; we went to three different bakeries. From company directors to the Métro workers, everybody talked about where the best steak frites could be had, and where the raspberries were grown. I was astonished to find that intelligent people took food very seriously.

It was a culture shock to go from France to England?

I was rather horrified at how boring English food was. It was all Escoffier, but he’d been dead for decades, and nobody had moved on at all. I’d come from South Africa, where we ate mangoes and pineapple and passion fruit and had wonderful salads that had all sorts of mixed-up things in them—whereas an English salad was just cucumber, tomatoes, lettuces, and pickled beetroot, all put on a plate, no dressing. I thought they needed a shakeup, really.

Was your plan always to open a restaurant?

When I was in Paris, I had dreams of opening a tiny dive in a cellar somewhere, with a gallery of unknown painters on the wall whose works customers could buy. Something very, very cheap, with fantastically good food.

It turns out that, first of all, you can’t make any money out of a really cheap restaurant unless it’s huge: you have to have a lot of bums on seats, so you need a huge amount of capital. And, secondly, the idea of combining art and food doesn’t really work. When people are in a 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 was not particularly practical, and, anyhow, I couldn’t afford it as a twenty-one-year-old. It took me till I was twenty-nine to open a restaurant, by which time I had built up a lot of customers through my catering business. I managed to persuade the bank to lend me some more money, and I’d saved a bit, and my mother coughed up about eleven thousand pounds to get my restaurant off the ground. The whole thing cost about thirty thousand pounds back then, so today it would’ve been more like three million.

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