Prue Leith recalls cooking lobster for Princess Margaret
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When Prue Leith heard former health secretary Matt Hancock had been harassed on the London underground near Parliament earlier this week, she wasn’t in the least bit surprised. “People think they can take things into their own hands,” the Great British Bake Off star, 82, tells the Daily Express in her trademark no-nonsense style.
“They’ve got it into their heads that Matt’s a… Well, I don’t know what they are thinking about Matt – but they don’t approve of him.” She lets out an exasperated sigh. “Somebody undisciplined enough to think that that’s a matter for them to deal with. It’s crazy.”
Leith knows Hancock well. In 2019, while still health secretary, long before his resignation and recent appearance on I’m A Celebrity, the minister commissioned an independent review of hospital food provision and asked Prue to lead recommendations.
“Every MP gets an absolute s***oad of vitriol and bile for whatever they say,” Prue suggests. And she should know; her son Danny Kruger, the Tory MP for Devizes, has had his fair share. But she classes Hancock as a “very good example” of the anger directed at MPs that these days spills into public life at an alarming rate.
“Yes, he’s done some extremely foolish things, not least because he kissed his lover in his office,” she continues. “But as far as I have dealt with Matt as Health Secretary, he was terrific. He set up the Hospital Food Review, he accepted all eight recommendations and they’re all being implemented. If it wasn’t for Matt Hancock that wouldn’t have happened.”
Public anger is understandable but it’s become almost accepted that public figures are to be mocked, belittled and berated every day online and in real life.
A 61-year-old man from Lancashire is due to appear in court next month charged with one count of assault and two public order offences relating to the serving MP.
Even Prue – most famous, as she put it, for “eating cake on telly” – suffers from trolls.
“Every now and again, I’ll get somebody who gets it into their head that I’m a ‘Tory rich b****’, or something, and I’ll get a shedload of abuse and then people retweet it and it becomes part of the myth,” she admits.
“You can’t reply because it just adds fuel to the fire. You can’t say, ‘Actually, I’m not that rich. Every penny I have, I have earned’.”
The TV presenter has previously called for a debate on social media regulation. Now, she can no longer hide her contempt for it. “When it started, I thought social media was a liberating thing, a wonderful way for the public to have their say and for whistleblowers to blow the whistle on bad practices. I saw it as nothing but a thing of good. It had never occurred to me that it’s a platform for slightly deranged people to be vicious.”
Her profile singles her out for attention.
Not content with being a cook, restaurateur, businesswoman, television judge, government advisor, author and journalist, Leith is about to embark on a new first: a one-woman live tour of the UK and Ireland.
Serving up anecdotes of her life, ranging from her childhood in apartheid South Africa to most recently being awarded a Damehood, she hopes to delight audiences with deliciously gossipy accounts of her love affairs and cooking disasters.
“I’m getting a bit nervous,” she admits, speaking over a video call from her home country where she has been holidaying. “I mean, I’ve never done anything like it and this is really no time to start a new career.”
Prue will turn 83 on February 18 but looks at least 15 years younger. She is bright and energetic, only momentarily baffled by her struggle to adjust her computer’s brightness.
“I’m in a strange office and I can’t quite make anything work,” she protests in near darkness.
Moments later, she appears, in typically bright colours, wearing an orange and yellow ball necklace and dangling pink earrings. In fact she provides the only brightness in an otherwise alabaster room. Prue has just spent a week at the Prue Leith Culinary Institute, based near South Africa’s capital city Pretoria. It’s an offshoot of the famous west London cookery school she founded in 1975.
“I’m always nervous when chefs cook things out of your cookbooks because most chefs really resent it,” she says.
“The last thing they want to do is other people’s recipes. They either sabotage them or think they can improve on them. But this being the Prue Leith college, they’re very obedient.”
She breaks into laughter. “So everything was delicious.”
Rested from her holiday, she’s raring to go again. And while she talks up her nerves, the warm-up shows she has performed in the UK and America, where Bake Off has also made her a star, have bolstered her confidence.
“My heart was banging like anything and I had a real dose of stage fright,” she recalls of her debut. “I thought, ‘I really don’t want to do this.’ But audiences had to fill out a form and 100 per cent of them said they’d recommend the show to a friend.”
In America especially, the response was sizzling.
“Audiences are so over the top, and they’re all obsessed with Bake Off, so I walked onto the stage and people were whooping and hollering and stamping and shouting, ‘Prue, we love you!’. I thought, ‘God, this is wonderful.’ I’m all for a bit of attention but this was fantastic.”
Prue is also an author. Already she’s authored eight romance novels, including The Food of Love trilogy. “I’d like to see one of my books on a big screen, preferably the trilogy about the same family all in the food industry,” she smiles.
There are also long-term plans for a fictionalised account of her life based on her autobiography, I’ll Try Anything Once. “It’s in development,” Prue says. “It’s chugging along.”
Should it go ahead, she’d love Fleabag actress Phoebe Waller-Bridge, to play her.
“It has to be somebody who’s down to earth and big and clumsy, rather than delicate, small and beautiful.”
In her mind, her story would be styled like the Netflix rom-com series Emily In Paris, which stars Lily Collins, the daughter of singer Phil Collins, and follows an American girl making waves in the French capital. Prue summarises the proposal: “Young girl comes to a strange country, is naive enough not to know when she’s crashing in and doing it wrong – but somehow it all works.”
It sounds true enough. She’s led the most extraordinary life. Leith was born in Cape Town in 1940 and raised in a wealthy family catered to by black servants. Cooking in apartheid South Africa was not considered appropriate for well-bred white girls.
She moved to Paris at the age of 20, studying French and working as an au pair, but really becoming a foodie. Her first husband was businessman Rayne Kruger, with whom she enjoyed a 13-year love affair while he was married to the South African actress Nan Munro. They conducted liaisons in her small west London flat while she studied at Le Cordon Bleu cookery school. Kruger eventually left Munro, allowing him and Prue to marry in 1974.
A heavy smoker, he died in 2002. Together they had their son Danny and adopted a Cambodian baby girl, Li-Da, now a TV producer.
The family lived in a Cotswold manor home, with nine bedrooms, stables and a lake, which Prue sold three years ago for a reported £10million.
A committed advocate for assisted dying, her campaigning dates back decades when she strove for better food standards in schools and prisons. You sense that she’d like more people to recognise her hard work and achievements.
“Not many people know I was responsible for the introduction of the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square,” she says of the ongoing sculpture installation in London’s premier open space for public art. “And I’ve always had a finger in the pie of education.
“I’ve chaired education companies that turned around failing state schools and turned them into good schools.”
She’s cooked for Prince Philip and Princess Margaret, narrowly averting disaster with the latter when she didn’t recognise a red lobster meant it was already dead. But she has never cooked for the King, although she sat next to him once at a luncheon.
Prue’s catering company won prestigious contracts with the Orient Express and Westminster’s Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre during the 1980s. Given the chance, perhaps she would cater for the King’s Coronation on May 6?
“I would absolutely love to do the catering for whatever happens in Buckingham Palace after the Coronation when they relax a bit,” she laughs. But what would she cook for the newly-crowned King?
“Something very light,” she says. “It would be vegetarian or maybe mutton, as he has championed bringing back mutton so that we don’t kill lambs. It would have to be organic, and very British. I’d love to design it.”
Prue recently wrote a cookbook, Bliss on Toast, packed with 75 crowd-pleasing recipes at the behest of her second husband, the retired fashion designer John Playfair, seven years her junior. Together they spent many lockdown meals in front of the television.
Prue would impress John by strewing rocket leaves across leftovers or prettily arranging grilled tomatoes on top that he insisted were Instagram-worthy. From there, the idea for a book was born.
“There’s almost nothing nicer than a classic club sandwich layered with ham, cheese, chicken and tomato in between toast,” Prue insists.
Of course, it’s also cheaper than roasting a joint in the oven or cooking over a gas flame for an hour. Might her book be a good cost-of-living hack for hard-up folk?
“Absolutely,” she replies. “Toasters are not as expensive to run as ovens. Things that go together don’t have to be expensive. Some of the best food like eggs, bacon and sausages are really good on toast. My belief is that anything that’s good on a plate is better on toast!”
With two grown-up children and eight grandchildren, Prue is blissfully happy. And people enjoy probing her recipe for success.
“They love to hear about geriatric love,” she smiles. “When people ask my husband where he met me, he always says ‘geriatric Tinder’, which is absolutely not true. I met him at a friend’s house; he was in his sixties and I was in my seventies.”
As energetic as ever, Prue is in the final stages of preparation for her upcoming tour. She jokes that she originally planned to call her show ‘Winging it’ rather than ‘Nothing in Moderation’ – “because I have spent a long time winging it”.
But that would do her character a huge disservice. Hard work and vigour define her, which is why the social media trolls surely won’t get her down for too long.
- Prue Leith’s Nothing In Moderation UK tour runs from February to April 6. For tickets and venues, visit mickperrin.com
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