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
by Prue Leith
Last updated at 10:25 AM on 2nd March 2012
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
Next, I badgered my long-suffering parents to let me go to France. I spent a month working as an au pair in the Basque country, which is where my interest in food became serious. Madame von Bochstael, the mistress of the house, gave me two seminal lessons in my first 24 hours.
Before breakfast, we went to buy the bread: baguettes in one bakery, croissants in another and gateau in a third. ‘but why do we go to all those shops? they all sell everything,’ I said. she rolled her eyes at my stupidity.
That evening, I watched Madame make the children’s supper: everyone from the toddler upwards got exactly the same thing — tiny rare steaks, salad with French dressing, boiled potatoes, followed by a sliver of apple pie. It was all fresh and made from scratch by a woman who knew what she was doing.
At last, I was blindingly sure of what I wanted to do: I was going to become a cook. Easier said than done: at 20, one of the few things I’d ever made was a Christmas cake with concrete icing that had shattered Dad’s bone-handled carving knife when he tried to use it as a chisel.
Two years later, I got a bedsit in London (groaning geyser and bath in one corner, tiny kitchenette in another), took a three-month cordon bleu cookery course and got cracking.
My first real job was cooking three days a week for the law firm McKenna and Partners in Whitehall. Intent on developing my skills, I set about cooking my way through the 1,200-plus pages of the Constance Spry cookery book. the partners were extraordinarily good about it. When I got to the chicken chapter, they ate chicken, in different guises, for weeks on end.
Once,while experimenting with making cream cheese and yogurt, I left a bowl of fermenting milk behind a radiator. the next time I arrived for work, the place was full of men in white coats and surgical masks looking for the source of the smell.
Meanwhile,I was doing other catering jobs, carrying pies and casseroles round London on the Tube. but I was still remarkably ignorant.
Forone lunch, at which Princess Margaret was the guest of honour, I was asked to cook lobster. Never having cooked it before, I bought the ready-cooked variety — and tried to ‘kill’ them with a knife.
Then,once, at a lunch for the City stockbrokers Grieveson Grant, I planted (unwashed) watercress in a heaped-up platter of seafood, before serving each guest.
Thatdisaster came from not washing things, but I also got into trouble because I did wash things. At a lunch for shipping brokers, the senior partner peered intently at his salad, then reached into it with his fingers.
Ah, I thought smugly, he’s never seen a designer salad before — he’s curious about theradicchio, rocket, lambs’ lettuce, pea tendrils. . .
Butno. as I watched, horrified, he started pulling out a piece of string, which turned into a length of chain — and then out popped a sink plug.
‘Well, at least it proves I washed the salad,’ I said.
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. by the time they’d milked every delaying tactic, I was ready.
The salmon was the best I’ve ever produced. but the fillet was still raw, so I bunged it on the iron top of the Aga, without a frying pan. I managed to heat the sauce by suspending a saucepan in the tea urn, which was also warming the peas.
No one guessed anything was wrong. Of course, I was tempted to rat on the Verulams’ chef, but then I thought: ‘Hell, how would I feel if my boss didn’t consider my cooking good enough for an important dinner?’
In any case, I was doing so well by then that I’d moved to some former stables, which I turned into two tiny properties. I let the biggest to a pop group — the Hollies.
The lead singer, Graham Nash, used to give me his cast-off jeans until I got too fat to wear them.
I declined their offers of spliffs. but, as my business took off, I’m ashamed to say I offered staff the occasional Drinamyl tablet, or ‘purple heart’, to help them work through the night.
The jobs got bigger. one summer, we had a Surrey wedding to cater for on the same day as we were cooking for a party Elton John was throwing in North London.
At the last minute, I discovered that all the tablecloths had been sent to Elton’s house.
So while the wedding party was at church, I raided the cupboards of the bride’s mother and whipped out all her sheets. Later, she took me to one side. ‘How clever of you to have our monogram on the tablecloths,’ she said. by the late Sixties, I was working all hours, not least because I was making 12 pork terrines a week for Balls Brothers pubs in the City.
As I had only one oven, I baked them at night — which meant waking up every two hours to rotate them from one shelf to another.
But it’s extraordinary what you get used to. in 1969, when I opened my restaurant in an unfashionable part of Notting Hill, I’d be up at 4am to buy ingredients at various markets, grab some sleep in the afternoons and then work until after midnight.
The restaurant, somewhat to my surprise, was an almost immediate success — even if I did spend most of the first night trying to unblock the ladies’ loo with a plunger.
Soon after we opened, Princess Margaret arrived with two friends — just as we were packing up.
As the place was nearly empty, I told some of the waiters, who were busy changing out of their uniforms, to sit at tables and try to look like fashionable, happy customers.
They had a ball — clicking their fingers, sending food back, complaining about the wine and generally having fun at the expense of the colleagues forced to serve them.
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 brul