Prue Leith is largely known in South Africa as the founder patron of the Prue Leith Chefs Academy, the daughter of the once famous actress Margaret Inglis, or the Johannesburg girl made good in London as a restaurateur, television cook and writer.
Prue says that she learnt to eat as a student in Paris, learnt to cook in London, and opted for the kitchen because she did not want to work in an office. Then she fell in love with business and enterprise, and ended up running the Leith’s group of companies (School of Food and Wine, Leith’s Events and Parties and Leith’s Restaurants) from an office. When she sold the business in 1993 she employed 500 people, her flagship restaurant had a Michelin star and Prue had won the Veuve Clicquot Businesswoman of the Year award, and been honored by the Queen with first an O.B.E. and then a C.B.E.
Prue is endlessly energetic. “I’m one of those irritating women who want to fix the world. I cannot help getting stuck in and organising things,” she says. Indeed in her time she has chaired the Royal Society of Arts, founded half a dozen charities (mostly to do with education, the arts or food), chaired the Board of Governors of a not-for-profit education company that turns around failing schools, was the Chair of the School Food Trust, set up by the British Government to change the diet of the nation through teaching children at school about food and persuading them to eat healthily.
Prue used to write cookbooks. Indeed her bestselling Leith’s Cookery Bible, written with Caroline Waldegrave, has been in print for 20 years and is still a best seller. Now Prue writes novels. Her fifth novel, A Serving of Scandal, came out in 2010 and is set in the political “village” of Westminster. Her protagonist is a labour Foreign Secretary stitched up by the tabloid press who claim he is sleeping with the Downing Street cook.
Prue’s novels are all set in milieus and locations she knows well. Choral Society is about three older women (a food journalist, a business woman and a much-married divorcee) who meet in a singing group. Leaving Patrick was about the restaurant business, Sisters is largely set in South Africa, mostly in the bush, and The Gardener is set in Prue’s home county of Oxfordshire in the Cotswolds. All her novels have a lot of cooking and eating in them. “I like writing about food. Especially when I’m hungry,” she says.
They also have, it must be said, a fair bit of sex in them. “Yes” she admits, “but not toe-curlingly embarrassing sex, I hope. They are love stories, after all, and modern ones.”
When she is not writing novels or working for the charity Slow Food UK, she might be jet setting about the world for Orient Express Hotels (she’s on the Board, which makes her a Director of the Mount Nelson in Cape Town, and a clutch of top game camps in Botswana, plus forty-odd famous hotels and luxury trains from Peru to the Far East. Or she might be filming for a new series of The Great British Menu, a hugely successful show that has now been going for seven years.
Prue is immensely proud of the Prue Leith Chefs Academy which she says is the right model for a school. The students learn while working in real restaurants, and the Academy instills a love of great food alongside knowledge of technical excellence.