by Prue Leith
It’s that time again. I’m just about to start filming for the Great British Menu – the seventh series is coming up. I think Ladbrokes should start taking bets on how long the BBC will keep me as their pet Oldie, the one they can point to when accused of not employing older women. But I am looking forward to it. You’d have thought, with all the glorious food I have eaten in a long life, I’d be sick to death of Michelin star gastronomy. But every year new top chefs bring their imagination, creativity and taste buds to the challenge and do simply amazing things.
People often ask me what my favourite dish is, or what style of cooking I like, and the truth is, it depends on what I have just eaten. If I am going out for a very smart celebration dinner in an expensive restaurant then I won’t want any of it if I have been foolish enough to have a big lunch. But if I’ve skipped lunch and had a fruit-only breakfast I will be ready for anything the chef puts before me – even a degustation menu of 30 tastes, a la Ferran Adrià.
The other thing that influences me, beside the fullness of my tum, is the company I’m in. I would never have gone to El Bulli or Heston Blumenthal’s Fat duck with someone not interested in food. My beloved husband could not stand all the foodie talk and the constant interruptions by the waiters as they poured liquid nitrogen into a bowl to freeze Tequila sorbet at the table, or explained that the pearl size green blob on the salt spoon was concentrated tarragon and had to be left to melt on the tongue immediately after a mouthful of pomelo granitè. But to go to these places with other people, like my daughter (as obsessed with food as me) or a restaurant chef or manager was a fantastic experience.
I have been thinking a lot about food styles of late, because I am a director of the hotel company, Orient-Express Hotels, which has just been declared the best in the world by the Leading Quality Assurance organisation which goes about testing everything from the quality of the bath bubbles to the smile on the waiter’s face. And food is central to customer perception of course, so we are always keen to know what our customers want.
Since we are unashamedly expensive, our customers are pretty well off, ranging from an elderly couple celebrating their golden wedding with a once-in-a-lifetime-treat at the Cipriani or Mount Nelson, to seriously rich young business people who eat too much good food in too many luxury hotels, and almost never have scrambled eggs in front of the TV. It is not a circle very easy to square: older couples tend to want peace and quiet, no children, very sophisticated food, room service and plenty of spa treatments. Young couples want a great spa too, but also a terrific modern gym, a kid’s club, things for children to do, and adventurous things for themselves to do. And very simple, fashionable, delicious meals that don’t take too long. They also want the best chefs in the world, but they want light, healthy, modern food, not French gastronomy.
I’m 71, but I find myself agreeing with both sides of this discussion. I do love classic haute cuisine with its reliance on reduced wine sauces, cream, butter, confit of this and confit of that, rich slow cooking, plenty of protein. But since I am a lot less active than I was when I worked ten hour days in the kitchen, I would be positively mountainous if I ate like that now. As it is I am two stone heavier than I was when I opened my first restaurant and at least a stone heavier than I should be. I am still working hard and very very busy (though not on my feet all day) so light, quick, healthy food is what I mostly prefer. And years worrying about the way children eat (I was Chair of the School Food Trust until recently) has made me very aware that the perfect diet consists of almost no fat, very little protein, rather more (healthy) carbohydrate, and plenty of veg and fruit.
But I am such a sybarite I refuse to give up completely on the lamb shanks and ox cheeks, the butter-fried kidneys in a mustard cream sauce, the terrines and pates of my beloved France. So my solution (which I don’t always stick to) is to eat these things, in very small portions with a lot of brilliant veg.
The chef who knows absolutely how to marry the needs of both types of customer, is Raymond Blanc, the gastronomic genius behind our famous Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons in Oxfordshire. His restaurant is packed, lunch and dinner, day after day. And the customers are of every age and nationality and the food is astonishing. The portions are small – hungry rugby players can have it all again if they like – and sensational. The veg and salads taste (and often are) picked that day from the kitchen garden, the colours are electric-bright, the combinations original or classic but never over-contrived.
Only one problem. Resisting the puds is impossible.
Relish: My Life on a Plate will be out in April. Paperback R194.