There’s possibly not enough space here to list all the wish-I’d-done-that things South African entrepreneur Prue Leith has under her belt, but they do all share some common threads: business, food and social work.
While her catering business, board memberships, 12 cookbooks and six novels have netted her a comfortable living and a spot in Britain’s business pantheon, Leith, who speaks at three events at this year’s Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, ploughs much of her time into passing on her acumen and love of food, much of it for the benefit of the less privileged.
“I am not interested in shaking collection boxes or writing begging letters,” she says. “I like to get stuck in and use my business skills to make stuff happen.”
Born in Johannesburg, the 74-year-old founded a hit catering business in London in the 1960s, and now has to her name Leiths School of Food and Wine and the aptly named Leith’s Cookery Bible. Updated in 2003, the book is the hefty English language answer to Larousse Gastronomique, covering the cookery classics for the beginners or professionals.
For Leith, however, food is a social issue, not just the makings of a nice dinner party. “Good food helps farmers, young entrepreneurs, the economy, the health of the nation and so on and on. I can bore for England on this,” she says (we’re sure that’s unlikely — and if you are equally passionate about the food business, don’t miss her session on the foodie panel at the festival next Saturday).
Ahead of her festival appearances, we chatted with Leith about women in business — she opens the festival with a debate on “getting to the top” — literature and charity.
Reading about your life is as fascinating as any novel — and twice as inspiring. How different was it writing your memoirs, Relish: My Life on a Plate, as opposed to your novels?
Very different. I was reluctant at first, thinking it would be boring: after all I have lived my life and I am more interested in the future, but in the end I became fascinated by my mother’s diaries, family stories (no members ever agree on what exactly happened) and anyway it turned into a pleasurable 18 month ego-trip.
How does one decide to write their memoirs — at what point do you say, I’ve got enough material here.
I didn’t. My publishers preferred their idea of a memoir to my idea of a trilogy of novels with a background of the changes in food production and cooking since the war (which I am now writing). We decided the memoir had to come first, mainly because as I am on telly, it’s a good moment, before the public forget me altogether, and secondly because I feared if we left it much longer I would not remember anything.
Many of your business interests and charities mix food with social activism in some form. Is this simply the meeting of two of your interests, or do you believe food has the power to change things? Is “food” also in need of some charity, in some way?
I think food is ignored at our peril. “Food studies”, by which I mean cooking, history, sustainability, politics of food, growing, nutrition, are quite as vital as mathematics and schools should teach children how to eat (which their parents increasingly don’t do).
Food is fascinating and cooking is a hugely popular subject in schools, and it is easy to interest children in food. And knowledgeable children are more likely to eat properly. Also meals are social glue for a family. And because I found I was good at business — basically I am bossy and I like to fix things that are broken — I helped start several social enterprises or charities. There really is no difference between a business and a charity, except where the profits go. I am not interested in shaking collection boxes or writing begging letters. I like to get stuck in and use my business skills to make stuff happen.
Do you have any examples of how your food projects have changed lives?
Yes, lots. Here are two:
Leon Serafin was excluded from school at 13, roamed the streets as a gang member, got into trouble and jail, became homeless, etc. He joined the first of the Hoxton Apprentices in the kitchen and for the first time got “a family” who gave him support, appreciation, direction and advice. He is now head chef of another Social Enterprise restaurant and is rescuing other young people in the dumps.
The Fourth Plinth project [a space given to artists on the last empty column in London’s Trafalgar Square] has brought dozens of top artists to the notice of the general public, for free and without them having to enter a gallery. Also it has given several talented young artists a boost at the beginning of their career. Mark Wallinger, the first exhibitor on the plinth with his Ecce Homo, erected just before the millennium, is a good example. He is now established and at the top of sculpture tree.
Do you have any recommendations for other authors’ books about food, both fiction and non-fiction?
I love the way Nigel Slater writes. I also like [her Great British Menu co-judge] Matthew Fort. Of yesterday’s great writers, M.K. Fischer and Elizabeth David are tops. As you see I like writers who do more than just write recipes.
I’m looking forward to your session on women reaching the top. Do you think success is down to the individual, or are there challenges that women specifically face in the workplace?
Everyone gets along better if the environment is helpful. When I was on the British Rail board we employed 50 per cent women graduates but few of them lasted. Not because they couldn’t do the job, but because nice old-fashioned patronising men would not let them do the tough jobs. “Look lass, it’s raining out there. We’ll send young Jack out to deal with chaps on track. You stay in the warm and answer the complaint letters.”
Well not one gets to the top by answering complaint letters. Businesses, if they are serious about getting the best out of women, need to look at what is hindering them: working hours, attitudes in the kitchen; culture.
Have you mentored any women, and did you have a mentor when you were in your early career?
I had a male mentor, Sir Peter Parker, who pushed me to do stuff I didn’t think I could. He put me on the British Rail Board, entered me for Businesswoman of the Year, told me I should put my hat in the ring for Chairman of the RSA [the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce], read my speeches and told me to stop apologising. I still miss him.
And yes I have mentored several women. But not in a very formal sense. But they include Catherine Gazzoli, CEO of Slow Food UK, a young manager at Woolworths when I was on the board, and Thomasina Miers, food writer, telly chef and CEO of [Mexican restaurant group] Wahaca.
Quickfire with Prue Leith:
Tell us what you are reading at the moment, and what do you think of it so far?
Letters of Note — a collection of letters as diverse as the draft of a statement for President Nixon to make if the Apollo 13 astronauts had to be abandoned on the moon, and a letter from three Elvis fans to the US Army begging them not to cut off Elvis’s sideburns.
What makes you pick up a book and start reading it?
If it’s there, I will pick it up. I have to read for 20 minutes before I fall asleep. Sadly I read slowly and the piles of books on both sides of my bed and along the bathroom windowsill keeps growing.
What’s the book you’d read over and over again?
The Warden by Anthony Trollope
Book you have never made it to the end of?
Anything by Salman Rushdie. Freedom by Jonathan Frantzen.
Hard copy or e-reader — or both?