You may know and love Prue Leith for her expert and witty judging on The Great British Bake Off, but the renowned cook has so many more strings to her bow: she’s also a prolific novelist, restaurateur and avid campaigner, among other things.
I sat down with Prue to find out about her latest campaign with Avast, and along the way we chatted tech blunders, fashion icons, her most terrifying meal and her most memorable Bake Off bake, as well as what else she has in the pipeline because, with Prue, there’s always something bubbling away on the back burner…
Tell us about the moment you first fell in love with cooking.
There are two moments, really. One was when I was at the Sorbonne University in France and I came across a student in the canteen who had picked up some radishes, a pat of butter and a screw of salt for lunch. I said, ‘That’s not food,’ and he said it’s delicious, you should try it. So he gave me a piece of baguette and told me to smear the radish stick in the butter, dip it in the salt, then eat it followed by a bit of baguette. I did this and it was absolutely delicious; it was perfect.
The other moment was when I was an au pair in France and I saw that the mother would cook for the children’s supper exactly what we would have for supper. So that might be two tiny little steaks with a few potatoes rolled in butter and chopped parsley and a salad with French dressing. The six-month-old would have this liquidised and the 18-month-old would sit in her highchair with her food on a little tray. I thought, this is all you need to know about food – fresh, beautiful, uncomplicated ingredients, freshly cooked, nicely served and eaten with knees under a table talking to your family. That has been my message for life.
For most people cooking and baking is a hobby but for you it’s a job, so what do you do to relax?
I’m very keen on gardening. I’m not a fantastically good gardener – I did a Channel 4 programme called Prue’s Great Garden Plot, and I managed to plant a whole lot of cherry trees in the wrong soil, so most them drowned.
I also like to make necklaces for myself. Someone gave me a beautiful coral necklace in the Seychelles but the corals are a dull purple, so I’m going to intersperse gold or turquoise beads to jolly it up.
Speaking of necklaces, where do you get all your fabulous jewellery from?
I still wear the necklaces I made with my grandchildren when they were little. I’m obsessed with cheap necklaces, I don’t like expensive ones. I buy them from all over the world, from market stalls, on the streets and on beaches.
I don’t understand why women spend a fortune on shoes and handbags when, if they’re not in the cupboard, they’re under the table and you never see them. Your necklace and glasses, however, are right in people’s line of sight, so I think it’s perfectly reasonable to have hundreds of necklaces and dozens of glasses. Of course, this doesn’t mean I don’t also have a lot of shoes…
You’re known for wearing lots of brilliant bright colours and bold accessories – do you have a fashion icon who inspires your style?
The first woman [whose style] I was really impressed with was Zandra Rhodes, who’s clothes are wonderfully colourful. I’m South African so I’ve always liked really bright colours – when you grow up in a country where all the flowers are vibrant orange or deep blue, it gets into your soul. I can never understand why women wear such dark colours all the time.
You have so many strings to your bow already as a cook, author, TV star and campaigner, among other things. Will you be adding any more in the future?
Yes, I’ve just set up a TV production company with my daughter and her friend, called Relish. Our speciality is approaching top talent, asking them what it is they’d really like to do and then pitching various brilliant ideas, so I have great hopes in it.
And then in the autumn I’m doing a one woman show. I like public speaking and I’ve often stood in theatres and talked to a thousand people, but the idea of having a scripted show full of disaster stories and jokes is a bit scary.
What would you say to someone who thinks it’s ‘too late’ to add a new string to their bow?
It’s never too late. Even if you change your career and you only get five years at it, you’ve still done something worthwhile. I cannot tell you how many people would come to my cookery school who had given up jobs they weren’t happy in and wanted to make a living out of their hobby, cooking. And they so enjoyed spending all day doing what they love, rather than what they hated.
Will you be writing any more novels?
I’ve been struggling with a novel for a long time. I stopped writing it in order to rewrite my autobiography which is about to be republished in America, and I’ve got a new cookbook coming out in the autumn called Bliss on Toast, and it’s simple stuff on toast. So now those are out of the way I’m come back to the novel and it’s going a bit better. It’s about a woman in her sixties who goes internet dating for the first time, so it’s a funny book about her ghastly dates.
Is there a food that other people love but you can’t stand?
I was in Malta recently. At a restaurant one evening we had this whole fish which was absolutely delicious, straight out of the sea and fresh as anything. The chef came out to talk to us and he said, ‘Why aren’t you eating the eye?’ He said it’s the best part so I thought, well, I’m prepared to eat the butt end of a lamb, why can’t I eat the eye of a fish? So I stuck my fork into this thing and pulled it up, but it was like a little hard white marble surrounded by all this gloop and I absolutely couldn’t do it.
You’re part of a campaign to dispel myths around internet cookies with Avast – why did you get involved with that?
Because I am such a clutz about technology. I am one of the third of people who just click ‘Accept all cookies’, without understanding what they are or what they do.
Why is it important for people of all generations to better understand cookies?
I now understand that a cookie is like a digital crumb that sits on websites and remembers things like your password and address so you don’t have to keep inputting the same information. It’s jolly useful with websites you know and trust and if you don’t ever accept cookies then it actually slows your computer down.
But if you’re browsing around and find yourself on a website you don’t know, you should take the trouble to see what they want to do with your information, or else just don’t accept them.
We can all be technophobes sometimes – have you ever had any tech blunders?
I was once the chairman of the Board of Governors of a secondary school and we had one really difficult parent governor who drove everybody mad and thought it was his job to tell the head teacher how to do her job. Everyone had told me privately that they wanted him gone, so I wrote a round robin email to all members of the board agreeing that he was a complete pain in the butt and that I would do my best [to get rid of him]. But of course, I sent it to him as well!
And then, of course, my most famous technology blunder was tweeting the winner of Bake Off on my first year [on the show]. I was in Bhutan and the production company reminded me to congratulate the winner after 10:30pm. Well, I thought, it’s after 10:30! So I pressed send. It was only up for 89 seconds when my secretary deleted it but by then it had gone viral.
It was really dreadful. People messaged me saying I’d ruined their entire lives and that they’d like to kill me. I thought, come on, it’s only cake.
What’s the best piece of advice you can give?
Because I’m a Dame, I’m about to have a coat of arms and they asked me what my motto should be. At first I thought I would have ‘Just do it’, but then I realised Nike use that to sell trainers. Then I thought of ‘Nothing in moderation’.
Lastly, which Bake Off bake has stuck in your mind the most all these years?
The funniest one was Russell Brand’s showstopper, which was of his wife’s vagina. We were giggling away but what was fantastic and so moving was that he was so sincere about it and so in love with the idea of showing off the glory of his wife’s vagina. It was crazy but so imaginative and artistic in that it was like a modern piece of art. And the shortbread he made was delicious.
Prue Leith is working with cyber-security experts Avast to help Brits understand digital cookies and as part of the campaign, has created a limited run of her chocolate chip cookies, which are free for people to order here. The cookies come complete with hints, tips and tricks on how to navigate the digital kind of cookies.