Prue Leith - cookery guru and novelist, visits Sidmouth

I HAD arranged to meet Prue Leith, cookery guru, former restaurateur and now established novelist, at Sidmouth s Victoria Hotel, the evening before she gave two talks to devotees of her work. For more on Prue click here

I HAD arranged to meet Prue Leith, cookery guru, former restaurateur and now established novelist, at Sidmouth's Victoria Hotel, the evening before she gave two talks to devotees of her work.

Sadly she had lost her voice; in good company the evening before when she and Prince Charles had both suffered the affliction at the finals of TV's The Great British Menu.

Assured alcohol helped the vocal chords, the 70-year old celebrity, going on late 50s, ordered a gin and tonic, whispering her choice of Bombay Sapphire, adding: "I like the colour of the bottle!"

She would have been a delight to interview, having had such a full and interesting career, but, because she was preserving her voice for her two talks and book signing, organised by Kate Norbury from Branscombe Book Club, I resorted to handing her my list of prepared questions, hoping for some responsive answers.

"I'll e-mail you tonight," she promised, as she retired to her suite which the Brend family provided with their compliments - and she did.

How did your childhood in South Africa colour your view of life?

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Who knows how their childhood colours their view of life? But I grew up in a privileged white South African family, with lots of money, servants, sun, and luxury, but also with a Scottish Presbyterian ethic: we were not spoiled, education was important. My father was a businessman and my mother an actress so maybe I got a bit from both of them - love of the arts and business. Also my mama was an active member of the Black Sash, which was a women's protest group against apartheid and I remember her coming home with egg all over her coat - she'd been protesting on the Johannesburg city hall steps. She fought against discrimination in the theatre and some of that campaigning, strong stuff must have rubbed off on me.

S Africa is not the world's gastronomic centre, but we ate well and my Dad took me out on my first trip to a posh restaurant - to the Johannesburg Station Buffet! It was the poshest restaurant in town. All white cloths, silver cloches and waiters with red sashes over their white jackets. He also taught me to eat snails (they came in tins from France of course) and I loved all the fiddling around with funny implements and the garlic butter and lots of bread. Also we went to the red light district and he gave me the most fashionable dish of the day "Chicken in the Basket" at the Red Lantern Inn - all gloom and candlelight and glamourous women. I loved it.

Your mother was an actress and you began life at Cape Town university studying Drama before getting a BA in French. How did you then become interested in being a cookery writer and restaurateur?

I had a shot at acting (discovered I didn't like it) stage design (discovered I was useless at it), architecture (my maths not up to it) a BA in philosophy and logic (maths problem again) , swopped to French (and decided I'd learn it better in France. My poor long suffering father! But when I was at the Sorbonne, doing a course in French Civilisation I discovered the joys of food. Found that the French though food worthy of intelligent educated peoples' attention.

I tried for a job at Maxims, top restaurant at the time. The chef laughed at me. He said women were not allowed in the kitchen, except to do the cleaning before the men arrived and gut the ducks, pluck the pheasants and peel the spuds. So no job. I did work in a little restaurant , a real hole in the wall, in Montmartre and when I bluffed my way into the Advanced Course at the London Cordon Bleu I was mildly economical with the truth and said I had "worked in a restaurant". Failed to mention that I'd washed up and carried plates, not cooked.

You say you always wanted to write and had "papered the walls with rejection slips" what was the turning point from cook books and recipes to novels?

had always written. I GOT a lot of rejections for my early stories - childrens' stories and short stories. And when a student I wrote a really bad play. And I have always written poetry but in secret. my first paid job was for a column in the Johannesburg Tatler called Prue in Paris.

But I was lucky with food writing. My first book, Leiths All Party Cookbook, recipes and instruction for entertaining born out of my catering background, came because the chairman of Conde Nast used to dine in my restaurant and I think was also a publisher and he asked me to write it. I'm still quite proud of it. Good solid catering knowledge (how many bites per person at a cocktail party, how to avoid food poisoning and so on, but also delicious recipes and an unusual looking book.

The front cover was a picture of the aftermath of a good party - the buffet table of almost bare ham bone, stripped carcase of a whole salmon, three-quarters-empty salad bowls, burnt down candles, upturned glasses, stained tablecloth, even, in those politically free days, stubbed out cigars in the coffee saucer. A mess.

The back cover was the conventional perfect untouched buffet table. Everyone wanted to do the obvious thing and put that one on the front. But I stuck to my guns. The pictures were a mix of modern food photos and archive stuff like Georgian cartoons of royal blow-outs; the barbecue chapter was illustrated with an engraving of a human barbecue, the wedding one was a picture, in the manner of a Victorian photo, of my brother and his wife, sepia, in front of a wedding cake with the decoration faked in lace ribbon.

Then I got a job on the Daily Mail (mainly due to Lady Elizabeth Anson, the Queens cousin and posh party doyenne. The Ed wanted her but she kindsly said "Two problems, I can't cook and I can't write. But I know a woman who can" So I did a deal whereby I ghosted her column one week (posh food) and wrote my own the next (tatties and mince, bread pudding etc).

My writing time for the next 30 years was taken up with food writing, a bit of travel, interviews and etc, and occasional non food features - and cookbooks, of which I wrote 12. But when I was heading for 50 and my husband for 70, I decided it was now or never for the novel I had been promising myself (but never mentioning to anyone else) for ever. I knew I'd never do it if I didn't make serious time so I sold the business, gave up food writing and wrote my first novel, vowing to never write another recipe: A resolution I have stuck to.

I got a lot of help from Arvon (the charity set up by Ted Hughes) which runs writing courses. I did one of their 4 day novel writing courses and they were brilliant. Really encouraging. And then, when my agent still didn't think the book was good enough I sent it to The Literary Consultancy and they told me the novel (my first, called Leaving Patrick) ended four chapters from the end, - the last chapters were the sequel. They also told me to dump chapter Nineteen. "It's a great short story, but it holds up the action". I did what I was told and then my agent accepted it and promptly sold it to Penguin. And, thank God, it sold well. Not best seller stuff, but a respectable 45,000 copies or so.

Do you think being famous in your field helped you get your novels published.

I don't think being known as a cook has helped my getting published except that as a food writer I already had an agent and a publisher and they had to at least read my stuff. But my publisher, Bloomsbury, rejected Leaving Patrick. They already published Joanna Trollope and they thought I was too similar (something we would both contest!). And having a bit of a name must help sales. I imagine someone hesitating over the books on the table at the airport and thinking "Prue Leith, haven't I heard of her? " and even if they don't know who I am, the familiarity must give comfort, no?

Anyway, that is one of the reasons I do The Great British menu. Although it cuts across my desire to be thought of as a serious novelist and not a greedy foodie, everyone tells me that celebrity is what sells anything. It doesn't matter what you are famous for - it could be robbing a bank or murdering your husband - but it will help sell your novels. One day, I hope I won't need to work so hard on marketing and putting myself about to sell my novels, but the truth is, most people still think I'm a cook.

One woman who had queued for 20 minutes to get her book signed got to me furious. "I've queued for ages and now I discover I am buying a novel. I thought it was your new cookbook, but I've been reading it in the queue and there is not a recipe in it."

You have had five novels published since Leaving Patrick in 1995. Are you working on another at the moment?

My next book will be a memoir and I guess it is a two year job. I was dithering between novels and a memoir and asked an audience of 200 women at a literary festival for their preference and only 2 hands went up for the novel (I thought, God, I am about to sign books, I won't sell a single copy" and ALL of them stuck up both hands for a memoir. So memoir it will be.

Your husband died in 2002, and since then you met and fell in love with Ernest Hall. How has that changed your life?

My three and a half years with Sir Ernest Hall were wonderfully uplifting and fun and gave me something I thought I'd never have again, certainly not in my 60s - romantic deep love. But creative geniuses are impossible to live with, and I dare say bossy over-energetic sixty year old women are too. Anyway, its all over, to the sorrow of both of us and both our families.

You moved into a large building in London with your children, has that given you more ideas for plots?

Sharing a house with my children has been great. Me sandwiched in the middle floor flat, my son below, daughter above But now my son has married and has a baby and has moved out and my daughter is off to South Africa filming (shes a director) so we may give it up, and just share our big house in the country where I live most of the time and they come down at weekends. No, have not used that for a plot. One day, maybe. Good idea.

You have just become a grandmother, what does that feel like?

LOVE being Nana to grandson Malachi (which means, I'm told Of Royal Blood in Pharsi and Angel in Hebrew. ) Sadly for me he is now sleeping through the night so I can't do the 2 am feed. It was such a great time. He'd have his bottle (warmed of course - gastronomy should start young!), I'd have my cuppa, and the cat would have a saucer of milk. And we'd have a midnight feast and a nice half hour of baby worship.

One night the cat lay behind the baby and gave his head a good wash. Malachi did not even notice. And then, cat safely banished to the bathroom (something about cat suffocating babies which I knew nothing about when I had Malachi's dad), baby tucked up in the cot (I do cheat sometimes and have him in bed with me) and me back under the quilt, I suddenly panicked "What if he's allergic to cats?!" Ah well, I decided, I'll find out soon enough.

How would you like to influence your grandchild?

I hope Malachi will get used to healthy food from the start. I am sure he will. His mother, Emma is wonderful, and eats all the right things, unlike his Dad who is really a meat and potatoes man, and has only , under Emmas's influence, recently given vegetables houseroom.

You have done so many things in your life. What has been or is the most fulfilling?

Apart from writing novels, (which has to be the most satisfying as I cannot stop doing it even though it is the least lucrative of all my activities except the charity things) I think the School Food Trust has been the most satisfying. To have been part of a movement that has meant real change - no more junk sold in school, healthy school meals the law, cooking lessons in the curriculum for all, 5000 cookery clubs set up in schools, food education part of PSHE, science, geography etc, has been great. I've often said it was my most important job. It's true. I just hope the new government realise that food education is every bit as important to the economy, and to our health (and the NHS costs) as anything.

You have done much to educate children in the ways of eating, do you have any on-going projects in this field?

No, no more ongoing projects in this field personally, but I am on the board of Slow Food UK and we have, at my instigation, started SlowFoodBaby, which is about getting parents to realise the importance of good food for babies, in the womb and out. The first six months are the most important months for brain development, and good food is vital. We also have a project, The Taste Adventure, which are kits that go round schools, festivals and museums, for schoolchildren to learn about fruit and veg by feeling, smelling, tasting, before they look. They love it, and learn a lot. Then there is Slow Food on Campus, about helping students to form supper clubs and cooking clubs to teach each other to cook well and healthily, and Slow Food Wisdom which is about capturing and passing on the knowledge of old ways with food from older people so it is not lost.

You write poetry too and say it has not been published. Would you want it published and if not, why not?

My poetry, with a very few exceptions is not good enough for publication and I am not giving it the time to learn to do it better. Like most people I guess I have mostly written at times of emotion: great joy, sadness, births and deaths, and love of course. I did send two recent poems off to magazines, but I am expecting, cheerfully, the usual rejection!

Have you ever been to Sidmouth before and why did you accept Kate's invitation to speak?

Sadly, I've never been to Sidmouth before. Kate is a wonderful woman, and who could resist.? Also, years ago I said to Joanna Trollope that I envied her huge success and she said she'd been unknown for years and the secret was to accept every literary festival, book club, womens' institute, etc invitation anywhere. Jut get around and sell books, because the publishers can't do it for you.

How would you describe your novels?

I'd describe my books as a "superior beach read". They are easy to read with a beginning, middle, end (not always happy-ever- after but I hope somehow satisfying for the reader. I HATE books with enigmatic endings of the more-of-the-same fashionable gloom and hopelessness.) Most of all I hope they are well written, canter along at a good pace and with characters the reader will identify with and like. I hope they are not predictable, or soppy.

The only character who has made an encore in any of my books is the cat Benedicat, based on an Abysinain cat I had for years. My current cat is called Magnificat and he is a Bengal Tiger, so called - actually the breed is mostly Abysinian with one eighth Wild Asian Leopard cat.

You published your first novel aged 55, and have now published five. How do you describe your latest?

A Serving of Scandal has brilliant timing with politics being back in fashion, though I confess that was an accident.

It is about the inevitable compromises and loss of idealism that politicians, if they want to stay in power, must endure -- the mountain of work, tabloid scandals, the tarnish of expenses, no time for old friends. It's also about the rotten time wives and friends of politicians have.

Oliver is a dead sexy Labour Home secretary and he is alleged to have had an affair with his close no-nonsense friend Kate, who is also a Downing Street and Government caterer. Kate's life is made hell by the scandal, while he sails on, protected, assisted, looked after.

How would you like to be remembered, as a novelist or restaurateur and cookery writer or something else?

I'd like most to be remembered with affection. I'm such an egotist I want to be loved both sides of the grave. I want to do write by my family and people I work with. But to write a good novel, a really seriously good novel that stays in the readers head and bears a second or third reading! That would be something. I'll never manage it. But I do think each book gets better. So maybe, if I live long enough.

Last Thursday's event at Kennaway House was a great success said Kate Norbury, who also arranged a gastronomic delight prepared by Antonia's Kitchen chef Robert Leach, who knew Prue Leith in South Africa.

Describing the talks as a great success, she said Prue spoke about the charity Focus on Food, and said her most important job had been chairman of the School Food Trust, whose aim is to encourage children to choose healthy foods.

"I discovered she started the campaign to use the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square for modern sculpture.

"Her comment about her early life in South Africa that 'clever girls there don't cook' went down really well with the home economics teachers that I know were in the audience.

For more on Prue click here