Subscriber login Close [x]
remember me
You are not logged in.


Published:  23 July, 2008

Prue Leith OBE. Founder, Leith's Restaurant, Leith's School of Food and Wine and Leith's Good Food. Interiview: Joanne Simon

Hoxton Apprentice 16 Hoxton Square London N1 6NT Tel: 020 7749 2828

Prue Leith OBE trained at the Sorbonne and Cordon Bleu cookery schools before starting a small catering business in London in 1960. When she sold Leith's in 1993, it had 400 staff and an annual turnover of 14 million. She opened Michelin-starred Leith's Restaurant in 1969 and Leith's School of Food and Wine in 1975. Among other things, she has been chairman of the Royal Society for the Arts and of the British Food Trust. As a trustee of Training for Life, her latest venture is Hoxton Apprentice, which opened in May and is essentially a charity-owned training restaurant. She has also written three novels.

Did you always want to cook? No, I always wanted to be an actress like my mother [Margaret Inglis, famous in Prue's native South Africa], so I went to drama school. Of course I soon realised I couldn't act so I swapped over to set design instead. Unfortunately I couldn't draw either! So eventually I persuaded my despairing father that it would be a good idea for me to go to France and learn French, and it was there that I really learnt to love food.

As you get older, food becomes more important than sex'. Did you really say that? It's true. And the older I get, the more Champagne I drink. I think I need that alcohol fix in my blood more quickly! I will certainly never drink a bad bottle of wine again. I reckon I've only got about 20 years left, so I'm not going to waste any more time on poor wine.

Speaking of which, what do you think about screwcaps? I'm longing for them to take off. I can't tell you how sick I am of corked wine! It never used to be such a problem, you know. When I first opened Leith's, the people who sent back a bottle were usually just showing off. Corked wine was so rare that when I did occasionally find a bottle, I would immediately take it to the kitchen to teach my students what the term corked' actually meant!

You wrote a wine book, didn't you? I did a nice little practical book with Richard Harvey. It's not a bedside read, that's for sure, but it's a good book for students. I must admit my wine knowledge has got worse over the years. When we first opened the restaurant, we got a lot of help from Cyril Ray [founder of the Circle of Wine Writers]. He was a real Champagne Socialite, but he always wore a bowtie and pink shirt to prove he was a leftie who voted Labour despite his love affair with Madame Clicquot! Anyway, I became the biggest wine bore of all time until I realised I was falling into the trap of buying only the great labels regardless of whether they were still great wines. Then Nick Tarrayan became my manager and he was so good at wine that I relaxed. In fact, ever since then, whenever I've needed wine, I've simply given him however many thousand quid and told him to get me some drink.

Why did you sell your catering company in 1993? I wanted to do more charity work and I wanted to write novels. I always thought I had a novel in me, not that I ever told anyone - not even my husband [the late Rayne Kruger, also a writer].

Briefly describe your novels I stick to what I know, so there's a lot of food in Leaving Patrick - not to mention a wine scam and nymphomaniac food critic! In my second book, Sisters, one of the sisters is an actress, like my mother, while the other is an outside caterer. And my new book, A Lovesome Thing, is about gardening, which is my other great love. It's probably for slightly more literary readers, whereas my previous books were real beach-reads. I'm still amazed they sold so well [75,000 copies]. Maybe a lot of people thought they were cookbooks - or perhaps they were just curious about this cook-turned-novelist!

What is Hoxton Apprentice? The restaurant is the key part of a Prospect Centre in Hoxton Square, offering training opportunities for disadvantaged people in the local community. At its most basic level, single mums from the estates can go there to learn how to make proper food instead of bringing their kids up on pot noodles. But it's mainly about offering high-quality dining in a training and support environment.

Is it a bit like Jamie Oliver's restaurant Fifteen? Some people have accused us of being Jamie Oliver copycats because we take unemployed people and let them cook in our restaurant. But our aim is not gastronomy; it's fashionable but simple food. The hope is that our best students will then go on to Fifteen. As it happens, Jamie was supposed to be part of our project but we lost our original building, and then the BBC sacked him and he had to start filming fast. So he gained a year and we lost two.

I gather there was some controversy over the funding? Questions were asked about why public money was going into a restaurant - it was even dubbed Prescott's Pantry'! But the money has actually gone towards the whole building, which also offers training in website design and for careers in fitness training. All the money we make will be put back into charity, and if we fail they will simply let the building to someone else - not that we are going to fail.