My first job was as cook for a firm of solicitors. I cooked in a carpeted cupboard with a tiny fridge and tiny cooker so placed that you could only open one of them at a time. I graduated to cooking dinner parties for the partners’ wives, carrying fruit flans and shopping and my chefs knives on the tube (would get arrested today I guess), and then catering for bigger do’s – weddings and parties and balls.
Once I was booked to cook lobsters for Princess Margaret. I’d missed that lesson at cookery school, and could not afford to buy a lobster for a practice run. So I mugged up how to kill lobsters humanely: “Plunge the knife into the well-defined cross where the thorax meets the head, and split the lobster in half”. Nowhere did it mention that live lobsters are black and cooked ones bright red. Relieved to see the lobsters on the kitchen surface had their huge claws safely held with rubber bands, I set about them as instructed. The butler entered to find me gingerly killing cold boiled lobsters, one by one. I did think they were a bit dopey.
Catering led to my first restaurant, Leith’s, in Kensington Park Rd. I wasn’t very good at it, but restaurant food was so terrible in London then that just serving fresh food– no frozen, no cans – got us rave reviews.
My catering company started to win big contracts: the Queen Elizabeth 11 Conference Centre, the Orient Express Train, the Edinburgh International Conference centre; Glyndebourne. I found that I got as much pleasure, more perhaps, out of the logistics of event catering as I got out of cooking. There is such a buzz of smug pride when you look at a perfectly laid-up ballroom, or a buffet groaning with lovely things to eat, that it seems almost a pity when the guests come in and trash it.
Caroline Waldegrave, then Head Cook at my party catering company, was the perfect person to head up a cookery school. We both wanted to train our own cooks, since we spent so much time undoing the nonsense cooks were taught at college – like how to carve radishes into roses, and turnips into chrysanthemums.
So in ’74 we opened Leith’s School of Food and Wine with Caroline, then only 23, as the Principal. She looked no older than the students, but she ran a tight ship and in over 30 years I’ve never met anyone who did not enjoy a Leith’s course, even if they failed the exam at the end of it (bet there is someone reading this who will put me right). I sold the school in 1993 and Caroline sold her shares in 2012 and it now bleongs to Christopher Bland. Caroline got the OBE for teaching all those hundreds, thousands, of students. The schoolgoes on, steered by Camilla Schneideman. In it's fortieth year, in 2014, it was voted Best Cookery School by the readers of Food and Travel. I'm still very proud of it.
Prue Leith Chef's Academy in South Africa, set up in 1997, which consists of a chef school, a party and event catering business and a public restaurant, all manned by apprentice chefs in training. They also send students to the Alma catering college in Italy. I go to South Africa regualrly for a week to check up on the place, and I have to say I am very proud of it. In 2014 they opened a new building with state-of-the-art teaching kitchens, demonstration theatres and conference rooms and wherever I go in South Africa, I see young chefs proudly wearing the Prue Leith Chef's Academy white jackets. It doesn't half give me a big ego-buzz.
Click here to read more on Prue Leith's Academy.