Prue Leith Culinary Institute student Cebisa Songca hard at work
When South African-born chef, restaurateur, cooking school founder, writer and TV presenter Prue Leith celebrated her 80th birthday last month on home soil at the recently renamed Prue Leith Culinary Institute, Anna Trapido clinked glasses with this grande dame and revisited the landmark moments that make up the map of her incredible journey.
Photographs courtesy of Prue Leith Culinary Institute
Prudence “Prue” Leith was born in Cape Town on 18 February 1940. She grew up in Johannesburg and says that: “My earliest childhood food memories are very South African – the taste and smell of Maltabella always takes me back to that time. My father was a businessman and my mother was an actress, so they didn’t really cook much themselves but we ate well at home because they employed a very skilled Zulu cook called Charlie who had been trained at the Rand Club.” She smiles as she remembers that: “More than anything, my parents showed me that good cooking comes in many forms – some grand, some simple, but that it is always meant to be enjoyed. When I wrote my first book, I dedicated it to: “My mother who can’t cook but gives marvellous parties anyway.”
Prue recalls: “Both my parents had a lovely habit of taking my brothers and me out to eat just one adult and one child at a time.” These epicurean excursions took in the delicious diversity of Johannesburg’s ’50s food scene, of which Prue says, “I remember loving it when my father took me to the Grand Station Hotel, where the waiters wore white gloves and red sashes across their jackets, and I got to try exotic things like snails in garlic butter. He also took me to eat peri-peri chicken at a sort of bistro in Newtown. We would eat by candlelight and the chicken would come to the table in a basket, which felt like the height of sophistication!”
When Prue matriculated from St Mary’s School, Waverley, Johannesburg, she persuaded her parents to allow her to study Cours de Civilisation Française at the Sorbonne in Paris, France. Classes took up only a few hours a day and the rest of the time she au paired for a French family. “Maria, the cook at the rather grand house where I worked, taught me to make things like a Normandy apple tart with short buttery crust, almond filling and fine apricot glaze.”
In 1963 Prue moved to London to attend Le Cordon Bleu cookery school and upon graduation started to cater foodie functions from her tiny bedsitting room. What began in a bedsit grew into a hugely successful party and event catering company, Leith’s Good Food. In 1969, she opened Leith’s, her subsequently Michelin-starred restaurant in Notting Hill.
With her career going from strength to strength, Prue founded London’s Leith’s School of Food and Wine in 1975, selling it in 1993. In 1997, she was part of the team that started the South African Prue Leith College of Food and Wine (which was renamed the Prue Leith Chefs Academy a decade later and recently rebranded again as the Prue Leith Culinary Institute). She says of this South African educational facility: “I am so proud of what has been achieved. It really is my dream chefs’ school with that proper mix of professional training, practical experience and enthusiasm. That is the mix that engenders a life-long obsession with good food. I love that the highest industry standards are upheld but that the students are also encouraged to push boundaries. This is a tough industry and I love that the students are thoughtful but not fragile snowflakes. We turn out confident, strong chefs, who are ready to take on an ever-changing industry.
“The rebranding of the school from Academy to Institute is part of why I am in South Africa now. A new name and a new direction,” Prue continues. Prue Leith Culinary Institute MD, Adele Stiehler-van der Westhuizen, elaborates: “It is a new decade and we believe it is time for an updated look, not only to ensure we are current, but also to accurately represent the increasing number of food services that we have been offering over the past few years. A brand associated with a patron as dynamic as Prue Leith certainly cannot afford to be stale and pale!”
Smiling, Prue adds: “I am delighted by the new look and direction of the institute. Food is a very dynamic field and the new brand recognises that there are many ways to be a chef. In my own career, I have constantly changed what I do but food has remained at the heart of my work.” Such is the breadth of Prue’s talent that she has worked as a food columnist, written 14 cookbooks (including Leith’s Cookery Bible and her latest release, The Vegetarian Kitchen, which she co-authored with her niece, Peta Leith) and eight novels. Her memoir, Relish, was published in 2012. Of cookbook writing, she says: “So much has changed since I started. It is a very exciting time for writers because there are so many new ways for talented people to create their own markets. The advent of social media means that potential readers follow what is good and works for them. They can access a far greater diversity of influences now. So, often interesting writers establish a following and only then get a mainstream publisher.” In addition to the written word, Prue also has a passion for television. “My job as a judge on The Great British Bake Off would be hard to beat. I get paid to arrive, eat and have an opinion!” she laughs modestly.
And what of Prue’s views on the past and future, now that she’s attained the lifetime achievement of reaching 80 years of age? “No real regrets,” she states. “Lots of mistakes but no regrets. Mistakes are where you learn. I have wishes that haven’t yet been realised but those aren’t really regrets. I think my recent trilogy of novels would make a great TV drama and a couple of times it has looked as though that might happen and then it hasn’t. But perhaps there is still time…”
PRUE LEITH CULINARY INSTITUTE; 012-654-5203; PRUELEITH.CO.ZA