PRUE is the first food book I’ve written in 25 years and I’m thrilled with it.
Being a Great British Bake Off judge was the motivation: those amateur bakers are truly inspiring, and I found I was baking more than I ever had, buying cookbooks and reading food columns again, and eventually succumbing to the pull to get back to recipe writing. All one-hundred recipes have been tested, retested and often re-written by Georgina Fuggle, who is herself a great cookery writer. They are also photographed by the king of food photography, David Loftus, and there are some beautiful paintings by David Hawson.
The book is full of the food and recipes that I’ve loved and gathered in my almost sixty years of cooking, writing and eating. It will be published by MacMillan in September with recipes ranging from simple, quick and delicious things like a slightly spicy Butternut Squash Tarte Tatin, to sophisticated Watermelon and Prosciutto fried in olive oil and served with feta, rocket and pomegranate.
As well as the forthcoming PRUE, my revised autobiography, Relish, is now out in paperback. I had to update it because a lot has happened to me in the last few years, not least falling in love (and getting married) again and becoming the new Great British Bake Off judge.
And then, the two first novels of my Food of Love trilogy will be republished later this year, to be followed by the third and final one, The Lost Son, out next year. And most exciting of all, I am working with Cove Pictures to turn the trilogy into a TV family saga.
I started writing, mostly writing about food, alongside my career as a cook. My first regular cookery column was for the Daily Mail, then, over the years, I moved to the Sunday Express, the Guardian and Mirror. I still like journalism and do occasional pieces for the dailies, the Spectator or the Oldie, though not often about food.
I didn’t write a novel until I was in my early fifties, mainly because I lacked the courage and also because I was too busy writing cookbooks (the most successful being the Leith’s Cookery Bible, (co-written with Caroline Waldegrave) and running my increasingly demanding business.
I’d fallen for the idea of being a cook in my late teens, as a student in Paris. When I came to live in London at the age of twenty-one I went to cookery school and then set up as a cook-for-hire, travelling about on the tube and cooking posh people’s dinner parties. Gradually the business grew until I employed 500 people and we fed the passengers on the Orient Express Train, the delegates at conference centres, and we catered for many a celeb party. I discovered that I loved business, which was a surprise because I’d gone into the kitchen because I didn’t want to work in an office. By the time I sold the Leith’s Group in 1993, that was what I did – work in an office overseeing the business, By then it included contracts for catering in the royal parks and at Hampton Court Palace, a Michelin Starred restaurant and Leith’s School of Food and Wine in London, which I am still tremendously proud of. I had little time to cook, much less to write a novel, especially as I became increasingly embroiled in charity work, helping to found and run charities to do with school food, chairing the Royal Society of Arts and helping set up a restaurant in Hoxton training disadvantaged young people to be chefs and waiters.
Because I have done well in spite of never having completed a university degree, I’ve always been a champion of vocational education and I found myself chairing a company turning round state schools, and helping to set up the Prue Leith Chef’s Academy which I’m proud to say is the best chef’s school in South Africa.
As I headed for fifty the need to “write that novel” became irresistible. I knew I’d never do it if I continued to write cookbooks and if I had the business to run. So I sold up, and vowed never to write another recipe, a promise I’ve now broken to write PRUE.
The transition from food writing to creative fiction wasn’t seamless. I went on a four-day novel-writing course at Arvon, which was wonderful. I came home with three chapters of my first book, and all the confidence in the world. But my agent rejected the book. “The first half is great” she said, “but the novel is broken-backed and the second half is all over the place: over-plotted, too many characters, too long, as though you wanted to put everything you know and everything you think, into one book. I can’t send it to a publisher.”
“But that’s the best I can do,” I wailed. So she sent me to The Literary Consultancy and Julia Bell sorted me out. She chopped out my favourite chapter – “Yes, yes, it’s beautifully written but it doesn’t belong here. It’s about new characters who we don’t care about and it interrupts the momentum of the main story. Take it out and sell it as a short story.” Julia also axed the last four chapters of the book: “That’s the sequel. The story ends on chapter twenty four,” she said. I sent the revised book back to my agent who sent it to Penguin. They published in in 1999, followed by Sisters and The Gardener.
But they didn’t like the idea for my next book: the story of three single older women who meet in a signing group. A serious food writing widow, a slightly neurotic businesswoman and a man-mad divorcee are all facing the problems of their age: retirement, the empty nest, good looks slowly vanishing, bad knees. Penguin said, “Sixty isn’t Sexy”.
I took it to Quercus and they published Choral Society in 2009. It was my best-selling novel. A Serving of Scandal, a story based on a true Westminster scandal, followed.
I thought I might stop there, and quietly retire and see more of my adored grandchildren who come to my house in the country at weekends and roar around on quadbikes or Segways, or zip about the adventure playground – all provided for them by my ever-patient, enthusiastic and energetic husband John Playfair.
But no. I’m often asked why I am so ambitious and energetic at the ripe old age of seventy-eight. Or how I have the courage to wear colours and clothes or necklaces more suitable for a twenty-year old. The answer is, I haven’t a clue Here I am, still working, still writing, travelling the world with John and having a very good time. Long may it last.