ALTHOUGH, at 72, South African born Prue Leith — who has spent most of her working life in the UK — is no longer juggling management of a catering business, a Michelin Star restaurant and a cookery school while writing cookbooks and raising two children like she was 25 years ago, she hasn’t slowed down much.
Leith, whose autobiography, Relish: My Life On A Plate (Quercus), has just been released in SA, is, these days, a writer with her memoir and five novels to her name — and a trilogy under way. She is also one of judges on the BBC TV series, The Great British Menu; a board member of Orient Express Hotels and Slow Food UK; head of the Schools Fund Trust; and actively involved in several food and education-related charities, including a not-for-profit restaurant and an initiative that travels around the UK teaching children to cook.
"I might be older but I approach things the same way I did when I got my first freelance catering job while still at cookery school in the 1960s," she says. "Business suits my bossy, organised personality. And if the cause is interesting and worthwhile, I get involved with gusto. It doesn’t matter to me who the profits are for: if I’m drawn in, I apply the same energy and methodical approach. After all, many charities that fail do so because they’re not administered like businesses. "
That is not to say she is no longer motivated by commercial success. She finally committed to writing her autobiography when her publisher pointed out the exposure she’s receiving on TV would help boost book sales.
"I know!" she laughs, looking around the suite she owns in the five-star Cape Grace Hotel at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town. "It’s not that I badly need the money. I guess it’s a measure of success that one grows accustomed to in business. And besides, I hate failing."
Leith grew up in Joburg. After flunking university in Cape Town, she went to France and worked as an au pair, which inspired her to pursue a career in cooking: "The woman I worked for went to three different bakeries every morning and, in the evening, prepared miniature versions of our dinner for each of the children. The attention to detail and results were inspiring enough to encourage me to enrol at Le Cordon Bleu London."
She was in her early 20s when, while still studying, she began catering for fashionable events at which people such as Princess Margaret, Princess Alexandra and the Shah of Persia were guests of honour. "I think it’s a South African thing but I’ve never been intimidated by royalty or celebrities. Also, I inherited my actress mother’s confidence and ego, and benefited from a happy childhood, all of which made me self-assured. And, having decided to run a business, I charged ahead with no thought of failure. Looking back, I realise the ignorance of youth can be a positive thing in business."
It helped, too, that she was at the right place at the right time: "Food was dismal in Britain back then. Olive oil was something you bought from the pharmacy to put in your ears. And, at the mention of garlic, people pinched their noses closed in disgust. The things we did with food in the early days would be considered pedestrian today. But back then, they were cutting-edge."
There was also some luck involved. When she decided to open her first restaurant, she looked for a location far from any other eating establishments. Leith’s was opened in Kensington Park Road in 1969.
"I learnt later that the best place to open a restaurant is between two others. That way, you get the exposure and benefit from any overflow from the other restaurants. But, again, I never considered the prospect of failure. I sat down and thought about what I would like as a customer and planned accordingly. But I was also lucky and by simply serving fresh ingredients, we got good reviews."
It was also lucky that Nan Munro, a well-known actress working in London at the time, who was also the wife of Leith’s lover, Rayne Kruger (who later became her husband), encouraged her friends from the theatre, who included Alec Guinness, John Gielgud, Diana Rigg and Vanessa Redgrave, to eat at Leith’s. The restaurant became increasingly fashionable.
At the same time, her catering company began winning large contracts with organisations such as the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, the Orient Express Train and the Edinburgh International Conference centre. In 1975, she opened Leith’s School Of Food And Wine.
Leith was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1989 and Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2010. She was named the Veuve Clicquot Business Woman of the Year in 1990.
By the time she sold her businesses (excluding the restaurant) to become a novelist in the mid-90s, the Leith group employed more than 500 people and had a turnover of £15m.
Despite her many business successes and a few failures, all of which are described in her autobiography with lively candour, it was Leith’s revelations about her 13-year-long affair with Kruger before his divorce from Munro that attracted the most attention when the book was first published in the UK earlier this year. And certainly, her personal life makes interesting reading. It’s not, however, as interesting as her experience as a businesswoman and educator.
Armed with just a diploma from a culinary school, Leith was one of the UK’s leading businesswomen for almost 30 years. She was an entrepreneur before the word became fashionable and her autobiography contains many insightful and useful lessons in business. She writes, for example, about the value of getting your hands dirty even when you’re the boss. Dressed in executive attire, including chic high-heeled sandals, she once trampled maggots and filth for three hours to rebag and move 42 bins ("I counted") of putrid rubbish to ensure a catering job was properly concluded when staff left it incomplete.
"The incident served me better than I ever could have guessed … word got out that the boss, usually seen swanning around in business suits or evening clothes, had rolled up her sleeves and spent hours cleaning rotting garbage."
(She later fired the general manager who’d left the cleaning up unfinished.)
The book describes how she learnt, the hard way, to be precise when issuing instructions to employees.
She explains how she discovered not to employ people she didn’t like, how her gratitude for a good education inspires much of her charity work and how she’s trying to get a new project going to trial decent food in hospitals.
Leith also describes how one her proudest moments was when her son Daniel, then 12, read about her business in the newspaper and said: "But mom, how can this be true? You’re at home all the time."
"That’s when I realised I’d got the work-life balance right — it felt good."