‘MY SECRET RECIPE FOR STAYING YOUNG? HAPPINESS!’ says Prue Leith
As her first cookbook in 25 years is published, Prue Leith talks to Good Housekeeping about finding new love in her 70s, the power of colourful clothes and the joy that comes with being on the UK’S most delicious show, The Great British Bake Off
founder of a cookery school, restaurateur of a Michelin-starred restaurant in London, businesswoman, cookery writer, journalist, presenter and novelist, Prue Leith has spent her life being incredibly busy – and has managed to do it all with a smile on her face.
Much like her choice of clothing, South African-born Prue, 78, has had a colourful life. Aged 21 she fell in love with the husband of her mother’s best friend, Rayne Kruger, and they went on to have two children – a son, Danny, and their adopted daughter, Li-da. Rayne died in 2002, and since 2016 she’s been married to former fashion designer John Playfair, who’s seven years her junior.
With seven novels, 12 cookbooks and a CBE under her belt, Prue really came into her own last year when she was announced as a judge on The Great British Bake Off.
When the show made the move from BBC to Channel 4, the question of who would – and could – fill Mary Berry’s shoes (not to mention her flowery bomber jackets) was hotly debated. But Prue – and her riot of colour – immediately won the hearts of the nation with her warm humour and witty repartee.
My All-time Favourite Recipes is your first cookery book in 25 years. What inspired you to return to food writing?
I’ve been writing novels for 25 years and they’ve been very successful, but only one of them got on to the bestseller list. When I got on to the Bake Off, every weekend I’d see the bakers doing this amazing stuff. It really got me back into food and I found that I was baking more. I baked more in that first year than I had in 25 years! You get lazy. It was telly that got me back into it. When I replaced Mary Berry, I had people in the supermarkets asking me when my next cookbook was coming out, and they hadn’t realised that I hadn’t been writing recipes for 25 years. And I suddenly thought, ‘This is probably the time to write a new cookbook.’
Do you think that doing the cookbook made you fall in love with cooking all over again?
Absolutely. I regret that this book couldn’t be twice the size because I keep thinking of really great ideas. Some of them are really old-fashioned recipes, like vinegar chicken – I used to do that in the 1960s. There’s a lot of things that I’ve been doing all my life, like meatballs. So it’s sort of my life, because it starts with things that I had as a child in South Africa. I’m really pleased with it.
Do you get stopped a lot in the street?
Yes I do and I’m such an egotist – I love it! I like the attention. Before
Bake Off, frankly, if you’d asked most people on the bus if they’d ever heard of me, it would probably only have been those aged over 55. But if they were 15, they wouldn’t have, and that’s the difference with Bake Off – it’s loved across the generations.
It’s obvious you’re in a very happy place at the moment...
I am. Not least because I remarried two years ago. I’ve been with John now for seven years, it took us five years to decide to do it. It just seemed like, ‘We’re so old, what’s the point really?’ Anyhow, we did it. It’s been absolutely wonderful. That made me really happy because I’d been single for 14 years – I thought that was it. At my age, you don’t expect to fall in love again, so I’ve been really lucky.
Why did you decide to make things official with John?
I had thought about it but we hadn’t talked about it. John is seven years younger than me and I honestly thought if we were going to get married it should be his idea – because the chances are that he’s going to be looking after me when I’m a senile, decrepit old lady and he’d be pushing me along in my bath chair. So I thought I should never mention marriage. One day he asked me, ‘Do you think we’ll have this much fun when we’re married?’ and so we did it! We’re both quite proud of each other and we want people to think we’re a stable unit. I think when you’re very young, you want to get married because you want to show you have a husband. At my age, having a husband isn’t important, my commitment to John is.
How did your children react to the news?
I went for a walk with my son around the garden and said, ‘I just wanted to tell you John and I are going to get married.’ He stopped dead and said, ‘Well done, Mum!’ and I said, ‘Excuse me? You’re supposed to say, ‘Isn’t John a lucky chap!’
You and John don’t live together, is that right?
We don’t live separately but we have separate houses. We wake up in my house and – it’s brilliant – he gives me a cup of tea and then he disappears, often to work in my garden or his garden, and I don’t see him until lunchtime. Nearly all of his clobber is still at his house because, when you marry at our age, the thought of having to sort out my house and make half of the space available for him, I just haven’t been able to face it! And he hasn’t been able to face what he’s going to do with all his stuff. One day we’ll tackle it, but right now, it’s fine. It means I don’t have to do his laundry or clean his shoes.
That sounds like the perfect relationship.
I feed him and he looks after me. It’s a very unfair balance. We both gained a spouse, but I’ve gained a gardener, a chauffeur, a bag carrier, a porter, a sort of minder and a housekeeper! He has gained a cook. I’m not sure that’s a fair trade.
Aside from John, what else makes you happy?
I’m just having such a great time! Bake Off is a dream: it’s lovely company, the bakers are endlessly interesting and fascinating. Also, filming is only two days a week, so that leaves me time to write. John loves travelling, so every minute we have we’re off somewhere new.
Looking back, did you ever imagine that you’d almost be in your prime at this stage in your life?
I’ve never been very good at looking forward or, for that matter, looking back. I really do live in the present and so I’ve always been very conscious of how happy I am. It sounds so smug but, the fact is, I had a really happy childhood. I had nothing but encouragement from my parents and tolerance when I was being an absolute idiot. And then I had a terrific career in food, made a lot of money and married a wonderful man. We had two children, who are still adored, they adore me and we’re very close. Rayne was 20 years older than me. He died when he was 80, so he had a really good life. But I didn’t think my life was over then, I thought, ‘Right, my life has changed, I’m now going to be a good grandmother.’ To be honest, I have never been a good grandmother! I failed on that one completely because I immediately got interested in doing lots of other stuff, too.
How many grandchildren do you have?
Three. The youngest is four and the eldest is eight. Every grandmother thinks their grandchildren are the best in the world and mine are no exception. They come to my house most weekends. I had to banish them to a little wing on the side of my house and they live in there at the weekends because otherwise the house is a sea of plastic crapola, frankly! When the six-year-old was about four or five, she would say to the toddler, ‘That’s not allowed! We’re in Nana’s house!’ and he would be holding a tiny little piece of Lego. They clearly think I’m a dragon! And they’re good as gold.
You look incredible at 78. What’s your secret?
I think it’s 90% luck, and I think if you’re happy, it makes a huge difference. You wake up in the morning and want to get up, and life’s good. Most people look better on holiday than they do at work and it’s because they enjoy holidays more than work. The people who look great at work are the ones who are really having a good time. Few people have the luxury of enjoying their jobs. So I think happiness is the first requisite and second, health and energy.
Do you exercise?
I have a really sweet girl who lives in the village next to me who’s a personal trainer and she comes twice a week. I do weights and cardiovascular stuff. A lot of the time we do it outside. I have a wonderful old gardener who works for me four days a week and I’m sure as he drives past and sees me lying on my back, puffing and panting and doing the crab, he must think, ‘Dear woman, she’s mad!’ But never mind – it’s worth it!
Do you eat healthily, too?
I do, but I won’t be a martyr about it. I would never eat a salad without dressing. There’s no point! I don’t generally eat a lot of carbs. Fortunately, as I’ve got older, I can’t drink as much as I used to. When I was young, I could knock off a bottle of wine and get up in the morning and feel fine. Now if I have more than two glasses I know about it in the morning. But I do have to watch my weight and, like most, I would like to lose a stone. One always wants to lose a stone, it doesn’t matter what you weigh. I’m teased on Bake Off because I say, ‘That’s not worth the calories,’ but that’s because I always think in calories. I’ve been in food so long, I’m very aware, and I think ‘I’ve just eaten 400 now… by the time I finish, it will be 600…’
Is eating healthily difficult when you’re filming Bake Off?
Funnily enough, you’d think you eat an enormous amount but you’re only tasting a teaspoon. Twelve teaspoons of cake probably amounts to one large slice and that’s your breakfast and lunch. Just not a very healthy breakfast or lunch…
Do you feel liberated by your colourful fashion choices?
Everyone says I am into fashion but I’m not. What I like is colour. If I’m wearing a green dress, I want to have a necklace and earrings that I think look good with it, so I’ve always been rather excessive. My brother used to say I dress like a Christmas tree! I just enjoy the fun of jewellery. I get necklaces from markets all over, and the bigger and brighter, the better. Why do we wear black, grey and brown in winter when you need yellow, blue, red and green in winter?
Do you think people should just go ahead and take the plunge with colourful dressing?
People say to me all the time, ‘I love your colours, I wish I had the courage.’ It doesn’t take courage! You simply feel better dressed in colour. If you step into that old navy blue coat you’ve had for years and set off to work, of course you’ll feel miserable. If you put on an orange one, the chances are you’ll cheer up. Another thing I’m keen on is coloured-frame glasses. Putting on a jolly frame that suits you is much better than something rimless that looks like a medical appliance!
Prue: My All-time Favourite Recipes by Prue Leith (Bluebird) is out now
THE BAKE OFF GANG, FROM LEFT Paul Hollywood, Sandi Toksvig, Noel Fielding and Prue Leith
‘I’m not into fashion, I just like colour,’ says Prue LEFT Prue and her husband, John Playfair