Prue Leith, CBE, has worked as a caterer, restaurateur, TV presenter and broadcaster, journalist, cookery writer and novelist. She is Chancellor of Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh. In 2017, she became familiar to the public after she took over the role of a judge in the popular tv show “The Great British Bake Off’ after Mary Berry had left the show. We spoke to her at a recent visit to QMU about what appealed to her about the Great British Bake off and whether it would be likely whether we could ever get the nation cooking vegetables in a Great British Veg Off.
Prue states she is often questioned about the potential conflict between her years of work promoting healthy food and the apparent paradox of her presenting a baking show. She justifies this by stating she really enjoys working on the show and finds it fun but also that for many, baking is a way that most people get into the joyfulness of cooking. Though she is aware this may seem a little cheesy, Prue genuinely believes that “a lot of cooking is about love. Life-sustaining stuff you have personally made with your own hands.” She thinks this evolution from baking to cooking is often echoed in the work of a lot of celebrity chefs who first write a baking cookbook, and then go on to write more diverse cookbooks. Indeed, her own latest cookbook contains mainly recipes that are based on vegetables because that is what she mostly cooks at home. She can, however, recall the days in which featuring broccoli or avocado in recipe columns was seen as fancy or extravagant.
She believes cooking is fashionable again, though is keen to point out that there is still a huge gap between the rich and the poor, and that learning to cook must also go hand in hand with learning to eat. In fact, she reveals that the initial creators of the Great British Bake Off didn’t originally expect the show to be the massive prime-time success it has become. She thinks maybe the popularity of the show amongst a wide range of people is due to the fact that “it’s very honest – there are no retakes, no rehearsals, all the bakes are real”..and it profiles…”genuine people” adding – “we just get the 12 best bakers we can.” This popularity is echoed in the revelation that these 12 bakers were selected from a pool of 15,000 people who applied this year.
With regards to our nation’s addiction to sugar she confirms that indeed often“looking at it…is the next best thing to eating it”, however, she does think a Great British Veg Off show could be a much more colourful or vibrant experience that the current incarnation. Prue describes her recent visit to the new Cyrenians cook school, an Edinburgh based social-enterprise in which she prepped a simple ratatouille alongside cook school participants… (it’s) “colourful, quick, full of garlic and basil” and “smells wonderful – you don’t get that with cake though.”
This leads us to discuss what roles or responsibilities she thinks celebrity chefs have in influencing public health? Though she acknowledges there is no obligation, Prue proclaims “I don’t know a chef who isn’t involved in some sort of charity thing”…as well as the high profile chefs…” quite a lot are involved in training people with no education…or come from difficult backgrounds.” When questioned about her role as a campaigner or activist for good food, she is reluctant to label herself thus, despite her extensive advocacy work in this area which includes work with the Soil Association ‘Food for Life’ project, Slow Food and the Schools Trust, asserting she doesn’t really visualise herself like this, rather she is just a “loud-mouth bossy woman”.
Prue thinks that the downside to the current trends for our obsession with food is that is it “is exploited easily” and cites the example of a ‘healthy breakfast bar’ advertised with 0% fat, but of course is full of sugar. She is even more perturbed by the rise of what she terms ‘Snake Oils’ – the buoyant trend for superfoods, supplements, fad diets and magic cures, and is dismayed that “that boring old thing – the idea of ‘everything in moderation’ and ‘a little bit of what you like’, is not appealing or sexy.” The challenge remains to inspire the general public to maybe find a little bit of joy in their daily veg.