The first time Prue Leith decided to start up her own catering business it survived only a few weeks. ‘I had this idea that I could feed actors in their dressing rooms between the matinee and the evening show’, she says. ‘I called it Matinee Collations. But I didn’t realize that most actors don’t like to eat between shows. They prefer to walk in the park or go to the pub. Then I would arrive with the few orders I’d got, only to find that the play had folded and no one was there. It was hopeless.’ Happily, her second attempt at starting a business worked rather better.
Indeed she eventually sold the catering company, restaurant, and cooking school she had created for a sum believed to be £10 million. Brought up in South Africa, Leith had little interest in cooking as a child because all the food her family ate at home was prepared by their cook. Indeed her first three choices of career were to teach people to ride horses, to become an actress like her mother, or to be a theatre designer.
She went to university to study drama and literature but it was not a success and she dropped out in the 143 144 How I Made It the second year. She says: ‘I just kept changing my mind about what I wanted to do. My father was pretty despairing.’ It was not until she went to Paris at the age of 21 to learn French while working as an au pair that she realized she wanted to create good food for a living. She says: ‘The woman I worked for would go to one shop to buy croissants, another to buy baguettes, and a third to buy gateaux. I thought she was crazy. It had never occurred to me there was such a thing as the best shop for croissants. It was like scales falling from my eyes.’
Sadly just as she had discovered her vocation, her father died. Leith says: ‘I think he thought it was just another one of my mad ideas. I would have really liked him to know I finally stopped flapping around.’ She secured a place on the advanced Cordon Bleu course in London by pretending she had already worked in the kitchens of a restaurant. She admits: ‘I was entirely economical with the truth. I knew nothing about cooking.’ However, Prue Leith 145 managed to pass the course and got a job cooking for a firm of solicitors, where she determinedly worked her way through the Cordon Bleu Cookery Book page by page until one of them begged her to stop.
She says: ‘Round about August I hit the chicken chapter, so we had chicken every day. I had no idea about menu planning.’ The job led to more work catering for weddings and despite the failure of Matinee Collations Leith soon felt brave enough to start up a new catering company, Leith’s Good Food. But she still did not have much idea of how to run a business. Before she could afford to run a car she transported everything by Underground and once left a box of live lobsters on the train. Neither were her attempts to hire an employee too successful.
She says: ‘There wasn’t enough work for both of us so we played tennis during the day and in the evening I went out to work to pay her wages. It was a disaster.’ Despite the chaotic debut, the business thrived, and seven years later Leith opened her restaurant, Leith’s, in Notting Hill, west London, with £30,000, of which a third was borrowed from her mother.
From the start she adopted a businesslike approach, hiring a chef rather than doing the cooking herself. She says: ‘I realized early on that I am not the best cook in the world. But I am very good at hiring good people and creating the right atmosphere for them to do their best.