After more than 60 years as a chef, Bake Off star Prue Leith knows exactly what ingredients are needed to cook up a perfect kitchen. The culinary queen of colour, 83, recently designed the kitchen of her dreams in the fabulous Cotswolds home she built from scratch just before lockdown.
But when Prue talks about her first-ever kitchen – in a cramped London bedsit in the 1960s – it’s clear cooking for a living wasn’t always so cushy.
Prue, who is currently touring a one-woman show sharing hilarious anecdotes with her army of loyal fans, is a lively raconteur as well as a great chef.
‘I started my first catering business in 1961 from a bedsitter in Earl’s Court that had an electric cooker in one corner and a bed in the other. I had an old door under the bed which I pulled out and put on top of the bed to use as a work surface along with my dressing table.
I was on the top floor of this large house and I would be washing lettuces and storing crabs and mussels in the bath on the landing. Fortunately my landlady had no sense of smell and never came upstairs – so she had no idea I was running a business from up there. I was soon catering for rather large numbers at cocktail parties and would deliver all the food in my little three-wheel bubble car.
‘Of course these were the days way before Health & Safety. One time I was washing the floor in the bedsit and got a mighty electric shock from the cooker and was thrown across the room.’
Prue’s next home had no kitchen at all – and it was her first opportunity to design one. ‘I bought a mews cottage in Paddington in 1966. It was tiny with just two rooms – one up and one down.
‘That was the very first kitchen that I designed. It had a six-ring cooker, a little chest freezer and a small fridge.
‘The living room was my office. But I have fond memories as it was there that I employed my first assistant and opened my first restaurant.’
She went on to perfect her design skills after going on to renovate two London flats and then two country houses. But it was in her current home where she was finally able to harness her cooking experience and create the kitchen of her dreams.
She had been married to second husband John Playfair for five years before they sold their respective homes and built a house they could share, just before lockdown.
So what are her secrets for a fabulous but functioning kitchen?
‘You need to think about the practicalities. I remember the very first kitchen I worked where everything opened the wrong way. That’s because kitchens are often designed by architects who don’t cook. In my current kitchen I have a huge central island and all the cooking happens on one side of it and the other side is for storage. On the cooking side is the fridge, cooker and the sink.
‘The pots and pans are below in deep drawers that glide out at a flick of the finger, not dark cupboards. It’s all about having easy access to things quickly.
‘All my sugar, flour and staples like that are in jars on a shelf where I can see them lined up in an easy-to-grab row.
‘And anything that can hang, hangs – strainers, sieves, garlic presses – so I’m not scrapping around looking for them in drawers.
‘I have a big Lazy Susan which I have had for years. I designed it in 1976 and take it with me every time I move.
‘The island has a stone worktop – it took six men to carry it – that looks like marble but is more practical, easier to wipe down and keep clean. And we took a lot of trouble to get the electric sockets in the right place and the worktop at a height that suits me.’
So far, so practical. But Prue also has a reputation for her quirky fashion sense and is no stranger to design, having created her own range of women’s spectacles and jewellery. ‘I’m on a mission to get women to spend their money on specs and necklaces – instead of shoes and handbags, which no one sees because they are usually hiding under the table or in a cupboard,’ she says.
When asked why she is taking her one-woman show on the road now, she replies: ‘Why not? I always say yes as I’m always keen to do the next thing. The audience don’t know anything about my other life, they just know that I eat cake for a living.
‘Most will no doubt want to know the colour of Paul Hollywood’s eyes – though, geriatric love seems to be my speciality because I married in my seventies,’ she laughs.
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