YESTERDAY, new Bake Off judge Prue Leith revealed how one of her recipes turned into a bomb scare. Today, in part three of her captivating autobiography, she describes being locked out while trying to cook a meal for Princess Alexandra and the Shah of Persia, and the secret of Her Majesty’s preferred cuppa…
Every now and then, I’d be asked to cook a really grand dinner for really grand people. If the jobs were for business grandees or movie stars, I would generally be very well paid.
If they were royals, the money would be lousy, but of course I would accept because I’d be flattered and figured it would be good for my reputation.
But I don’t think I have ever done a ‘royal do’ without drama. One such was for Princess Alexandra and her husband. She was entertaining the Shah of Persia at her home, Thatched House Lodge, in Richmond Park, for supper after the opera, and I had time to kill.
The pheasants had just gone into the oven, the starter and pud were ready and waiting. But the cheese looked colourless and could do with some black grapes. I jumped into my van and went to get some. When I got back, the great iron gates to the park were closed. I was locked out. No problem, I thought, plenty of time, and set off round the perimeter.
PRUE LEITH poured the Queen a weak, black lemon tea when she wanted a strong black tea without any lemon
Ham Gate was closed, too. Keep calm, I told myself — Kingston Gate has a lodge. Presumably with a lodge keeper. Huge relief, the lights were on and my ringing the bell brought a speedy response — from a small, offended woman.
‘I’m just babysitting. I don’t live here,’ she said, when I explained my predicament.
‘But this is the lodge-keeper’s house. Surely there are gate keys.’
‘Well, if there are, I don’t know anything about them. And if I did,’ she said, smug and smiling, ‘I couldn’t just let you in, could I?’
I ran back to the car and slewed back on to the road, swallowing panic. Dinner was now due to start in ten minutes. Would anyone think to take my pheasants out of the oven? The resident housekeeper had not been friendly.
At Robin Hood Gate, there was the sound of television from the front room. I banged the brass knocker. Nothing. I stepped into the flowerbed and banged on the sitting-room window.
The curtain flipped open and a man, bearded and angry, mouthed silently at me through the glass. Then, the front door opened and he was shouting: ‘Them’s my petunias you’re standing on. What the hell do you think . . .’
He made to close the door. I stuck my foot into it. He banged the door on it.
‘Ow, that hurt,’ I yelped, hopping up and down and trying to keep my leg in the door. ‘Look, I’m really sorry about the petunias, but you’ve got to help me. I have to get into the park. I’m cooking Princess Alexandra’s dinner, and she’s got the Shah of Persia with her.’
‘Princess Alexandra! The Shah of Persia!’ His mouth curled. ‘F***ing toffs.’
For a second, I thought he was going to clock me one, but he just slammed the door shut. I’d been close to tears when I’d arrived at his door. Now I was just furious. My foot hurt, and I’d had enough of unco-operative lodge keepers.
I shouted through the letterbox: ‘If you’ve got a problem with royalty, why the hell are you a gatekeeper in a royal park? And why take it out on me?
Hard at work: Prue in the seventies
‘I’m only the cook, comrade. And I’ll lose my job if you are too bloody-minded to help. How about some solidarity for the bleeding worker, hey?’
I heard the door open, and thought: ‘God, he’s going to clobber me.’ I started to run down the path.
He called after me: ‘I don’t have a key, lady. The police have them. Ring the cops.’
I swung round. ‘Oh, thank you. Could I use your telephone?’ (This was the pre-mobile phone era.)
The sneer returned. ‘Don’t push your luck, lady. There’s a box over there.’ The phone box had an emergency phone connected to the park police. Thank God, I thought, and lifted the handset.Dead. No dial tone. Fighting the tears that were threatening to return, I drove on, found a BT box and dialled 999. But the police told me to ring the local station.
I rang Directory Inquiries. They gave me the number. I had no pen and had to memorise it. I dialled.
‘Richmond Police.’ Relief flooded through me. But then, beep-beep-beep. It wasn’t a free call. I dashed back to the van. Got some money. Dialled again.
When the female voice answered, I launched into my tale of woe. She listened in silence, then said, ‘Well I’m terribly sorry my dear, but I don’t know how I can help you. I’m a housewife in Slough.’
She DID help, though. She looked up the Richmond police number and this time I memorised it successfully and got through.
‘Calm down, Miss. We’ll send someone to Richmond Gate with the keys. Meet you there, right?’
I hurtled round the perimeter road — I’d now driven right round the park and was back where I’d started. And then I waited. And waited. It was agony. The dinner should be on the table by now.
Finally, I could stand it no longer and knocked on the door of a big double-fronted house. The woman who answered was wearing a silk shirt tucked into well-tailored trousers, pearls at the neck, and had buck teeth. She did not open the door very far.
I explained the whole saga and asked if she’d let me use the phone while she stood by the door in case the police came. But she wasn’t going to let in a tear-streaked young woman with (pheasant) blood down her apron.
It was now almost dark and as I emerged into the street, I saw the tail lights of a convoy of cars, the middle one containing the Princess and the Shah, disappearing into the park, beyond the once-more locked gates.
‘God, no!’ I cried, all control deserting me as I ran to the gates and shook them. I felt tiny, like Alice in Wonderland, and in despair. Then the police arrived and let me in. The housekeeper had rescued the pheasants: they were in the warming oven, pink and perfect. The guests were still having drinks, so I had time to do the veg.
Afterwards, the Princess came into the kitchen to tell us how delicious it all was.
In theSeventies and Eighties, we occasionally got royals and celebrities at my restaurant. I was never good at judging where to seat the famous: would they want privacy, or an audience? In 1975, when the film Shampoo was on everywhere, I got it wrong with its stars, Julie Christie and Warren Beatty.
The newspapers were full of their affair, so I showed them at once to a discreet corner table, but they shook their heads.
I offered them other tucked-away tables, but they chose one in the middle of the room, under a spotlight. ‘How was I to know they wanted to be seen?’ I later moaned to a restaurateur friend.
‘What were they wearing?’
‘Well, oddly, they were both wearing white. She was in a trouser suit, he was in cream linen. They looked stunning.’
‘That’s your answer. No one puts on a white trouser suit if they don’t want to be seen.’
AS A teenager, I knocked over a drinks tray once, and my mother — trying to make a joke of it in front of her guests — said: ‘It’s just like having a horse in the house.’
It hurt, but it was true. I am utterly untrained as a waiter and I’m naturally clumsy. So when I was asked to serve the Queen with a cup of tea at the opening of the Queen Elizabeth II Centre in London, I thought I’d better get this right.
The Savoy’s shockingly sexist chef
As my cookery school began to pump out talented graduates in the Seventies, I realised that none of them got work at the Savoy hotel.
The reason was Silvino Trompetto, The Savoy’s famous head chef, who believed that no woman should ever work in his kitchens. He wouldn’t even have a female in the pastry department, where women had begun to make headway in most other hotels.
Nonetheless, I tried to persuade him to give a Leith’s School female graduate a two-week trial. Absolutely not, he said.
I asked him why, expecting the usual nonsense about girls taking the men’s minds off the job, or not being able to lift a full stock-pot.
I was ready with my reply: if men managed to work with women in reception, why not the kitchen? And no one, male or female, could lift a full stock-pot by themselves.
But his answer almost left me speechless: ‘Because, dear lady, at a certain time of the month, women cause the mayonnaise to curdle.’
‘You must be joking. You can’t believe that.’
‘No, no, it’s true. That is why women are not allowed into the mushroom sheds in France. They stop the spores germinating.’
I rang the Palace and asked an equerry: ‘Can you tell me how Her Majesty takes her tea?’
‘Just offer her whatever everyone else is having,’ he said.
‘Everyone has a preference of how they like their tea! Strong. Weak. Black. Sugar. No sugar. How does she usually have it?’
‘I don’t think I can tell you that.’
Did he think it was a state secret? ‘Look,’ I said, ‘I will know very soon, because I’m about to serve her some. It would just help me to be quick and efficient about it if you would tell me what she has at home . . .’
‘If you insist. The butler brings a tray and on it there should be a teapot, hot water jug, milk jug, cream jug. And then there should be a sugar bowl, and a dish of lemon slices.’
I gave up. A solid silver tray with all that stuff on it weighs a ton. I was so nervous I took a Valium and got our head waitress to give me a lesson. But I still had to dig my elbow into my hip to stop my arm dropping off, and only half-fill the jugs so I could hold the tray at all.
When the Queen finally arrived at the end of a long receiving line, she looked decidedly grumpy, as well she might. She’d just been on a two-hour trip round boring offices and conference areas.
And the Cabinet minister doing the honours had got a list with the guests in reverse order, and it wasn’t until he was halfway down the line that someone had the courage to tell him he was getting the names wrong.
The Queen nobly insisted on starting again. She must have been gasping for a cuppa.
‘Black or white, ma’am?’ I said, remembering to say ma’am to rhyme with jam.
I picked up a lemon slice with a cocktail stick, put it in the cup and started to pour tea into it.
‘No lemon, thank you.’
I fished the lemon out with the stick. But where to put it? No little saucer for these eventualities. So I put it, splat, down on the white tray cloth. Not a pretty sight.
I then topped up Her Majesty’s cuppa with water, thinking that people who like black tea usually like it weak.
‘No water,’ she said. Too late. Now the poor woman had weak lemony tea when she wanted strong black tea.
The Duke of Edinburgh fared rather better. When we’d rung his office, his equerry said: ‘Lapsang Souchong. With milk. Tea in first. No sugar.’
Thank you, sir.
Prue Leith last year at the Henley Literary Festival in Oxfordshire
Soon after I opened a cookery school, my company got the contract for the Tate Gallery Candlelit Dinner — for the art world’s grandees, sponsors and potential donors. We were all cock-a-hoop.
On the night of the dinner, I arrived at 6pm. Walking through the galleries, my nose detected something horribly familiar. Nearer the kitchen, the whiff became an unmistakeable stink.
Please God, I thought, let this not be what I think it is. But it was. The mussel velouté, made with fresh mussels, fish stock, white wine and cream, was fermenting.
I grabbed the chef’s sleeve. ‘The soup’s off,’ I hissed. ‘It stinks to high heaven.’
I decided against sacking the guy just before the dinner. ‘Look, Chef,’ I said, ‘you get on with the rest of the dinner. I’ll come back with more soup. Somehow.’
No point going back to our catering business in the City — the cooks would have left. No good going to our restaurant: the chefs would be too busy. I could go to the new cookery school, which had no evening classes on a Friday.
I’d somehow make 70 pints of soup in 40 minutes and get back to the Tate by 7.45.
At the school, I told the principal to bring any teachers she could get hold of. ‘Ask them to bring anything white they can get: soup in cans, cream cheese, cream, anything at all.’
THEN I rang the restaurant and asked them to send in a taxi as much white stock, white sauce, cheese sauce and cream as they could spare.
I went to Panzer’s, the deli next door, and bought them out of cream of artichoke soup, mussel soup, Vichyssoise, cream of onion soup and cream cheese.
We put everything we had into two big pots. We didn’t cook a thing, just whisked it all together.
I drove back to the Tate, getting there in time for the soup to be scooped into silver soup tureens. A handful of chopped herbs on top, and the waiters sailed into the galleries, heads held high.
I had a letter from the Tate congratulating us on a superb dinner — and singling out the soup as ‘unctuous and delicious’!
- Extracted from Relish: My Life On A Plate by Prue Leith (published on Thursday by Quercus, £20). © Prue Leith 2012 & 2017. To order a copy for £16 (20 per cent discount), visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640. P&P is free on orders over £15. Offer valid until October 13, 2017.