Prue Leith is, she says bluntly, having “a horrible time”. We’re speaking on the phone as she rides on a golf buggy to her talk at Alex James’s Big Feastival. “It’s just too noisy and too uncomfortable and very hot,” she adds, in an honest critique that will be familiar to viewers of Bake Off. The competition returned for a 10th series last night, with Leith playing the Lion from the Wizard of Oz in an opening sketch.
“This year’s bakers are an enthusiastic bunch,” she adds. “They are young but are chosen on baking abilities. It’s about enthusiasm and practice.” It’s a shift from this year’s celebrity Bake Offs for Comic Relief, which featured Russell Brand recreating his daughter’s birth in biscuits, complete with his wife’s vagina. “I adored the celebrity Bake Offs,” says Leith, who joined the main show when it moved to Channel 4 in 2017. “They have a more relaxed atmosphere. They all come on thinking they’re not competitive so there’s a lot of larking around, then of course they get the Bake Off bug and want to win and it’s funny. Some of them haven’t practised yet they still want to win.”
No matter who the contestants are, Leith insists that all she is looking for is the best cooking. “We want imagination and personality but first we want good baking, which means taste, texture and looks.” She tries to only eat “a tiny bit” of each cake. “Nobody should eat too much cake. But if I have a teaspoon of each, even if there are 13 bakers I’m only going to get the equivalent of one decent slice of cake.” Does she diet before the show? “Of course not.”
She’d like Boris Johnson to come on Bake Off — they met for breakfast last week to discuss Leith’s new role reviewing NHS food. “We had yoghurt, fruit and granola and he impressed me. He would be funny on Bake Off.” For 10 years Leith has been campaigning for better hospital food as well as chairing the school dinners food trust. “I know more about school dinners than you have had hot dinners,” she tells me.
The approach of the Prime Minister and Health Secretary has impressed her: “It is my first time in years that I’ve felt any traction at the top of the tree. This Cabinet sees improving hospital food as a way to save money and make a healthier, happier nation. When you are in hospital you need a moment in your day which is a pleasure and this is an opportunity to do that.”
What about money? “You can serve good food on a budget provided you don’t waste it. Forty to 60 per cent of food in the NHS is binned because the patients won’t eat it. That’s a huge waste. I get cross with foodies who think hospital food should be Michelin-star and caterers can fall into this trap. When you’re ill you want something familiar.”
On a roll, she continues. “I said this to Boris. He was talking about food he likes that’s inexpensive, like porridge. That’s fine but what you must do is move the kitchens near the hospital so if you miss a meal because you are having treatment someone can cook you food and you don’t have to get whatever is in the vending machine. Many hospitals like the Royal Marsden achieve it already — patients ask for the recipes there. It can be done.”