In cooking, the skill is in knowing which ingredients to put in, how much of them, and when to stop adding. When I closed Prue Leith's memoir, I couldn't help thinking her undoubted skill had deserted her.
Let's start with the title: Relish: My Life on a Plate. That's two titles (neither startlingly original). They don't work bolted together. And each chapter heading throws up further indigestible combinations, such as "Learning Curves: going the whole way" and "Star Turn: packing it in".
But then, the appeal of Leith's book is not in its literary style, nor, oddly, in any of its insights into food, the catering business or entertaining. There are plenty of culinary disasters recounted, but the keen cook must look elsewhere for tips and tricks.
What Relish has plenty of is, appropriately, sauce. Drugs? There's everything from the dope she hid in a shrub for her one-time tenants, The Hollies, to the acid she drops with a boyfriend and the Valium she pops before appearing on TV.
Oh, and there's lashings of sex: everything from a predatory nun at Prue's boarding school to a guest on Leith's short-lived TV show doing pelvic floor exercises while saying "fucky fuck, squeeze, squeeze". Then there's the book's real heart – a forensic examination of her long infatuation (from the age of 12), then clandestine affair, and then marriage with Rayne, the husband of her mother's best friend. Again, sometimes it's too much.
The journey from starry-eyed child to wife shows off Leith's steely resolve – which has made her a highly successful entrepreneur both in the food world and beyond; it is the background to her every endeavour. She's almost insistent on telling us about her most unappealing character traits.
Not much phases Prue. Born in South Africa in 1940 and with the privileges of a well-to-do expat family, she has confidence – and occasional arrogance – bred into her. We hear of cat collars in the trifle at a smart lunch, of being locked out, covered in pheasant blood, when due to cook dinner for royalty (royals are frequent bit players in this story) and of other catastrophes – but she just carries on.
There's the occasionally painful gear change. We go from the death of a waiter to an iffy batch of coronation chicken within one paragraph. And those who don't come up to Leith's exacting standards get short shrift, from school friends to colleagues at her eponymous cookery school.
There are softer moments – her two brothers come in for some serious hero worship, and she's honest enough to admit that none of her considerable success could have been achieved alone. "I cannot claim to have done my fair share [of writing]," she says of the many bestselling Leiths cook books. But, she states elsewhere in the book, there's still "the pride and pleasure I get to see my name as a byline".
Leith should be applauded for a searingly honest memoir. As long as you don't expect a fond look back at menus past, you'll find much to entertain you. However, there's certainly plenty of stirring.