She was returning my call after I had rung to ask whether it was true, as one newspaper had suggested, that she might be commissioning Damien Hirst to provide a sculpture in the tradition of his dead sheep in formaldehyde to stand on the vacant plinth in the north-west corner of Trafalgar Square. "Of course not. I am so cross that anyone could write anything so daft," she said, bursting with exasperation.
But she has become used to daft suggestions since she first proposed that a statue should be found to fill the empty dais. "It was years ago. I was driving round Trafalgar Square one day and I noticed the empty plinth and wondered when they were going to put back whatever it was they had taken down. They never did. So eventually I wrote a letter to the Evening Standard asking where it was. A lot of experts wrote back saying, 'Silly woman, there never was anything there'. So I decided that there should be."
It was a notion that had occurred to many people over the 156 years since the plinth's original statue, intended to join the three regal and military figures that already occupied the other corners of the square, failed to materialise. The fourth should have been of King William IV, but both monarch and sculptor died before the project was completed. Ever since, no one has been able to agree on who should occupy the space. Lord Palmerston, the prime minister at the time Trafalgar Square was created, flinched from the controversy he knew would ensue among his generals and admirals, and every prime minister since has not thought the enterprise worth the candle.
Prue Leith, however, was undaunted. When she took over as president of the Royal Society of Arts last year she decided it would be a good mini- project on which to cut her teeth. "I thought we'd get something up there pretty quickly," she says, somewhat ruefully.
Mini-project it was not. In the months since then she has found herself embroiled in consultations with Buckingham Palace, the Prime Minister, assorted top brass at the Ministry of Defence, the British Tourist Authority, planning officials and elected representatives at Westminster City Council, the CBI, the various embassies around the square (South Africa, Uganda, Mexico and Canada, outside whose building the empty plinth stands), the Royal Academy of Engineering, English Heritage, the Royal Fine Arts Commission, the Arts Council and the National Lottery Board. Not to mention two National Heritage Secretaries, Dorrell and Bottomley, who had veto under the 1851 Statues Act (brought in to stop enthusiasts erecting statues all over the capital and requiring those who install a statue to endow its maintenance in perpetuity).
Considering all that, she sounds remarkably keen as she enthuses about her latest idea - to put up a different sculpture every 12 months for the next five years and let passers-by vote for their favourite through some electronic gadget installed in the adjacent Canadian High Commission. "If anyone can do it, she will," said one of the staff at her former restaurant, the eponymous Leith's, last week.
It is through her love of food - manifested in her cookery books, recipe columns in various newspapers, her restaurant and her cookery school - that Prue Leith is best known. "She made a great contribution to food," says her former business partner, the cook Caroline Waldegrave. "She realised it was not possible to do what Escoffier did without the great armies of chefs he had. By shifting the emphasis to simple food - natural tastes, keeping garnishes simple and relevant, letting the ingredients speak for themselves - she opened up good food to large numbers of people."
She also made herself a millionaire. And yet food is something she has largely left behind. Last year she sold the restaurant to Caroline Waldegrave and she sold her catering company to a French corporation in 1993. Instead she has used the business acumen she developed in building her food empire to diversify into other areas. Since 1980, when she joined the British Railways Board (and fought for better BR sandwiches on wholemeal bread), she has become a director of the Halifax Building Society, the Argyll group (which owns Safeway supermarkets) and the brewers Whitbread.
From that she has become a member of the great and the good, elected as chairman of the RSA last year, and nominated to the Channel 4 Poverty Commission with Judge Stephen Tumim and Professor Peter Townsend earlier this year. She is vice-president of the Ramblers' Association, vice-patron of Women in Finance and Banking and a trustee of New Era Schools Trust, which raises money for multi-racial schools in South Africa where she was educated. Her CV lists pages of other posts and honorary positions. "She never stops," says Nick Tarayan, managing director of Leith's Restaurants. "She manages to cram an awful lot into an ordinary day through a combination of being very scatty about unimportant things, very good at delegating and very disciplined about managing her time."
Even at a time when women are increasingly making it to the top of their chosen professions it is still fairly unusual to find a woman who has made so thoroughgoing a transition from her field to become a member of what was once called the Establishment. And if that seems a patronising observation it is not one her friend Caroline Waldegrave shares: "It's more a case," she says, "of 'Well done, Prue'."
Of all this, nothing gives her more pleasure than occupying the chair of the RSA, a job which in the past has usually been the province of some worthy but dry academic, industrialist or civil servant. The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Commerce and Manufacture, to give it its full title, acts as an interface between the worlds of the arts, industry and education, and is committed to such themes as shaping the companies of the future and continuing the process of education for adults throughout their lives.
"I was absolutely amazed when I was elected chairman," Leith says, "not because I was a women - there had been one woman chairman before [the public school headmistress Dame Diana Reader Harris] - but because I'm completely uneducated. Most fellows have one degree if not two. but I haven't one at all." She dropped out of Cape Town University and went to the Sorbonne but did not graduate after being smitten by French cuisine. After two years in Paris she went on to do a diploma at the Cordon Bleu School and her success thereafter was steady and comprehensive. "Times are changing a lot," she says. "People who haven't come up through the formal routes are entering the Establishment. Even people like me are acceptable."
She was elected to the RSA as an ordinary Fellow but soon joined its education advisory group. "The RSA has always been very strong on education. A number of key innovations began under its aegis. I wanted to put my oar into the national debate on education. I was very keen on vocational skills; I didn't like the way that things which were done with the hands, like cooking, were denigrated. It's been wonderful. Instead of thinking in the short-term - in cooking you're always wondering whether a sauce is going to curdle in the next few seconds - it is nice to be thinking about the next century."
She does all this with an engaging air of humility. She is, as Caroline Waldegrave says, a woman who is completely lacking in self-importance. She demonstrates it even when dealing with low-income families as part of the Poverty Commission, whose ambitious brief is to define poverty, discover its extent, severity and causes and find out how to reduce it.
"I recently went round a supermarket with a young single mum. It was fascinating. I found that she was ashamed of buying own-label products. Middle-class women buy them happily yet she saw them as part of the stigma of poverty," she says.
Yet she was also frank about her own prejudices which the young woman confounded. Chastised by the celebrated cook for being unadventurous about food, the woman "explained that she has so little money that she can't risk buying anything that her son might refuse to eat". Admonished for buying the child Jaffa Cakes rather than apples she responded that you get eight cakes in a pack which she can give out one a day to the child; whereas if she spent the same on apples she would have to cut them in quarters and give out one quarter a day, which is impractical as the other quarters would not keep.
"Poor people have the wrong food in their trolleys because it is all they can afford," she says. "For them lunch is not a pleasure; it's a calculation. She told me when she saw her son eating a baked potato with cheese, she thought 'that's 40p', and as he ate his Jaffa cake afterwards, 'that's another 8p'.
"I have stood humbled by what I have learned. The strategies which poor people have for making money go further are enormously sophisticated. Many of the people I have met are so remarkable at economic strategies that they could easily run one of my companies."
If their sense of diplomacy is as well developed perhaps they could also give her some tips on how to resolve her current statue problem. When Trafalgar Square was laid out in the 1830s, Nelson was put in the middle and the plan of the architect, Sir Charles Barry, was for four other statues around it, of men who had done their country proud. George IV got one because he was the recently deceased king (and he had left 9,000 guineas to pay for himself). His successor, William IV, known to his subjects as Silly Billy, fancied himself on another but then died without leaving the cash "and as he wasn't particularly popular," says Prue Leith, "no one wanted to stump up the money to carry the idea through."
So thoughts turned to another military man. The other two statues were of General Sir Henry Havelock, who suppressed the Indian mutiny in 1857, and General Sir Charles Napier, who suppressed the rulers of Sind in 1843 (announcing the fact in a telegram home with the one word peccavi - Latin for "I have sinned"). But no one could agree who the third military hero should be.
They still can't. Suggestions have been made of Margaret Thatcher atop a tank, of General Gordon of Khartoum, of Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay who led the Normandy invasion in 1944. Less military subjects have been suggested: the Queen Trooping the Colour meets a Buckingham Palace objection that no statue can be erected during her lifetime. Others which have been dismissed by the RSA's statue committee include the Pigeon Lady from Mary Poppins, Winnie the Pooh, a giant pigeon and John Major preaching Back to Basics from a soap box. Ideas still in play include the painter Turner, authors Dickens and Thackeray, and William Morris, Florence Nightingale, Emmeline Pankhurst, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, and the cook Mrs Beeton.
"We're now looking at the idea of having an exhibition with the sculpture changed every year for five years," says Prue Leith. "We could try out a couple of existing sculptures - there's a marvellous one somewhere else of Gordon of Khartoum on a camel, which is the right shape for the plinth - and then we could commission three new ones. What we put up might not be the final thing. But we want to break the duck and get something up there to get people to think about it."
Were I a betting man I would wager - given the queues of the great and good who will want to have their say - that the 20ft x 9ft plinth will still stand empty in five years' time. But, as the receptionist at Leith's Restaurant confided, if anyone can do it, it will be Prue.Reuse content