Jonathan Sale
Wednesday 11 June 1997 23:02

Prue Leith, 57, started Leith's Good Food Ltd, Leith's restaurant and Leith's School of Food and Wine, all of which she has recently sold. Her books include Leith's Cookery Bible. A former board member of British Rail, she is chairman of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce.

Starter? When I was four or five I went to the nursery school of St Mary's, in Johannesburg. It was never called a convent but it was run by nuns - High Church Anglican nuns. I was an extraordinarily happy child. There was an old Coloured caretaker who had a record of "The Happy Wanderer" and we used to go into his shed to hear it; today there would be an outcry.

First course? Between the ages of six and nine, when my father was posted to London, I was a boarder at a school in Haywards Heath in Sussex. There was a black girl, probably from Sierra Leone or Nigeria; we felt we were different from the other girls and pretended we spoke "Africa"; in fact, it was gobbledegook.

Any complaints? I carved the name of a girl I hugely admired - Araminta McKissock, who was an absolute whiz at twirling round the 4ft-high bar in the school garden and landing on her feet - on to a wooden panel; the headmistress called the whole school together to ask who had done it, but I did not admit it. When I was 10 and back in South Africa, I wrote to the headmistress and confessed, with a huge feeling of relief.

Second course? When I was back at St Mary's, I remember gaining credence by pretending I knew Enid Blyton. Then people asked for her autograph, so I wrote "Enid Blyton", copied from the signature in her books, on my maths squared paper, and cut it out. But people said, "It's been cut out of your maths book!" I must have wanted to be found out.

Third course? I became a boarder at about 11. I lived very close and used to climb the tallest tree on the hockey pitch, from which I could see my street. Yet when I was later told that I was going to be a day boarder again, on account of being difficult, I slammed the door of the head nun's room, and a picture crashed to the ground, rather proving her point. My mother was a glamorous actress who, because she was working, didn't make cakes or come to the fetes. I wanted a fat mother, who made cakes. One day when I was 14 the headmistress asked her to talk to the school about theatre. I thought I'd die, and buried my head in my hands at the back of the hall. She was absolutely magical, and I came out treading on air with girls crowding round saying how marvellous it was to have a mother who was an actress.

Exams? I didn't do very well at my Junior Certificate (GCSE level); I got only 3 per cent for algebra. In "Matric", which was just under A-level standard, I got first-class results - to everybody's astonishment. I passed Africaans by reading Africaans magazines, which were full of love stories.

Afters? At the University of Johannesburg, I swapped from drama studies to stage design to French, and then left after two years. I persuaded my father to send me to France, to the Sorbonne, where I did a course in French civilisation and culture. But while I was meant to be studying Bonaparte I became more interested in boeuf bourguignon; I came to England and did the Cordon Bleu advanced course. I suppose I have a certificate for that. Otherwise, I only have a 25-yards swimming certificate

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