Leith’s stellar career includes stints as a successful food columnist, television presenter and cookery book writer, as well as a former Business Woman of the Year. After semi-retiring, she found herself back in the national spotlight again in 2017, replacing Mary Berry on The Great British Bake Off.
“I’m very conscious of how lucky I am to be involved with Bake Off at my age. Sometimes I think I’m forgetful but I know I’m definitely more wobbly on my feet. I’m an old lady now and don’t suppose I will want to do Bake Off forever.”
Leith was born in Cape Town. She later moved to France and studied at the Sorbonne, before travelling to London in 1960 to attend the Cordon Bleu Cookery School. “Cooking wasn’t a part of my early life in South Africa, but I was greedy.
“I needed an ear operation when I was six, at exactly the same time as Mum was about to give birth to my brother, James. When I woke up from the anaesthetic, a nurse asked if I would like to meet my new brother. I said I would prefer a banana.”
Leith’s mother was an actress in the apartheid era and campaigned to allow white and black audiences to watch together in the same theatre. She also came to London, pushing for British plays to be performed in South Africa, despite sanctions preventing it.
“I wasn’t really aware of apartheid as a child. We had lovely servants who I remember with huge affection. Emma, my nanny, was a big, loving presence. Charlie, the cook, could have taught me so much but it never occurred to anybody to put me in a kitchen.”
As Leith grew older, she did begin to experience apartheid. “Once I was arrested in Cape Town for campaigning and felt really proud of myself. Ultimately, I was left humiliated because the policeman asked me a few questions and let me go. To be honest, like my friends at that age, I was into boys, booze and the beach.”
Leith didn’t discover her passion for cooking until she moved to Paris to learn French. She optimistically thought she would be a UN translator but fell in love with cuisine instead. Moving to London, Leith started a high-end catering business.
“I was so busy I didn’t feel the amazing excitement about the place but I watched the Rolling Stones in Hyde Park and partied a lot. I bought a Mini with blacked out windows, just so I felt like a pop star, delivering sausages and listening to Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds at full blast.”
Leith opened her own restaurant in Notting Hill in 1969. “It was a rough area then and only started to pick up when Tina Turner bought a house opposite.There were hardly any female chefs around and I honestly think that’s why it was so successful. I got a huge amount of publicity – much more than I deserved. When I look at the menus now I’m absolutely horrified at what we offered, it was basic stuff.
I went into cooking to avoid being in an office but I got the same buzz from a profit and loss sheet as preparing a beautiful wedding buffet. I like making money. Even so, I sold the business in 1995 and I’ve never regretted it.”