prue leith
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Prue Leith: “My husband says he should have married Mary Berry”

31 May 2024 | Updated on: 30 May 2024 |By Gregory Wakeman

The chef, cookery school founder and GBBO judge talks going trans-Atlantic

Having worked on cooking shows since the early 1970s, Prue Leith could probably be forgiven for slightly feigning her enthusiasm for The Great American Baking Show’s second season. She has, after all, 11 seasons of Great British Menu and seven seasons of The Great British Bake Off under her belt on this side of the Atlantic – and surely cosy, supportive, sugar-centric cooking competitions are one thing we Brits do better than our pals across the pond?

But what makes the 84-year-old restaurateur, teacher, writer, novelist, and broadcaster so eminently likeable and watchable is her ability to accentuate the positive. Not just when she’s tasting the dishes of amateur bakers who are literally vibrating with nerves as they pine to impress Leith and fellow judge Paul Hollywood. But also when she’s going through the rigmarole of a press day – and almost certainly being asked the same questions over and over again. “It’s different for me because I love that I get to come to America twice a year to promote the show,” says Leith, conveying what seems to be a genuine, if surprising, willingness to travel from someone whose career has seen her set up cooking schools in the UK and her native South Africa, as well as tour the world promoting no fewer than 12 cookbooks.

prue leith and paul hollywood great american baking show
Leith and Paul Hollywood judging The Great American Baking Show

Travelling across the Atlantic from her home in the Cotswolds gives Leith the opportunity to devour her favourite American dishes – and there’s one in particular that she just can’t resist. “A deep dish American apple pie,” she says, practically licking her lips. “I love the huge heap of pastry on top of a big fat layer of apple. I mean, every country has its apple pie, but I particularly like the American one. I also like the light, moussey dessert cakes that have a whole layer of lemon mousse in the middle of a cake, which I suppose must have come over from Germany.”

Unable to resist the urge to part with even more culinary wisdom, Leith treats me to a break down of the differences between American and British cakes. “One thing that I do find different is that America seems to put more frosting on and more sugar in their cakes. They have a much sweeter tooth than the British. There are some things that I absolutely love about American baking that you don’t get so much in England. I love the cinnamon rolls. I love that they use cream cheese in their frosting.”

Speaking to Leith, you immediately get a sense to why these baking shows have become so universally popular across the globe. She grows such an attachment to each participant that she seemingly regrets having to get rid of one on a weekly basis. “The competitive angle makes the Bake Offs very different from most food shows. You get so fond of the bakers and then you have to kick one off. It really is bittersweet. It makes for good television, but you do feel genuine sadness when you have to say goodbye to someone who is so delightful and has tried so hard.”

Leith admits that she has occasionally been left upset by the departures of some of the bakers. “I mean, they’ve probably spent six months practicing for this moment and they’re all capable of winning. You’re a good baker to have got through the auditions, so whoever goes it’s sad because you know they could have done much better.”

She believes it’s the minor details that separate “the sheep from the goats” and decides the eventual winners, adding, “It’s how they stand up to the pressure in the tent and against the clock. How organised they are. How they react to being in unfamiliar circumstances, not in their own kitchen, and using an oven they’ve never seen before. Some people are just better at dealing with that pressure than others.”

"I thought, ‘Oh my God, do I really want to do a baking show with a lot of Americans trying to get all the attention.'"

Prue Leith

For those au fait with US cooking competitions, such as Hell’s Kitchen and Top Chef, it will come as no surprise that Leith was a little hesitant about joining The Great American Baking Show at first. Every other American competition show she’d seen featured contestants sabotaging each other to win a large amount of money. “I found that generally quite unattractive. I thought, ‘Oh my God, do I really want to do a baking show with a lot of Americans trying to get all the attention and so forth.’”

What she hadn’t considered was that all of the contestants were interested because they’d been viewers of the original GBBO. “They must have absorbed the spirit of The Great British Bake Off. They realised that it isn’t about killing your opponents. It’s about baking and helping out each other. Everyone comes into the tent with the right attitude.”

There’s also no difference in how she approaches and judges The Great American Baking Show. “In baking, so much of what we do is the same as what Americans do. The skills are the same. They might have different names, but it doesn't matter what you call it. You still have to roll pastry out the same way, the scales are the same. A lot of the baking is the same because the influences in America are much the same as the influences in Britain. We both take a lot of notice of what the Italians, French, and Germans do. They're quite close to us but America’s melting pot of immigration means it’s the same. So I don't think it's that different.”

When it comes to her judging partner Paul Hollywood, Leith says that, after seven years of working together, they both know their strengths and weaknesses. As the son of a baker who followed his father’s line of work, Leith says watching Hollywood bake is like watching “poetry in motion,” adding, “I’m not a baker. I’m a cook. I have a really great set of taste buds that have been well trained from my chef school, which is still going after 50 years.”

Her working at the school means that Leith tastes the exam food of 300 students every three months – each of whom makes five dishes. She’s also run a Michelin-starred restaurant, where she was responsible for training the chefs. “They hired me for my tasting experience rather than for my baking.”

But while Leith has firmly won over the Bake Off crowd there’s apparently one naysayer who lives very, very close to home. “I do love to bake, but my husband complains that our house is a cake-free zone. He says he should have married Mary Berry.”

The Great American Baking Show is available to watch now on Roku.

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