In conversation with …
Prue Leith Prue Leith, judge of The Great British Bake Off, author and founder of catering firm Leith’s, discusses her 23-year partnership with the EICC and her love of Edinburgh

What brings you to Edinburgh?

Last year I was made the Chancellor of Queen Margaret University, so I come up every three or four months to see what they’re getting up to. It’s an amazing institute with a wonderful pool of people who are exceptionally well trained and motivated. In many ways it’s more like a club than a university, and it covers almost everything I’ve ever been interested in. There are degrees in hospitality, food sciences and management. They focus a lot on health too, and I’m particularly interested in healthy eating. Likewise art, drama and filmmaking. I’m passionate about art, my mother was an actress and my daughter is a filmmaker.

Leith’s has been the EICC’s catering partner since day one, making it one of your original venue partners. How and why did the partnership come about?

When the contract came up we didn’t think we’d get it, if I’m honest. We’d assumed that they would opt for a local partner. Regardless, it was the biggest catering contract in years and every caterer wanted it, and so I arrived with my CEO to pitch in front of the then-CEO of the EICC. We didn’t have any great presentation or anything like that; we just spoke about our passion for fresh food and the way we liked to do things. Afterwards, we were told the reason we were given the contract was because they could see the hunger in our eyes. It was clear that we wanted the contract badly and that we were very enthusiastic about it.

“I’d rather delegates had a really delicious, freshly made plate of spaghetti bolognese and a salad than a mixture of inferior bits where all of the money has gone on labour”

Marshall Dallas, the EICC’s current CEO, regards Leith’s as one of the reasons why the EICC is held in such high regard across the world. To what do you attribute this success?

The fact that we’ve been allowed to be true partners. In the early days I was asked to come back quite frequently to keep an eye on things, even after I’d sold the business. Twenty-three years on and look where I am! But I really believe that caterers are only as good as their employers. If you get a boss who’s not involved, who’s always trying to cut down your time and your staff and who doesn’t regard you as a partner, you won’t be a successful caterer. As a partner with the EICC we’ve learned a lot about catering ourselves, to the point that we learned it’s not enough to simply say, ‘We’re Leith’s and we’re wonderful.’ We’ve had to work hard, and not just on our own – as true partners. And that’s still absolutely the case today.

What’s your take on conference catering?

If you feed conference delegates really, really well, they’ll remember that. If they’re given rather boring sandwiches or dull little morsels, there’s no pleasure in that. Even if an organiser doesn’t have huge amounts of money to spend on catering, I’d rather their delegates had a really delicious, freshly made plate of spaghetti bolognese and a salad rather than a mixture of inferior bits where all of the money has gone on labour and none on the ingredients themselves. A plate of finger foods usually features the poorest, most fiddled-with ingredients. There’s simply no satisfaction in that. Caterers in venues like the EICC need to use the best ingredients and simply not do too much to them.

Beyond the benefits of the contract at the EICC, was there something about the city that attracted you?

I’ve always loved Edinburgh. Before setting up Leith’s at the EICC I’d come here for the festivals occasionally and my family originally came from Scotland. Edinburgh in the sun is surely the most beautiful city in the world. Bloody cold in winter, but so beautiful. And John, my husband, was brought up here. He’s a Playfair, and many of the buildings in Edinburgh were designed by one of his ancestors, the great architect William Playfair. John and I actually got married in Edinburgh 18 months ago. It was in the Lothian Chambers just down from the National Museum of Scotland. There were just four of us – two witnesses and John and me – and afterwards we stood in the square outside the St Giles Cathedral thinking how beautiful the city is. I’ll always love it.

What’s next, Prue?

I’ve just finished the third novel of a trilogy, having been writing for years. Now I’m trying to get them made into a television series. A screenwriter … I think it’s important to change career every 20 years or so. If it works out, I think I could end my days with a new one.

And your desert island dish?

Sausages and mash. I could eat that for breakfast, lunch and dinner. With tomato sauce. Homemade, I should add! Not out of a bottle …