Prue Leith: My plan to get real catering back into hospitals

31 August 2019

9:00 AM

31 August 2019

9:00 AM

Picture the scene: we are filming the opening link for The Great British Bake Off. Here I am in the woods, dressed in a lion suit; Paul Hollywood is the Tin Man, Sandi Toksvig the Scarecrow, and, guess what, Noel Fielding is Dorothy. I leap out on to the yellow brick road, roaring — I feel a hammer blow to my ankle, and end up whimpering like the Cowardly Lion I’m portraying. I have snapped my Achilles tendon. Danny the medic, who has had nothing more exciting than bakers’ cut fingers to deal with for three years, finally gets to use his ambulance, wheelchair and considerable skills. He doses me with painkillers and sticks my foot in a bucket containing more ice than water. Soon the agony of that has wiped out any injury pain. An hour later I’m back in my lion suit, this time held up by Dorothy and the Tin Man, one on each side. We grin at the camera. ‘Welcome to The Great British Bake Off!’

I’m now in a ‘Beckham boot’, in a wheelchair or on crutches. Before I’d even got home, hubby John had bought me psychedelic sticks from Cool Crutches and a wheelchair (sadly standard black). The chair is wonderfully designed for the occupier, but hell for the carer. The handles are too low and John now has backache and a dodgy hip. But I’m grateful to both crutches and wheelchair. They allow me to do absolutely nothing, while everyone fetches and carries around me. John invited 20 people to lunch at the weekend, I happily forwent my usual cooking, tidying, flower-arranging and fussing with the placement. The (excellent) poached salmon and salade Niçoise came from Roger the French fishmonger in Chipping Norton, and everyone mucked in while I queened it.

Booked a year ago to do a cookery demo and talk on a Riviera cruise for Good Housekeeping readers, I could hardly welch. I’d rather hoped that, on hearing I was in a wheelchair, they’d say: ‘Sorry, impossible, stairs everywhere.’ But the reaction was: ‘No worries, we’re a modern ship, entirely accessible.’ My experience of gigs on cruise ships is not great. The last one was described by my nearest and dearest as ‘a cross between an old-age home and a golf club you don’t want to join’. But this one was brilliant, with ace food and comfy cabins. There is something magical about cruising on the level with the water, the wide stretches of river dotted with swans, or with cows standing in the shallows to a background of green countryside — like a Cuyp painting.

We are told you have to ‘walk in someone’s shoes’ to understand their predicament. Or sit in a wheelchair. I’d no idea how many pavements have a nice slope to the street on one corner but on the other side there’s a big step up — and there you are, stuck in the road. Or how often people park in front of the disabled access, or how some ‘accessible toilets’, like the one I used at Gatwick, are too small to turn a wheelchair in, the door opening inwards so you end up being rescued by a stranger responding to your banging the door with a crutch.

Had brekker with the PM in the garden of No. 10 to publicise the new government review on hospital food. The Downing Street can-do atmosphere is infectious. Yes, we’ve heard it all before. But what’s different this time is that Health Secretary Matt Hancock is the prime mover, and he’s appointed Phil Shelley, one of the good guys in hospital catering, to chair the taskforce, and Henry Dimbleby to sit on it. Henry did the School Food Plan for Michael Gove and now leads his National Food Strategy, so he knows a thing or two about food and politics. The government seems to have at last rumbled that food is important. I believe, and I hope I’m right, that this is not a PR exercise to make ministers look good, after which it will be quietly shelved. Personally, I shall press for real cooking back in hospitals, that caterers are better equipped to do a decent job, and that patients get tailor-made diets that fit their medical, ethnic and personal needs. That means two things: conviction and money. Boris has both in his gift.

Back on location, I had supper in the hotel with my make-up stylist Bambi. Reluctant to leave a third of a bottle of wine and a whole bottle of fizzy water undrunk, we decided to take them back to our rooms. Making our way through the crowded bar, Bambi pushing and me with a bottle in each hand, we heard the familiar: ‘Oh, it’s the Bake Off lady off the telly.’ Aware of the danger of my being papped in a bar in a wheelchair clutching two bottles, Bambi took off like a rocket, shouting ‘’scuse me, ’scuse me’ as we scattered drinkers left and right. It’s not all bad, being wheelchair-bound. I plan to make the most of it.

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