My best teacher: Mr Ralfs by Prue Leith

The Great British Bake Off judge recalls the wise advice of a charismatic tutor who helped her through her school years

Not enough schools are teaching children to cook healthy meals, says TV chef Prue Leith

I was quite naughty at school. I was inattentive and bad at most things, especially arithmetic. I just could not understand the concept of units.

When I was six or seven, my parents got me a tutor: a charismatic young man called Jacky Ralfs who taught me at the kitchen table and made learning so much fun, I looked forward to his lessons.

Jacky was an actor working part-time as an English teacher at a boys' school in Cheltenham to supplement his income. He was a good family friend.

My mother, who had her own theatre company when we lived in South Africa, and was South Africa's Edith Evans, had given him his first job.

He started off trying the classic route of two plus two, but instead of shaking his head when I did not understand, he would try a different technique. I remember him drawing little bags containing apples with three in one and four in another and saying: "If I gave you this bag of apples and that bag of apples, how many apples would you have?" I knew immediately. I understood perfectly when the sum was shown in practical terms.

By the age of six, I was interested in food. Even the geography and history I remember today concerns food. I think about the vegetarian culture and how southern India is dry and people are poor so they eat rice and vegetables, but in the north, where it is lush and there are cattle, they get rich food.

The other thing that attracted me to Jacky was that he was glamorous, exciting and fun. I don't think teachers realise what an influence they have on children by their own personality and charm. Jacky was good-looking, tall and dark with curly hair, twinkling eyes and a friendly, round, impish face.

He dressed as he obviously thought a teacher should look if he had been playing the part on stage: in a smart tweed jacket with a yellow waistcoat. He was good company. As well as tutoring me in maths, I remember him reading me poetry. The most important thing Jacky taught me was dogged determination.

We had a swingball in the garden and I was not very good at hitting the thing, but he encouraged me to keep on trying over and again until I got the hang of it.

Years later, when I was at a sporty school (St Mary's in Johannesburg) and relegated to the 14th of 14 tennis courts – the one where weeds grew and the net had holes in it  – I remembered him saying: "You would be surprised at what happens if you just keep going." I resolved to run for every single ball in Jacky's manner and it paid off. I did not end up in the top group, but I got into the second team.

In my last year at school, I decided I had better do some work. I had long since been banned from the Afrikaans class, but found I could not get my matric without passing Afrikaans and the other subjects I studied. Without Afrikaans, all the effort I put into everything else would have been for naught. So I taught myself in the school library. The school was run by nuns, so we were not allowed any girly stuff to read, but there were Afrikaans magazines about farming in the library and they had good love stories in them. I learned Afrikaans from reading rather moral stories about the romances of farmer's boys.

I followed Jacky's career for a while and I remember going to see him in The Browning Version. We lost touch, but all through my career I have kept a photograph of him with my mother in The Winslow Boy, on my office wall, to remind me of his wise advice.


Prue Leith CV 

Born: 1940, South Africa

Education: St Mary's School, Waverley and Cape Town University. 

Career: Restaurateur, chef, caterer, television presenter/broadcaster, businesswoman, journalist, cookery writer and novelist. She is currently a judge on Channel 4's The Great British Bake Off

This article was first published in February 2007 in Tes magazine

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