In 1981, I was working at the Savoy Hotel in London as a chef de partie saucier; making fine sauces and gravies. In July that year, Prince Charles was getting married to Lady Diana Spencer and my mother was a big fan of the royals. She suggested we sleep the night outside Buckingham Palace to watch the wedding the following day. So we did.
While I was there waiting, I remember thinking that I wanted to be a royal chef. So I wrote a letter to Queen Elizabeth II when I got home. Not long after I had an interview and soon, I was working as a chef for the queen. But I moved from being chef de partie saucier right down to being chef number 20 of 20 for the queen. My first job was actually peeling carrots for a horse.
I remember thinking: What on earth am I doing? I was peeling carrots for the groom to come to take and put in the queen’s riding jacket pocket, so she could feed a horse at the end of her ride.Darren McGrady with one of Queen Elizabeth II’s corgis in the ’80s.Darren McGradyBut I was told that as big as the palace is, they don’t have room for egos. It was never: “I’m preparing this dish for the queen. She will love it. She will enjoy it because I prepared it.” No, you prepared the food her way. You were actually cooking dinner for her in her house.
You also had to be calm in the kitchen all the time. Because one of the things we were told was that the royal family can come into the kitchen at any point. And of course, when I was there, from 1982 to 1993, there was a full royal nursery, including Prince William, Prince Harry, Princess Beatrice, and Princess Eugenie. The kids could come into the kitchen at any time, especially at Balmoral Castle and Sandringham House.
Meeting the Queen
On my first day working at Balmoral, after lunch, I was told I could go and explore. I was walking along the path at two in the afternoon and I saw in the distance this lady walking towards me wearing a headscarf, wellington boots and a Barbour jacket, and she had corgis with her.
My first thought was: “Oh my gosh, this is the queen.” As we got closer to one another, my heart was pounding and I began reminding myself to call her “Your Majesty,” and not to speak unless she spoke first. Then, the dogs saw me and started barking. She had quite a few corgis at the time, and they all just ran towards me.
The Queen burst out laughing. I turned and ran. I realized then that I wasn’t meeting the Queen that day. She never called them off me, but I guess she never set them on me either!
Talking to her happened a lot later on. It was a few years later at Wood Farm at Sandringham. I’d been working all weekend, and the queen had been entertaining. She came into the kitchen and said, “Thank you for a lovely weekend.” She had this way of making you feel like you were the only person in the world at that moment. She was just amazing.
So many times she would come into the kitchen or stop outside and look in a kitchen window that was open and say, “Thank you for a lovely weekend. The food was incredible.” To me, that meant more than a gold watch or money, or anything. This was the queen.
Queen Elizabeth’s Favorite Foods and Eating Habits
I soon learned that the queen was a chocoholic. She loved dark chocolate. So anything we put on the menu with dark chocolate in it was always a winner. She loved indigenous produce from her gardens and she loved to be able to say to her guests that the produce they were eating was grown on the estate. She loved the venison from Balmoral and the partridge and pheasant from Sandringham. She could buy anything she wanted, but to have something grown or to take something like venison from her estate meant so much to her. I remember she enjoyed beef tenderloin with a whiskey mushroom cream sauce or a nice piece of venison, but I will always remember Sunday lunches.
We’d have a roast rib of beef and everything to go with it; Yorkshire pudding, parsnips and mashed potatoes, and the queen always had the first slice of the beef. She liked her beef well done, and it drove the chefs crazy, but she was old school and would always have that first slice on the front laid out for her to take, the tastiest part.
People picked up on a video I recently posted about the queen loving a “Jam Penny”, which is a strawberry jelly sandwich. But she didn’t eat them every day. They’ve been on the menu for around 50 years, meaning that she likely ate them once a week. But she loved the tradition. She loved having dishes that she’d had for so long.
The queen had a menu book and she could choose from a selection for breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner, putting a line through the dishes that she didn’t want. If she had someone like Prince Charles coming for dinner, she would write “two” next to her choice of dish, and that told us there were two for dinner. If she was out for dinner or lunch, she put a line through the page. The queen ate to live, she wasn’t a foodie, and we knew our parameters. We couldn’t just take cuttlefish and put it on the menu, we had to use the foods that she liked.
There were dishes on the menus that date back 100 years. For 11 years, I made the same birthday cake for the queen; a chocolate ganache cake. The recipe I used dates back to Queen Victoria’s chef Gabriel Tschumi. The queen was like all of us in that way; we all have recipes that were our grandmother’s or our great-grandmother’s.
You would see the queen having afternoon tea wherever she was in the world. Of course, it was maddening sometimes to be on a long-haul flight to Australia, land in what was actually early morning U.K. time and want some sleep, and then the queen would want scones and afternoon tea because it would be 5 p.m. in Australia and it was tea time. She loved the tradition.
A Frugal and Practical Queen
When I joined the royal household, I thought I would see all this opulence; the champagne, the caviar, the foie gras. But they would only appear at state banquets. The queen was very frugal. I remember one time she was going to the Royal Opera House in London and she wanted some smoked salmon and scrambled eggs for dinner before she left. One of our newer chefs sent the dish up, beautifully cooked. He actually took a whole lemon and did a little garnish with it, and it looked beautiful. The queen’s page came back down with the lemon on the plate. He told us that Her Majesty had said she didn’t need all of this and that it was a waste, and to ask the chefs if we could use the rest of the lemon. She grew up in the years of the Second World War, so she was frugal like that.
I was shocked at first, but then I thought about it and I realized that if I am on holiday having caviar and champagne, I can’t wait to get back to some simple, comfort food. If the queen had a banquet, then that night or the next day, she would just have some grilled fish or chicken with a little salad and some fruit.
Once at Balmoral, I was outside at the back of the castle, chatting to a policeman over a mug of tea. Then, the queen trotted up on a horse. We stood to attention and I put my tea down quickly. Her Majesty said to the policeman, “Why is that light not being turned off at the bottom of the chain walk?” There was one light that had been left on from the social club dance the night before. She then trotted down there, got off the horse and flicked the switch off herself. That was Queen Elizabeth.
During my 11 years working for the queen, I traveled to many countries with her and I was lucky enough to fly to Washington. D.C. on Concorde and have the absolutely incredible experience of seeing Her Majesty at the front of the plane. We landed in Washington, where the Queen spoke to Congress in May of 1991, and I remember that everybody got up. Then I heard, “Will you all sit down? I can’t find anything.” We knew the queen’s voice and we all sat straight down in our seats. And then she got up with a big, beaming smile, and got off the plane and everyone was there waving. That was such a happy time.
Leaving Queen Elizabeth to Work for Princess Diana
I was senior chef at the palace by the time I left in 1993 to work for Princess Diana. When Prince Charles and Princess Diana separated, Princess Diana asked me to move to Kensington Palace, where I stayed, cooking for her and Prince William and Prince Harry, until the day that she died in 1997.
Diana was patron of more than 100 charities and worked out at the gym every day. I felt she had her life back on track and I thought she was looking the best she ever had. She would tell me to take care of how much fat was in her dishes, and she would take care of the carbs at the gym.
So all my recipes changed. With the queen, it was lots of traditional French cuisine, lots of creams and butters and fat. Princess Diana had lots of vegetables, steamed fish and poached chicken. We also had the boys, Prince William and Prince Harry, but they loved all the comfort foods like shepherd’s pie, pizza, fried chicken, and ribs. My job was trying to balance the two so that everybody was happy.
The princes were in the kitchen all the time; they’d play hide and seek in there and come through to ask what was for lunch or for dinner, sometimes trying to persuade me to change the menu.
When the princess wasn’t there, their nanny chose the menus, and I remember one day I had roast chicken, cabbage, broccoli and potatoes on the menu for dinner. That’s what their nanny, Jessie Webb, wanted the boys to have. When I came into the kitchen that day, there was a note on my desk saying “Darren, please give the boys pizza for dinner tonight.” And it was signed by “Jessie.” But it was written in 7-year-old Prince Harry’s handwriting. They got the chicken, I was scared of the nanny!
A Final Goodbye to Queen Elizabeth
I had heard talk that the queen wasn’t too well, and I wondered about her being at Balmoral. Then, when the Changing of the Guard was canceled at Buckingham Palace on the morning of September 8, it seemed like one sign after another.
When the news was announced that Her Majesty had died, I was in my kitchen in Dallas, Texas, and I immediately began thinking back to her laughing at those dogs chasing me and how every year at Christmas, she would give me a Christmas gift and say “Merry Christmas and a happy New Year.” Prince Philip would be standing next to her, so you’d shake hands with him too. It was just such a happy time.
Prince Harry and Prince William were young children when I worked for Princess Diana. They were 12 and 15 when I was last cooking for them, but they must be devastated. They will have known it was coming, like we all did. But for William, it’s one step closer to becoming king. And today we have King Charles. People respect Charles, but he’s got a job on his hands. It’s always been the queen, who was all of ours, the nation’s, and now we’ve got Charles. So it’s going to take time. I also think of the 15 years I knew Princess Diana, who could have been Queen Diana now. I remember her saying to me that she would never be queen. I just laughed at the time, but it was true.
I spent 11 years making breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner for Queen Elizabeth but I didn’t expect her to say anything to me when I moved to work for Princess Diana. The chefs come and go, we were servants there. I didn’t expect the queen to take time out of her busy day. I was just a servant. I did my part and Queen Elizabeth did her part for more than 70 years.
Darren McGrady was a chef to Queen Elizabeth II from 1982 to 1993, and to Princess Diana, Prince William and Prince Harry from 1993 to 1997. He now runs The Royal Chef in Dallas, Texas. Find out more at theroyalchef.com.
All views expressed in this article are the author’s own.
As told to Jenny Haward.