The smells of delicious tenderloin steak and three-cheese polenta wafted from the stage of the Crest Theatre at Delray Center for the Arts yesterday afternoon, to join the ripples of laughter already reverberating across the auditorium. Darren McGrady, who spent 15 years cooking in Britain’s royal kitchen as personal chef to Queen Elizabeth and later Princess Diana, spoke for more than an hour to a packed house at the Crest, even while cooking a special meal on hot plates for four local diners who won a raffle to savor the dishes.
McGrady shared hilarious and touching anecdotes from his times in Buckingham and Kensington palaces, and it was a great way to conclude the Crest’s 2012-2013 season. I heard many patrons say that it was the best lecture they’d heard all season. Here are a few of the highlights.
“I was born in Nottinghamshire. Nottinghamshire is in the middle of the country, famous for Robin Hood and Nottingham Castle, which I thought was a huge castle in England until I started working for the Royal Family and went to Windsor Castle. Then I saw a real castle. Nottingham is also home to Stilton cheese – the king of cheese in England. It’s a region-protected dish, meaning it can only be prepared in Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire and Leicestershire. It’s region-protected, just like Champagne can only come from the Champagne region of France, that Parma ham can only come from the Parma region of Italy, and that chicken-fried steak can only come from Texas!
“I applied to the Savoy Hotel in London, one of our big five-star hotels. I thought, well, I probably won’t be head chef. I’ll probably be No. 2. I was actually chef No. 70 of 70 chefs. So I spent the next two years in the royal kitchens, working my way through the partie system.
“Buckingham Palace is amazing – 775 rooms. A movie theater. A post office. Even a helicopter pad out the back. It was everything I’d imagined it would be.
“The queen has 20 chefs, and those chefs would travel with Her Majesty all around the world, to the royal residences and on the Royal Britannia. For my first job at Buckingham Palace in the kitchens, the head chef called me in and said, ‘Darren, I need you to help me out. Come and peel some carrots for the queen.’ He said, ‘I’ll show you how to do them!’ Really? He took three carrots and peeled them all. Then he cut them to finger length. Then he patted them down and trimmed them again. Then he put them in a paper sack and folded the creases down. I said, ‘Chef, she likes her carrots, doesn’t she, Her Majesty?’ And he said, ‘Why’d I say they’re for the queen – they’re for the queen’s horse!’
“The banquet rooms are pretty special. My favorite of all is the queen’s ballroom. It seats 156 people for a state banquet. Her Majesty sits in the center of the table, and the visiting king, queen or president sits next to her. When the queen is ready to start the meal, a page stands behind Her Majesty and presses a button. The traffic lights at the four exit doors change from red to green, and the footmen start coming out with the plates. When Her Majesty put down her knife and fork from the first course, that meant the course was over. You’d finished, even if you hadn’t finished!
“We had 6,000 people at diplomatic receptions. All the embassies in London would come and bring their wives and families for this huge reception. Princess Diana didn’t really like the big receptions. She’d get pinned into the corner by someone and couldn’t get away. One time, she came in, and she was carrying a box of mangos. She said, ‘Darren, you remember the diplomatic reception last week? Well, there was a gentleman there I couldn’t get away from, and he said to me, Lady Diana, in my country we have the best mangos in the world. Well, naturally I said to him, I love mangos. He sent me a box of mangos – how kind of him.’ So I took the mangos, and I made sorbets and smoothies and shakes. A week later, another box arrived, and a week later another box came. And then another box, the fourth week. This went on for six weeks. I was putting them in the refrigerator, behind the refrigerator, anywhere I could. On the last week, the princess came into the kitchen with this box of mangos. She dropped them on the table and said, ‘Darren, if ever I see that man again, I’m going to tell him I like diamonds!’
Christmas was always so much fun, working for the royal family. The royal family are German by descent, and they carry on the tradition of opening their gifts on Christmas Eve. I remember being in the kitchens on Christmas Eve and listening to them in the ballroom next door, opening all these presents and laughing and joking. We did this huge buffet in the evening. We were in the kitchen and suddenly we hear ‘Charge!’ William and Harry come racing into the kitchen. They’d got pump-action water guns that Prince Andrew had bought them for Christmas, and they were firing at all the chefs. We got absolutely soaked. I said to my friend Arthur, we’re going to get our own guns and get these boys back.
“We did – we found the only two replica Uzi machine guns in the whole town. In those days, they didn’t have the orange caps on the end – they looked real! Better still, they had batteries, and the water fired 30 feet. We were so excited, like little boys. We raced back to Sandringham ready to start the evening shift. It was cold, dark, miserable, snowing, windy, and we got into chef uniforms and knew we had to get across the parking lot and into Sandringham House before the boys got out of afternoon tea and went up to the nursery for bath and bed. We got halfway across the parking lot, and we heard, ‘Freeze! Armed police!’ Out of nowhere came a policeman with a gun. A real gun. Fortunately, he recognized us. He came over to us and said, ‘What are you doing?’ Before I could say anything, Arthur says, ‘We’re going to shoot William and Harry!’
“The people Diana had over were people that would write in and say, I want to meet Princess Diana and see if she could help with my charity. One day she came into the kitchen and said, ‘Darren, no lunch today, I’m going out.’ I said, ‘Your Royal Highness, I’ve made lunch for you. Where are you going?’ She said, ‘I’m going to see a little boy who’s dying of AIDS.’ That hit me. I said, ‘wow, what can you say? What can you do?’ She said, ‘There’s nothing much I can do and very little I can say, but if just by sitting with him for half an hour, if just by holding his hand, if just by telling him some of my jokes, takes his mind off the pain, then that will have been worth it.’
“She’d do this all the time. She got into trouble for being the first member of the royal family that wouldn’t go on a walkabout wearing gloves. She told the rest of the royals, ‘I need to touch hands. I need to feel the warmth and connect to the person I’m talking to.’ She got into trouble for kneeling down to a little girl to take flowers from her. Prince Charles said, ‘We don’t bow down to our servants.” And Princess Diana said, ‘But you have to go down to a little girl’s level when you talk to her so you can look her in the eye.’ She used to take the boys to homeless shelters and let them see what life was really like, so that they’d grow up and appreciate the luxuries that they had.
“We had a famous talk-show host coming for lunch with the princess. I can’t say who it was – Oprah – and they were eating the tomato mousse, and Oprah said, how do you manage to stay so slim, Diana, eating rich foods like this? The reason was that Oprah was on the full-fat version of the tomato mousse, and Diana was on the fat-free version. I never did tell her that.”