When it comes to luxury food, it’s not always the priciest produce that means the most. Having spent 15 years cooking for british royalty, Darren McGrady knows how to satisfy the most particular of palettes.
“It was the time of the royal wedding,” begins chef, Darren McGrady. The year was 1981. He was working at London’s Savoy Hotel as a junior chef and the city was abuzz with excitement ahead of the marriage between Prince Charles of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer. McGrady remembers it well. His mother was a big fan of the British Royals and was determined to get a glimpse of the fairytale couple. Such was her dedication, the night before the wedding, she convinced her son to camp out with her on The Mall—the stretch of road that connects Trafalgar Square to Buckingham Palace. “I thought we’d get arrested,” recalls McGrady with a smile. Only they didn’t. Instead, just weeks later, the young man from Nottingham found himself walking through the palace doors as a chef to the Queen of England.
That fated night as he and his mother gazed up at the palace from the moonlit Mall, a thought had dared enter his head: How cool would it be to be a royal chef and work for the royal family? Little did he know, he would spend the next 15 years doing exactly that.
It was a letter that clinched it. Unable to shake the thought from his head, McGrady wrote to Buckingham Palace to enquire about employment opportunities and, as luck would have it, the recipient had once been the personnel officer at the Savoy. “He thought the Savoy chefs were well trained, so I moved to the palace,” he explains. Simple as that.
It was everything he had expected. From the abundance of fresh produce to the gold-on-silver cutlery and hand-painted china dating back to the 1900s, opulence was everywhere. “It was scary,” says McGrady, remembering the weight of responsibility. “When we would do a state banquet, there were huge fruit bowls worth thousands and thousands of dollars and we could only carry one at a time in case we dropped one,” he smiles.
Things rarely got broken. At Buckingham Palace, fine china is kept in a special pantry equipped with rubber sinks to minimize breakages and everything is washed by hand—the silver, the plates, the crystal glassware. Dishwashers? Forget it. “You couldn’t risk it. You couldn’t put Meissen or Royal Crown Derby [china] into the dishwasher. Oh, my goodness, you couldn’t!” McGrady shudders. Over his thirty-plus years in the industry, he has cooked for five U.S. presidents, the Sultan of Brunei and rulers from four of the six GCC states, but the thought of breaking the Queen’s fine china still sends shivers down his spine.
But of course, as a chef working for Her Majesty, life was about more than plating up onto centuries-old porcelain, it was busy and varied. First, there were 300 staff to cook lunch for every day, then they could have anything from a state banquet with the King of Saudi Arabia to an evening when the Queen wished to dine alone. “Other nights Prince Charles would be hosting a dinner for 50 people, the Queen would have a canape reception for 200 in another room, and Prince Edward would have a group of friends over,” says McGrady. The sheer immensity of the royal estate called for flexibility too. “The Queen has 20 chefs who live out of suitcases. They travel to Sandringham, Windsor, Balmoral and Holyrood House and, when I was there, the Royal yacht Britannia wherever it was in the world,” he explains, listing the royal residences where he would don his chef ’s hat on demand.
Yet, behind the jet setting and ceremonial pomp of royal life, there was a quieter, private side to the royal family, which came with an entirely different set of culinary requirements. Make no mistake, when Chef McGrady made the 1.5 mile move from The Savoy to Buckingham Palace, he was trading hotel for private home, and that made a difference where cooking was concerned. “You’re cooking in someone’s home, so when the Queen doesn’t eat garlic, you can’t put that in your dishes, it’s gone. Similarly, when she says ‘No, Beef Stroganoff doesn’t have paprika in it,’ then that’s that,” he remarks.
And, the Queen doesn’t just decide on what’s in and out where ingredients are concerned. Like any other person, her wishes where meals are concerned are as changeable as the British weather, though she reportedly errs on the traditional side, opting for staple English and French dishes. As McGrady points out, no-one can live eating fois gras and caviar every night. In fact, during his time in the royal kitchens, mashed potatoes or grilled chicken with salad were sometimes the order of the day.
On the other hand, the monarch’s husband was a little more adventurous. According to the chef, the Queen eats to live, while Prince Philip lives to eat and relishes the opportunity to try new things. By all accounts, their son, Prince Charles, is a foodie too. “When I was there, he was the first high profile person in the world to go into organic food,” says McGrady. Then there were the younger royals. The Queen’s grandchildren and other young family members would frequent restaurants with friends and return with special requests for dishes they had tried in swanky London eateries.
That, however, is where the insight into the private life of the Queen and her closest family ends. Buckingham Palace is so huge that McGrady would see the monarch perhaps once or twice a year. It wasn’t until he accompanied them on their travels that he’d get to see the royal family up close, whether that was dancing with them at the Ghillies Ball at Balmoral Castle, or chatting with Prince Philip in the kitchens at other royal retreats.
That said, his regal adventure was a tale of two, distinct parts: one was the 11 years he spent working for the Queen and the other was the four he spent as chef to Princess Diana. McGrady recounts how the princess would come down to the kitchens with William and Harry almost daily. If she was on her own for lunch, she’d eat in the kitchen, and her two boys would be in and out all the time. “I held Prince Harry as a baby while Princess Diana was eating cereal in the kitchen at Windsor Castle,” he says. “I watched them grow up. I did everything from pureeing fruit and vegetables for them as babies, to them being 11 and 15 at Kensington when they’d come into the kitchen and say ‘can we have pizza tonight?’”
From pizza requests to simple salads, one of the lessons that life with the British royals taught chef McGrady was the true meaning of luxury food. As a young chef, he had thought that cooking for the rich and famous was all about opulence, but he quickly came to realize that for Queen Elizabeth II and her family, 100 lobsters or caviar in abundance were not luxuries. Rather, luxury was produce that came from their own gardens and estates. “The Queen got far more excited about seeing venison on the menu that was from the Balmoral estate, or about seeing a salmon that Prince Charles or the Queen Mother had caught from the River Dee,” he explains.
One stand-out memory for the chef was going down to the gardens at Balmoral with Princess Margaret and picking raspberries and blueberries to have at dinner that night. Yet, for the starkest example of luxury in action, McGrady winds the clock back to 1947 and the wedding of the Queen and Prince Philip. “It was around war time and they were using ration books to pay for food, even for the Queen’s wedding,” he explains. She wanted strawberries, but it was November and strawberry season had passed, so they grew them in the hothouses at Windsor Castle just for the wedding. That, says the chef who started out at one of London's top hotels, is luxury.
Over the decades, McGrady’s former colleagues at The Savoy have also moved on, but he still maintains ties with the hotel— especially on royal occasions. “I worked on a collaboration with Chef McGrady in celebration of Her Majesty’s 90th birthday,” says Emma Parfitt, Director of Communications at The Savoy. “He worked with our executive chef at the time to create a Royal Afternoon Tea at The Savoy…It was hugely successful and we loved working with him.”
Fast forward to today and the royal influence still rubs off on Chef Darren McGrady. Now a resident of Dallas, Texas, he finds nothing more luxurious then heading out into his garden and finding just enough fiddlehead ferns to make a salad for dinner. His days plating up hand-painted Meissen china may be long behind him, but his experience at the royal household is never far from his mind—and with a company called Eating Royally, the chances are, it never will be.
The thriving catering business takes McGrady all over the world running culinary events and sharing his experiences at a range of corporate and private parties. Christopher Ryan, Chair of Tiger21, a members-only organization that supports the investment community, counts amongst the chef ’s satisfied clients. “Chef Darren McGrady is an extraordinary culinary talent and a master storyteller,” he says. According to the entrepreneur and philanthropist, McGrady “pairs his first-hand accounts of the English Royals with outstanding and memorable meals, creating experiences his audiences cherish for a lifetime.”
Having just returned from cooking dinner in Singapore, McGrady’s next stop is Hong Kong followed by an event in London. But there’s one part of the world that the royal chef is yet to explore: “I’d love to do something in Dubai,” he says. “That’s an exciting prospect to me.”