If the adage “you are what you eat” is to be believed, there are few people better placed to give insight into the Royal Family than Darren McGrady, who cooked for the Queen for 11 years and Princess Diana for four. We caught up with the affable chef and father of three, who just released his second cookbook, to get the scoop on Diana’s menu and what it was like being “downstairs” at all those grand palaces and castles. Here are some of his royal reflections...
IF YOU CAN’T STAND THE HEAT
"Working for the Queen was incredible, but the kitchens always come last. It’s the dogs first, then the horses, then the chefs in the kitchen. At Buckingham Palace they still use cookware dating back to the late 1800s. It has “VR” on it for Victoria Regina."
TAKING THE CAKE
"[My] chocolate biscuit cake was one of the Queen’s favourites. That was the one cake that went back to the royal dining room again and again and again until it was all gone. And yeah, she knew if a piece was missing. One time one of the chefs actually ate half a cake and it was like, “Ugh, the Queen will know,” so we had to make another cake, and just before it went out we cut out a little wedge and it fooled the Queen. Nobody knew!"
"At Balmoral, everything was fresh, farm to table. One of the worst times was when I was closing up the kitchen at Balmoral Castle and the Prince of Wales walked in carrying a salmon he’d just caught. It was still so fresh, it was still wriggling about and he didn’t care, he just said, “Can you take this?” and I was like, oh no! So I just put my finger in there and it was still moving and I had to weigh it. And I didn’t like it."
THE DIANA YEARS
"When I joined the princess after she and Prince Charles separated [in 1993], she got her life back on track. She was working out at the gym three days a week and looking the best she ever did. She said, “Darren, you take care of all the fats and I’ll take care of the carbs at the gym.” I had to almost rip up and throw away the Buckingham Palace book and start making healthy recipes for the princess."
"Harry loved roasted chicken with vegetables and roast potatoes, and of course the princess couldn’t eat those. [For her] I’d toss the potatoes in egg white and paprika and dry-bake them and it fooled the boys. They actually thought Mummy was eating the same as them."
THE LITTLE PRINCE
"Harry was the quieter of the two [but] he was mischievous. He was all skin and bones, always running around in a soldier’s uniform and playing war games with Prince William."
"I don’t know if I would want to do the nursery food again. I was blitzing up purées for Prince William and Prince Harry, and I used to hold Harry when he was a baby in the kitchen in Windsor Castle while Princess Diana was eating cereal! So someone else can do it [for William and Kate’s kids], I’m done with that side."
"I miss Princess Diana. I miss her coming into the kitchen. I miss that infectious laughter. I miss her interactions with the boys. And I still call them “the boys” – they’re taller than me now. But I know she’d be looking down and beaming, so happy that her little boy is getting married."
A BANQUET FIT FOR A QUEEN
Darren, who helped entertain the likes of former U.S. president Ronald Reagan in the ’80s (below right, with Margaret Thatcher), says a Buckingham Palace state banquet takes months to prepare. “You contact the Foreign Office, you find out any likes, dislikes, any foods that cannot be eaten for religious reasons, then the chefs prepare four different menus and the Queen chooses which one she wants.” Off duty, Her Majesty stays trim by sticking to grilled or poached fish with veggies or salad.
“We all knew it was coming,” says Darren of Prince Harry’s engagement news last month. “So when they announced it, for me it was super exciting. I just think she is amazing, I really do. I don’t like to say that we have another Princess Diana because she’s Meghan in her own right and there was only one Diana. But I do think [she and Harry] are going to bring millions of dollars to charities around the world.” What would Diana have thought of Meghan? “ The princess would have really liked her,” he says, noting that Meghan’s kind heart and sense of style would have bonded them. “The princess always said, ‘You’ve got to follow your heart,’ and I think Harry has certainly done that.”