CULTIVATE: In 1982, you started working in the royal kitchen at Buckingham Palace where you cooked for Queen Elizabeth II, the Duke of Edinburgh and their guests. You also traveled with the royals to cook for them at their other residences (translation: castles). What is a royal kitchen like?
DARREN McGRADY: Each is very different. Castle Britannia, for example, has a tiny kitchen while Windsor’s is enormous. The kitchen in Sandringham House is right next to the Queen’s quarters, while in Buckingham Palace, making the trip from the kitchen to the Queen’s quarters requires a ride on an elevator. (Needless to say, we never served soufflé in Buckingham.) The Buckingham kitchen easily accommodates 6,000 guests and 300 staff at a time. It’s split into party sections or lines, as they’re called in America, where you have the vegetable section, the larder, pastry area and the like. There are 10 chefs on duty on a daily basis.
CULTIVATE: And how are the royal kitchens equipped?
DARREN: The kitchen at Buckingham Palace is very well equipped with everything imaginable. But to cook at Windsor, we’d have to ship what we needed. The Queen is quite frugal and would rather her dogs have new balls and her horses have new blankets than worry about what’s in the kitchen. So we managed—even if it meant having to bring the ice cream maker with us.
CULTIVATE: You’ve cooked for Her Majesty’s guests, including Presidents Ford, Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush. How much preparation goes into these high-profile dinner parties?
DARREN: The foreign office becomes involved up to eight months in advance, informing us of any food allergies, likes, dislikes or religious restrictions for the expected guests. We carefully plan four different menus using as much indigenous produce as we can find, including what’s growing in the estate’s gardens. Then Her Majesty reviews the menus and chooses her favorite. For a dish requiring, say, 56 ripe peaches, I would get 10 cases delivered to me from which I would handpick the best 56 peaches. It was the same with every ingredient, so there were never any surprises. When we were plating the food, each plate was perfect because we never knew which one the footman would pick for the Queen.
CULTIVATE: Talk about pressure. Was it ever overwhelming to serve so many guests with such precision?
DARREN: Not really. When you first start in the kitchens, you don’t cook for the royals right away. You might start peeling carrots for the horses or chopping meat for the dogs. You’re trained extensively. Everything is very formal and there's lots of repetition to make sure everything is kept to a very high standard. By the time you get to cook, you’re extremely well versed in how things are done.
CULTIVATE: In 1993, you moved to Kensington Palace to be Princess Diana’s private chef. For four years you prepared her daily menus and catered her private and official parties. Did the Princess ever join you in the kitchen for lessons?
DARREN: Unfortunately, no. In fact, there's a funny story about that: Monday through Friday I cooked for her, but on weekends I had to cook for the Queen and her staff. To make sure Diana was taken care of over the weekend, I’d prepare food ahead of time and place it in the refrigerator with a yellow numbered sticky note. That number indicated which button she had to press on the microwave. One weekend, she decided to make pasta for herself. The water boiled over putting out the pilot light. She smelled gas and called the fire brigade. When I came back on Monday, she regaled dramatically how she had almost set the kitchen on fire. “But,” she said to me, “I had 12 hunky firemen all to myself.”
CULTIVATE: In 1998 you moved your family to Texas where you continued to work as a private chef? How different is the British home kitchen from the Texas home kitchen?
DARREN: I went from the Palace to Dallas and as you'd expect, the kitchens are very different. Before moving here, I’d never seen a smoker or heard of a brisket being cooked for eight hours. In Britain, everything is very formal. The kitchen is separate from the sitting room where the entertaining happens, but in America it’s one open space and people help themselves to my drinks. It took me a year to get used to this way of life, but now we do it all the time. When I go back to Britain I have to remind myself not to go into my host’s kitchen and make myself a gin and tonic.
CULTIVATE: You currently work as an event planner. How can readers prepare and execute a successful at-home dinner party?
DARREN:The most important thing to remember is that the guests you’ve invited have come to see you. Hosts sometimes get so lost in their preparations that they don’t appear until the meal is served. Spend as much time as you can with your guests even if it means serving cold appetizers. Also, remember to start with the best ingredients. Even the best oven in the world won't allow you to put in a brisket and pull out a beef tenderloin. Use quality ingredients the whole way through and you’re halfway there to throwing a successful party.
CULTIVATE: What’s in your Dallas home kitchen? Did you take any royal style cues?
DARREN: I brought over my amazing collection of antique copper pots and pans with Queen Victoria’s stamp. I buy them wherever I find them; they’re fantastic. My home kitchen is fine, though it's not as perfect as I'd want it to be. Actually, my dream would be to have two kitchens. One would have a commercial grade stove and a place for all my good Japanese knives and copper collection. The other would be for my family, where my knives wouldn't be used to flip open drink cans.
Darren McGrady trained at the Savoy Hotel in London. He is now a chef, author, culinary consultant, event planner and public speaker living in Dallas, Texas. His first cookbook titled Eating Royally is in fifth print with all of his advance and royalties donated to the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric Aids Foundation. He also teaches cooking classes and hosts corporate and charity events.