Head Chef to the British monarchy for 15 years, Darren MCGRADY dishes out details about the royals’ eating habits — including those of the Queen’s 12 corgis.
he’s cooked for Queen Elizabeth II for 11 years, served as Princess Diana’s personal chef for four, and entertained five different US Presidents. But Darren Mcgrady has clearly met his match in a steaming bowl of laksa.
He’s perspiring, and it’s not just because of the sweltering heat at the Singapore Polo Club. “I love visiting countries I’ve never been and trying new foods,” says Mcgrady, as he determinedly clamps a pair of chopsticks in his hand. “This one’s a bit spicy, but I’ll battle through it!”
In town to host an exclusive dinner at the inaugural British Expo, Mcgrady has a wealth of experience from 15 years of working for the British royal family. Listen to his accent, however, and you wouldn’t be able to guess the 56-year-old is a born and bred Briton — his distinctly Southern twang is the result of having lived the last 20 years in Texas.
Mcgrady’s cuisine, nonetheless, remains decidedly British. On the menu for the weekend are familiar British staples such as Gaelic Steak — a favourite of the Queen — and an unassuming bread-and-butter pudding.
Before he became Head Chef with the royals, Mcgrady was just like any other Briton. The night before the wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana in 1981, he’d slept outside Buckingham Palace in anticipation of the event. It was outside these gates that Mcgrady realised he wanted to be a chef for the royal family.
When he returned home, Mcgrady, who was then working as a chef de partie at London’s prestigious Savoy Hotel, immediately applied to be a chef at the Palace. He got the job, and two weeks later found himself as “chef 20 out of 20” in the royal kitchens. Mcgrady rocketed through the ranks to land the coveted spot of head chef to Queen Elizabeth II.
In his tenure, Mcgrady spent his time serving a litany of nobility at grand balls and extravagant soirees — including of course, the Queen’s legion of 12 Pembroke Welsh Corgis. “They got their own weekly menu, but you had to be really careful when cooking for corgis. We diced the meat brunoise-style, so there were no bones — you wouldn’t want to choke the Queen’s corgis!” Mcgrady laughs.
After Princess Diana separated from Prince Charles, she requested that he be her chef at Kensington Palace, where she resided till her death in 1997. Mcgrady likens the difference to “night and day”. Here, celebrities, actors, and fashion designers were familiar faces in the dining room — after one luncheon, Diana brought Gianni Versace, George Michael and Elton John into the kitchen to meet Mcgrady — as was the Princess eating breakfast in his kitchen.
“I even held Prince Harry as a baby while Princess Diana was eating cereal at the counter,” says Mcgrady. “I was literally holding the crown jewels in my hands!”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Princess Diana’s approach to her sons’ meals was much more relaxed. “The Princess loved the boys. She wanted them to really be children, and not be princes,” says Mcgrady. “If they didn’t want to eat their vegetables and skip straight to dessert, she didn’t care. They were princes, but they still had children’ palates.”
Just a week before the British Expo, the world watched as Prince Harry wed Meghan Markle, an outsider in the world of royals, like how Princess Diana herself was. “I chopped vegetables for Prince Harry as a baby, so watching him get married is very moving,” says Mcgrady. “Meghan joins the family at the same age that Princess Diana left it, at 36, so it’s all quite bittersweet.”
Though Mcgrady no longer works with the royal family, there’s no lack of excitement in his life. He started a catering company, Eating Royally, after moving to Dallas, where he cooks for private clients and events. Besides expanding his culinary repertoire and introducing a plethora of cuisines to the Texan gourmand scene, Mcgrady is a keen philanthropist — royalties for his first cookbook, also called Eating Royally, went to charity. Much of his free time is spent on causes Diana supported. Mcgrady often holds charity events at shelters for abused women and organisations that support children with chronic illnesses.
“I never used to be charitable until I met Princess Diana. Then I saw the difference I could make in people’s lives just by giving up a little bit of time,” says Mcgrady.
His most memorable moment in Kensington Palace occurred in June 1997, several months before Diana’s death. She had auctioned off 79 dresses for charity at Christie’s New York and wanted to share the news with Mcgrady.
“I remember her coming into the kitchen a day after the auction, holding a piece of paper. She said to me, ‘ Darren, look at how much money I’ve made for charity just by selling a few of my old dresses’,” he says with a pause. “I thought I’d meet her one day and say, ‘ Your Highness, look at how much money I’ve made for charity just by selling some of my old recipes’.”
princess diana wanted her sons to grow up like “children, not princes”, says mcgrady