When Princess Diana walked through the front door at Kensington Palace, Chef Darren McGrady instantly knew she was very unhappy.
She slammed the door, which was not at all like her, and stormed into the kitchen where he was making a meal for her and sons, Prince William and Prince Harry.
She burst into tears. Angry tears. “I hate those paparazzi!” she sputtered.
McGrady, Princess Diana’s personal chef for four years—from the time of her split-up with Prince Charles in 1993 until her death in 1997—was often privy to the thoughts and feelings that could pour out during a heated moment like this one, or during the moments when she just wanted to talk and chatted at the kitchen table.
He shares his insights into the heart of the People’s Princess in his new cookbook, “Eating Royally.”
But don’t expect a juicy, scandalous “tell-all” from the man or his book. His descriptions of Diana, and the rest of Britain’s royal family, create a picture that’s as warm and delicious as Diana’s favorite bread-and-butter pudding.
During a phone interview to promote the book, he offered the back story of the events that day as an example of Diana’s struggles with life in a fishbowl.
“She had driven to a friend’s home for a visit. When she came out of the house, big yellow plastic cones had been set in front and in back of her car. She moved them aside and got into the car. While she was getting in, a man put the cones back in place.
“Diana got out again and moved the cones again. When she got into the car, he put the cones back in position.
“The same thing happened a third time. And then a fourth time. Finally, Diana got out of the car, yelled at him to leave her alone, and burst into tears. That was the moment he was waiting for.
“A photographer, the man captured a photo of Diana in total distress, and probably got enough from selling that one shot to pay for his retirement. After all, there were millions of pictures of the smiling, happy Diana. Ones of her crying, in tears and distressed, were much rarer and fetched much higher prices,” McGrady concluded.
But don’t think for a moment that McGrady is using this book to finance his own retirement. Now working as a private chef for a Dallas, Texas, family, he has donated all of his advance and all profits from the sales of “Eating Royally” to the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric Aids Foundation. Why? Because it embraces children and AIDS, which were two of Diana’s most important causes.
Done in McGrady’s spare time, the book took four years to write. But it is a treasure that mixes recollections with his recipes. It makes you laugh and it makes you cry, besides tempting you to cook from it.
Diana was real. “When she got home at night, the first thing she did was kick off her shoes and walk around barefoot,” McGrady said.
He added, “She never minded being photographed when she was raising funds for charity. She loved pictures then. There was a little vanity, too. She knew she was almost like a model and that she looked the best she had ever looked.”
Her sense of humor wasn’t to be missed. Picture Princess Diana after she insists that Chef Darren prepare fresh beet juice for her, drinks it down without diluting it and then jokingly accuses him of trying to poison her when her cheeks literally turn beet-red for several hours.
“When Diana said, `Darren, I’ve heard fresh juice is good for you. Please get a juicer,’ I knew she wanted it right away. Not tomorrow or the next day. I was in a cab to Harrods within the hour. And the beet juice was pouring out of the juicer shortly after I got it into the kitchen,” he recalled.
Although Diana liked trying new foods, she simply wasn’t a cook. “When I prepared foods for her to reheat for herself over the weekends, instructions had to be very simple. Just microwaving in a single stage and at one power level. She couldn’t handle preparations that went on for two steps or more,” the chef said.
As proof, he writes of the time she tried to cook pasta for a visiting girlfriend. When the water boiled over, it extinguished the stove’s pilot light. Diana didn’t think anymore of it until she smelled gas the next morning and summoned help from the local fire brigade. “When I came back to work on Monday, the princess gleefully informed me that she had 12 hunky men in her house while I was gone.”
He discusses rough times, too, like Diana alone in Kensington Palace on Christmas Eve. “She believed the boys belonged at Sandringham to celebrate the holiday with their father and the rest of the royal family. She also wanted her staff to be with their families, so I loaded up the refrigerator with goodies for her and then headed out of the door.”
His poignant memories of learning of Diana’s death while still eating his breakfast on Aug. 31, 1997, rekindle that same sadness all of us experienced a decade ago. But he keeps her candle burning as he recalls her spirit and style and how she inspired him to work for charities.
“The morning after some of her gowns were auctioned off during a charity auction at Christy’s in New York, she burst into the kitchen and said, `Darren, you would not believe how many thousands we’ve made for charity, just by selling some of my old dresses.’
“I think her reaction to what I’m doing would be similar. Something like, `Darren, tell me again how many thousands you think you can make for charity by selling your old recipes for the foods I really like.’”
But what would Queen Elizabeth say, since she and the rest of Britain’s Royal Family also figure prominently in his stories and recipes? After all, he spent 11 years cooking for the Queen before moving to the Kensington Palace kitchen.
“I have no way to know if she’ll even see the book,” he said of the Queen, but thinks she probably wouldn’t mind his telling people about queenly quirks, including her dislike of sandwiches cut into basic rectangles, ordering scones but never eating them, and being unable to resist chocolate.
“Rectangular sandwiches are shaped too much like a coffins.
“She always treats her Corgis to a scone she crumbles and drops on the floor for them after she finishes her tea.
“Give her a choice of desserts, and she’ll always pick the chocolate one,” he said. (He shares the recipes for her two favorite heavy-duty chocolate birthday cakes in the book.)
But writing a book about his years in service wasn’t always in the chef’s plans.
“People still are fascinated and inspired by Diana and the good work she did, from opening up about her bulimia and working to eradicate land mines to hugging an AIDS patient at a time when the disease still was misunderstood.
“When people found out I worked for her, they just kept asking questions. Their interest made me realize I needed to do the book,” he said.
But what do people ask this palace insider?
“What her favorite foods were, whether she really was as nice as she seemed and whether I have Prince William’s phone number,” McGrady answered.
He doesn’t have Prince William’s phone number, or isn’t telling if he does.
Diana’s food choices often were simple, including stuffed eggplant and peppers, steamed trout, roasted vegetables and chicken. Besides the amaretto-flavored bread pudding she loved, she often opted for summer pudding if she was having lunch guests.
In stark contrast to Balmoral, where the royals went “stalking” and wild game was often part of the meal, the only “game” Diana permitted at Kensington Palace was the boys’ PlayStation.
McGrady writes that while he was still working for Queen Elizabeth in the kitchen at Balmoral Castle, Diana asked him, “Why does everyone in this family like killing things?” She hated the idea, he said.
She liked baked beans on whole wheat toast for breakfast because there was lots of protein and no fat—just carbs she could work off at the gym. Baked potatoes were often on her plate but they were plain or sprinkled lightly with a little vinaigrette dressing. She snacked on yogurt and grain bars and fresh fruit. Fresh lichees were a favorite. “If I left a bowl of those out for her, she’d leave it looking like a bomb went off,” McGrady said.
There was a great deal of contrast between the formal dinners and service at Buckingham Palace and mealtime at Kensington where Princess Diana and the boys sometimes even ate from snack tables while watching television.
Darren McGrady at Wood Farm, playing with one of Her
Majesty’s corgis. (Handout photo courtesy of Darren McGrady
via Allentown Morning Call/MCT)
Painting another picture of Kensington’s more casual atmosphere, McGrady writes, “If Diana and the boys were visiting Granny and wanted ice cream, the Queen would call her page, who in turn would call the head chef. The head chef would call the pastry kitchen and the pastry chef would in turn call the silver pantry for some silver dishes to present it on. The ice cream would be formed into decorative quenelle shapes and placed in a silver dessert dish. Then it was off to the linen room to get the proper napkin. Eventually, a footman would arrive to take the ice cream up to the royal dining room some 15 minutes later.”
At Kensington, the boys just walked into the kitchen and asked for ice cream. During one of those sessions, Prince William, the future king, shared his idea of a dream job with McGrady. Between frosty spoonfuls, he said, “When I grow up, I’m going to be a motorcycle policeman.”
But what of Diana’s public image? Did it match the “real” Diana? The chef’s short answer: “Yes.”
He shares warm memories of a woman who chose to have her lunch from a tray on the kitchen table whenever she wasn’t entertaining guests. And she chatted about everything from soap operas to juicy tidbits she’d just heard from Fergie.
Besides the public compassion she showed for people who needed her help all over the world, she treasured her staff after they had earned her trust.
When she discovered McGrady was courting, she made sure he had longer weekends off by taking dinner “out” on Friday evenings. One day, she also gave him a huge and beautiful bouquet for Wendy, who is now his wife.
“Just tell Wendy they’re from you, because we girls love flowers,” she said. But McGrady answered, “No, I’ll score more points with her if I tell Wendy they’re from you.”
Along with her caring ways, Princess Diana packed a mischievous sense of humor. Diana once told a Saudi prince that she liked mangoes after listening to him go on endlessly about the wonderful mangoes and other fresh fruit grown in his country. A week later, Diana struggled to carry a huge box of mangoes into the kitchen. She remarked: “Do you believe this, Darren? The man sent me a whole crate of mangoes because I mentioned that I liked them. Next time, I need to mention how much I like diamonds.”
Once, she received an invitation for the boys to visit the set of “Mission Impossible” and meet Tom Cruise. “Darren, do you think William and Harry would like to meet Tom Cruise?” she asked.
McGrady’s answer, “I don’t know about the boys, but I think their mother might.”
She laughed and headed off with the boys. When she returned, she picked up a banana and, between bites, said of Cruise, “There’s another one off my list. He’s too short.”
“Diana really was tall and the royal family, including the Queen and Prince Charles, are short. The elevation of Diana’s shoes became a way to tell how things were going between Princess Diana and Prince Charles. Flats? Good times. Super-high heels? Real trouble, according to the chef.
She was proud of Prince William’s good looks and sometimes teased him. “One day when she was in the kitchen and William walked in she said, `Look at him, Darren. Isn’t he drop-dead gorgeous?’”
Prince William protested, “Oh, Mommy, stop it.” But Diana added, “And look at his height. That’s from my side of the family.”
But what were Diana’s real feelings about the royal family?
“The Camilla thing really weighed her down, but there was nothing she could do about it. She never told me she was still in love with Prince Charles, but I believe she still had strong feelings for him. To the last, she always referred to him as `my husband’ and never as `him’ or `the prince.’”
Her biggest gripes weren’t with the Queen and the other royals but with the Queen’s advisers, who were always stifling her spontaneity, McGrady said.
“If Diana decided she wanted to visit a homeless shelter, she wanted to go the same day or the next day. She did not want to wait months until the shelter could be cleaned up and painted and local dignitaries and their wives (“the blue rinses,” as Diana called them) could line up to greet her,” he added.
Recalling a time when a bomb went off in Manchester and injured children, he said, “Diana was on the phone to Buckingham Palace as soon as she heard the news. I heard her say, `Please send me. I really want to go.’”
Princess Anne was sent instead. Later in the day, as she and McGrady watched the BBC coverage of Princess Anne’s visit on the kitchen telly, Princess Diana said to McGrady, “I should have been there. Look at her. You can tell she’s more interested in horses than children. She doesn’t get down to talk to them on their level. She should at least take off those white gloves so the children can feel the warmth, flesh-to-flesh, that makes the human connection.’”
Although Diana was known worldwide, she always was amazed by the reception she received in the United States.
During her visits, McGrady said, “She’d call and talk about the crowds. The shouting. The cheering. She loved the friendliness of Americans, along with their lifestyle and the weather. And she’d tell me, `We’ve really got to move here!’ “
That enthusiasm helped McGrady decide to move to the States shortly after her death—despite job offers from Dodi al-Fayed’s father and high-ranking British politicians, as well as Prince Charles.
“Besides,” McGrady said, “With that wicked sense of humor that she had, I could just hear Princess Diana’s voice saying `Darren, you’re really not going to cook for THAT woman, are you?’”
Stuffed eggplant, found in “Eating Royally.”
(Handout photo by Leonardo Frusteri
via Allentown Morning Call/MCT)
All recipes are from “Eating Royally” (Thomas Nelson, $24.99, 224 pp.)
CHEF DARREN McGRADY’S STUFFED EGGPLANT
2 small eggplants, each 6 inches long
4 Tbsps. olive oil, divided
1 large zucchini
1 large orange bell pepper
2 ribs celery
½ cup roughly chopped red onion
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 ½ cups sliced button mushrooms
1 large tomato, finely chopped
2 slices bacon, cooked until crisp
1 cup grated mozzarella cheese
1 Tbsp. chopped fresh basil
2 Tbsps. grated Parmesan cheese
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Cut each eggplant in half into two equal cylinders. Cut a circle in the white flesh of the eggplants about ¼-inch from the skin all the way around, and about 1 inch deep. Score the inside of the circle (i.e., make tiny cross-cuts into the flesh of the circle about ¼ inch deep.) This makes it easier to scoop out the flesh once the eggplant is cooked.
Brush the eggplant with 2 tablespoons olive oil, especially the cut top and bottom, and bake on a tray in the oven for 15 to 20 minutes. Turn each eggplant over midway through cooking, so the bottoms don’t get too brown. When the flesh feels soft, remove the eggplants from the oven and allow them to cool.
Coarsely chop the zucchini, bell pepper and celery into ¾-inch cubes. In a skillet, put 2 tablespoons olive oil on medium heat. Add the zuccchini, bell pepper, celery, red onion and mushrooms. Season with salt and pepper and cook until the vegetables start to soften. Stir in the tomato, taste, adjust seasoning, and allow the mixture to cool.
Finely chop the bacon, dice the mozzarella into small cubes, and add these to the cooled vegetables along with the chopped basil.
Gently remove the flesh from the insides of the eggplant, taking care to leave about ¼-inch on the bottom to create a shell. Then chop the flesh, and add it to the vegetables. Spoon the mix into the eggplant shells, dividing it among the four. Sprinkle the tops with the Parmesan cheese.
The stuffed eggplants are now ready and can be placed in the oven for 15 minutes or until the filling is hot. Or, they can be refrigerated, ready for a princess to reheat straight from the fridge to the oven. Serve with a salad or as a vegetable.
CHEF DARREN McGRADY’S STUFFED BELL PEPPERS
4 medium-sized bell peppers
¼ cup olive oil
½ cup roughly chopped onion
1 cup finely sliced button mushrooms
1 zucchini, diced
½ tsp. dried oregano
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tomatoes, roughly chopped
1 cup rice, cooked until al dente and cooled
½ cup water
½ chicken or vegetable bouillon cube
4 slices smoked bacon, broiled crispy and chopped
1 Tbsp. fresh basil, shredded
4 ozs. mozzarella cheese, diced
2 Tbsps. grated Parmesan cheese
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Cut the tops off the peppers and clean out the seeds and membranes. If the peppers won’t stand up, cut a little piece off the bottom to level them. Place the peppers on a baking sheet and drizzle with the oil. Bake for 25 minutes or until they start to soften. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.
Pour the oil from the peppers into a frying pan and add the onions, mushrooms, zucchini and oregano. Season the vegetables with the salt and pepper to taste, and saute over high heat until they start to soften. Add the tomatoes, rice, water and bouillon cube, and simmer for about 5 minutes. Adjust seasoning.
Fold in the bacon, basil and mozzarella and divide among the peppers. Sprinkle the Parmesan on top of the peppers and bake in the middle of the oven for 15 minutes, or until the cheese has melted and the filling is hot. Makes 4 servings.
Summer pudding, found in “Eating Royally.”
(Handout photo by Leonardo Frusteri
via Allentown Morning Call/MCT)
2 lbs. mixed berries—cherries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, red and black currants
½ cup water
1 tsp. vanilla paste (see note)
1 ½ cups sugar
8 slices dense white bread, several days old
Sprigs of fresh mint, for garnish
Prepare the fruit by pitting and halving the cherries, removing stems from the red and black currants, and hulling and quartering the strawberries. Keep each type of fruit separate at this stage.
In a heavy-bottomed pan, add the cherries, water, vanilla paste and sugar over a low heat, and stir until the sugar dissolves. Let the cherries simmer until they start to soften. Add the strawberries and blackberries and stir, simmer 2 to 3 minutes and then add the blueberries, red currants, black currants and finally, the raspberries. Remove from the heat, and carefully strain the fruit into a colander, reserving the poaching syrup in a separate bowl.
Cut the crusts off the bread and cut a circle from 1 slice of the bread to fit the bottom of the pudding mold. Dip the bread into the poaching syrup and place it in a 1-quart pudding mold or souffle dish. Cut all but 2 of the remaining 7 bread slices in half, dip them into the syrup and line the sides of the basin, overlapping each piece slightly.
Once the mold is completely lined, spoon the fruit into the center and fill the basin to the top. Place the 2 remaining pieces of bread on top of the fruit. Place a saucer that fits snugly inside the mold on top of the bread. Weigh down the top of the pudding by placing something like a large can of tomatoes on top of the sauce. Refrigerate 6 to 8 hours or overnight, along with any remaining poaching syrup.
Run a spatula around the edges of the pudding, and invert it onto a serving plate. Pour the remaining syrup over the top, and allow the syrup to run down the sides. Garnish with sprigs of mint and serve with clotted cream.
CHEF DARREN’S BREAD AND BUTTER PUDDING
(Princess Diana’s all-time favorite)
3 ozs. raisins
¼ cup amaretto
12 slices white bread, crusts removed
1 ½ sticks unsalted butter, melted
9 egg yolks
2 tsps. vanilla paste (see note)
¾ cup sugar
½ cup milk
2 cups heavy cream
2 Tbsps. granulated sugar, to dust the top of the pudding
3 ozs. sliced almonds, lightly toasted
2 Tbsps. powdered sugar
Soak the raisins in the amaretto, and leave covered with plastic wrap at room temperature for 6 to 8 hours or overnight.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Cut 4 slices of the bread into ½-inch dice, and spread the diced bread on the bottom of a casserole dish. Sprinkle the raisins on top of the bread cubes, and pour any remaining liquid over the bread. Cut the remaining 8 slices of bread in half diagonally and then cut each half slice in halve diagonally to create 4 even triangles per slice. Dip the triangles into the butter, and arrange on the top of the raisins, overlapping the triangles slightly. Pour any remaining butter over the top of the bread.
Whisk the yolks, vanilla paste and sugar in a large bowl until combined. Bring the milk and cream to a boil in a heavy saucepan over high heat, and pour the hot mix onto the egg yolks, whisking constantly. Pour the warm egg mixture over the bread, making sure all of the bread is coated, and set aside the coated bread for 20 minutes to allow the egg mixture to soak into the bread.
Place the casserole dish in a roasting tray filled with hot water halfway up the sides of the casserole dish, and bake on the middle rack in the oven for 30 to 45 minutes, or until golden brown on top with the filling just set.
Remove the dish from the oven and roasting tray, and sprinkle with the extra sugar. Broil or use a creme brulee torch to caramelize the sugar. Sprinkle with the toasted sliced almonds, and dust with powdered sugar. Cool slightly, and serve warm with a jug of cream and some fresh berries.
Note: If you can’t find vanilla paste, you can use pure vanilla extract. But Chef Darren suggests making some vanilla sugar instead: Take 4 vanilla beans (preferably Bourbon because they are sweeter and contain more seeds), cut them open down the center lengthwise and scrape out the seeds, and then add the beans and seeds to 5 cups of granulated sugar in a container with a tight-fitting lid. Shake it and wait a week before using.
Chef Darren notes that you should replace the vanilla sugar you use with an equivalent amount of sugar, and shake the mix. The mix is good for a year before you should buy new beans and start again.
Buying tip: Make sure the beans you buy are oily to the touch and have a great aroma. They shouldn’t be brittle or dry.
AMONG PRINCESS DIANA’S FAVORITES:
Stuffed Bell Peppers
Spinach, Red Pepper Roulade
Baked Beans on Toast
Pear and Walnut Salad
Plain Baked Potatoes
Chilled Tomato and Dill Mousse with Lobster
Peach Panna Cotta
Iced Praline Amaretto Souffle with Pears
OTHER ROYAL FAVORITES:
PRINCES WILLIAM AND HARRY
Haagen-Dazs Chocolate-Chocolate Chip ice cream
QUEEN ELIZABETH II
Smoked Salmon, Trout and Mackerel Pate
Seasonal fruits, veggies
Chocolate Sponge Cake with Chocolate Ganache
Homemade Ice Cream
Windsor Peaches and Cream
Gaelic Steaks with Whiskey Cream Sauce
Simply Prepared Meats and Game
Q&A with Chef Darren McGrady, personal chef to Princess Diana
Q. If you could cook for Princess Diana one more time, what foods would you prepare? Something new or something old?
A. I’d make the foods she absolutely loved the most—my stuffed eggplant and a ramekin of bread and butter pudding.
Q. What would you cook for Prince William and Prince Harry if they called and asked you to do it?
A. Since they loved American-style barbecue, I’d invite them to Texas and make them some real Texas brisket and maybe some beer-can chicken, too. But they’d have to come here. I’m not moving back to England.
Q. What were your impressions of “The Queen,” the movie starring Dame Helen Mirren?
A. It was a fabulous movie. I was amazed, first of all, by how full the theater was and how many people still are interested in this story of Princess Diana’s death and how it was handled by the Royal Family.
I got a lump in my throat again when I saw the BBC film clip announcing her death to the world.
Mirren did an amazing job of taking on the Queen’s mannerisms, right down to her walk. When she was on-screen, I felt like one of Pavlov’s dogs. I wanted to stand up, bow and say, “Yes, Your Majesty,” every time she looked toward the audience from the movie screen.
Prince Phillip and the Queen Mum were a bit “hard done” by the film. The Queen Mum, in particular, really was a sweetie. Always kind and pleasant.
The film’s producers took some license with the Blairs, too, “probably to make the contrast between the royal household and the commoners’ more obvious. Mrs. Blair does not cook fish fingers for the family in her kitchen. The Blairs have their own chefs, too.
Q. Was making money for charity your only reason for writing the book?
A. No, it’s a legacy that I want my children—Kelly, Lexie and Harry—to have when they want to remember me.
Q. Is your son named for Prince Harry and, if so, why?
A. One day when I was out on a date with Wendy (now my wife), we were in my car near Kensington Palace. Princess Diana, with her bodyguard in the seat beside her and the boys in the backseat, drove up beside us and rolled down her window. While she was talking, a little voice could be heard from the back seat. It was Harry, asking, “Mummy, who’s the blonde with Chef Darren?” Diana looked back at him and scolded, “That’s enough, Harry Windsor!” We decided that if we ever had a son, he’d be named Harry.
Q. Did you miss cooking game after you became Princess Diana’s personal chef?
A. She hated the thought of animals and fish being killed. I wasn’t far behind her on that. I particularly hated being the last chef on duty in the kitchen at Balmoral because that’s when Prince Charles would show up with a huge salmon he’d caught after fishing all day in the River Dee. It would still be flopping around on the counter when I had to pick it up and carry it downstairs, with its eyes still looking at me, and then do something with it.
I didn’t miss having to prepare grouse either. Prince Phillip liked his chefs to hang the grouse for a week or so, till maggots were crawling out of them, because he believed that improved their flavor.
Q. Of all of the places you cooked for the Royal Family—from Windsor and Balmoral castles to Buckingham, Sandringham and Kensington palaces and the royal yacht HMY Brittania—which were your favorites?
A. Balmoral, where many scenes of “The Queen” were filmed and where the family always vacations in Scotland from late August to early October. It is like a fairy-tale castle. Everything there is so fresh and beautiful.
But Kensington still is my all-time favorite. Life was so relaxed there. The princess came through all the time to chat and I could hear William and Harry playing upstairs in the nursery, thundering about in their army uniforms or doing their Playstation games.
Q. What’s one of your favorite memories from cooking for Queen Elizabeth?
A. I was a junior chef, and was sent to Balmoral about two weeks after I was hired. The head chef there showed me the right way to make the Queen’s carrots. It involved peeling, trimming and topping three very large carrots. Then each one was to be halved once lengthwise and once horizontally before tucking all of the finished carrot sticks into a white paper bag.
When I asked the chef why they were left so large and uncooked, he told me the carrots were for the Queen’s horses. He warned that I’d better follow instructions carefully or the Queen would blame us if the horse bit her fingers.