Darren McGrady's résumé reads pretty much like your average private chef's story. He earned a culinary arts degree and trained in a top restaurant kitchen (Savoy Hotel, London) before hitting the private sector — and then you get to that Buckingham Palace line. The Nottinghamshire native worked as a private chef for the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh and their guests from 1982 until 1993, when he became Princess Diana's private chef (until her death in 1997). It was, of course, the sort of job that involved giving everyone the royal treatment, regardless of whether that pheasant with pearl barley risotto was destined for President Clinton's plate or the Queen's twelve Welsh corgis.
McGrady left Buckingham Palace shortly after Diana died (Charles offered him a job as his private chef, but McGrady politely declined). Within a year, he moved to the U.S. with his wife and three young children, where he works as a private chef for a Dallas family during the week, and volunteers for charity events most weekends. Texas? It's not quite as crazy of a cross-the-pond move as it might sound. McGrady works for a family in Highland Park, a neighborhood known for its palatial homes owned by the sort of folks who still send out engraved invitations for weeknight dinner parties. Turn the page for our interview with the chef about his days in the royal kitchen.
Squid Ink: The obvious question first. How did you end up in Dallas?
Darren McGrady: After Princess Diana died, I was out of work. Charles wanted me to work for him at Highgrove [the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall's family home], but I always thought I would eventually be the chef to William and Harry, not him. I always say I felt the Princess was looking down at me and saying, “You're not going to cook for that woman now, are you?” [Laughs] I mean Camilla, of course. Also, after coming back from L.A. or New York, the Princess would always say to me that we must move to America. I would just laugh and tell her to give me a few minutes to pack some clothes and the juicer.
SI: But you didn't go to L.A. or New York.
DM: I had come over to Texas in 1991 with the Queen so I could cook for Presidents Reagan and Ford, and I just loved it here, really. Very nice people. After Diana died, I set about sending out my résumé once my wife and I got Visas, which took about a year, and I landed here. My daughter was only a one-year-old when we moved here, now all three of my children have Texas accents. When my parents come over [from England] to visit, they can't understand a word the children say.
SI: Your cookbook is pretty great, by the way. It's a solid read, a compelling portrait of food life among the Royal Family, no sensationalist gossip about the Royal Family or Diana. You seem to really respect her.
DM: Thanks. Yes, she taught me so much. When Diana walked into a room, it was like a beacon of light, truly. There's no other way to say it. Any charity she took on, the profits increased ten-fold. She had like a magic wand. If she waved it around in any direction, whatever she touched turned to gold. She's the reason I've donated all the proceeds from my book to the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric Aids Foundation. It combined her two nonprofit loves — children and AIDS. Do you know it? It's L.A. based, you know.
I also have it set up so if another nonprofit, like SafeHaven women's shelter where I just was giving a talk, sells the books directly, they earn money also [The second nonprofit receives what would have been the book retailer's profit margin.]. Diana would be pleased with that.
SI: And the cookbook has done well?
DM: I can't believe we're in the 5th printing. I don't know how many exactly I've sold, as publishers are so cagey about all of that. But this renewed media interest in the Royal Family with William and Kate's wedding has really helped sales.
SI: What was cooking for Diana like? You mention in the book she was particularly keen on creamy crab meat-corn custards, chicken breast stuffed with roast red peppers and basil mousse, iced praline and amaretto soufflés. It doesn't sound like the rigid dieter/former bulimic she's been so often portrayed as.
DM: Diana was the healthy eater [compared to the rest of the family], but also had a much more casual way about her. She'd sit in the kitchen with me, pick all the raisins out of a cake I'd made, just eat [the raisins] while we were talking. The Queen would never do that sort of thing, come in the kitchen just to chat.
We made a lot of fat-free dishes for Diana, so I would make things just for her while her guests ate the full-fat version. She was finally coming into her own, confident, just before she died, getting more relaxed with her former problems [with obsessive dieting]. The boys would have their own dishes when they came over, things they liked, as the Princess wanted them to have a normal life when they came over. She was very different from the rest of the family in that way, the casual side of her.
SI: You made a good point in the book that Americans don't always understand why British tax dollars go to support the Royal Family, but there's more to it than just tradition.
DM: There is nothing more proud, and full of pomp and pageant or so very British, as the Royal Family. But it's also a very important position. They also have an enormous influence on charity fund-raising, local business. Their popularity matters. Diana understood that.
SI: Yet it seems almost as if we're hitting a new era of royal family life, not so formal.
DM: Yes. I think with William and Kate, the [overall feeling in the Royal household] is going to be a lot more casual because William got that side from Diana. William still knows all of the Royal Family traditions, and yes, he does have to participate in the formal side of things like the Royal Ascot. But I do think William and Kate will be more normal, or as normal as can be when you're part of the Royal Family. And actually right now, William is much more popular than Charles. Charles should really step aside, I think.
Check back later for more on why McGrady thinks William should be the next King, the upcoming wedding, and cooking for Diana versus the Queen.