Cooking for Princess Diana: Her personal chef speaks

Cooking for Princess Diana: Her personal chef speaksEntertainment

Twenty years after Princess Diana’s death, her words, like her legacy, have withstood the test of time. USA TODAY

Darren McGrady, 55, was Princes Diana’s personal chef from 1993 until she died in 1997. Before that, he was personal chef to Queen Elizabeth II. For the past 20 years McGrady has lived in Dallas, where he first worked as a chef for a private family then started his own catering business. “The Royal Chef at Home,” a follow up to his first cookbook, “Eating Royally,” will be published Sept. 1. 

In an interview with USA TODAY, McGrady recalled Princes Diana’s interest in healthy eating, meals with her sons, princes William and Harry, and how she inspired him to do charity work. Here are his words, edited and condensed for clarity:

My first job at Buckingham Palace was right at the very bottom — chef No. 20 of 20. I worked on the vegetable section cooking for palace staff. It was horrible. Frozen vegetables for 300. I met Princess Diana at Balmoral Castle (the queen’s vacation home in Scotland) and over time, I became a friendly, familiar face to her, although I was never her friend. I was staff. I never called her Diana. It was “Your Royal Highness” to the end, even after she lost the title and would say, “you don’t have to call me that.”

At Balmoral and Buckingham Palace, she would come down to the kitchens and ask if she could have a yogurt or maybe some orange juice for her or one of the boys. I got to dance with her at balls. When she separated from Prince Charles (in 1992), I thought “Oh my gosh I’ll never see her again.” But then I got a call asking if I would be interested in being her chef so I moved across to Kensington Palace (her London home). 

At Buckingham Palace, the food was very traditional French, very rich, lots of creams, lots of butter. When I moved over to Kensington Palace, the princess had gotten her life back on track. She had conquered the bulimia and wanted to eat well. She said to me: “I want you to take care of all the fats, and I’ll take care of the carbs at the gym.”

One time she said: “Make me the tomato mousse you made for President Ronald Reagan at Windsor Castle, and I said, ‘You can’t have that Your Royal Highness it’s got mayonnaise, sour cream, it’s got double cream.’  She said, ‘Well, make me a fat-free version.'” That’s when I started to change all my recipes. I had to find a way to make her healthy food while keeping the comfort and nursery foods for William and Harry. It was exciting to me because in those days, this was something entirely new.

Another time she came in and said: “I need a juicer. I want to start having fresh juices.” So I was dispatched in a taxi to Selfridges (a fancy London department store) to get a juicer, and I started making juices for her with carrots, celery, parsley, spinach. One time, she wanted one with just beetroot in it. I advised her against it, but she insisted. A few hours later she came back into the kitchen and said, ‘Oh my God, Darren, you poisoned me.” Her face had gone all blotchy from the beetroot. 

All I know about her bulimia is that when I started working for her, she had confronted it and gotten help. I was there as a chef only, and it wasn’t my job to give her advice. There was never any food-binging or anything like that. She liked eating healthy salads.

However, when the boys were with her, they could have anything they liked: fried chicken, potato skins, roasted potatoes. They would often ask her why she wasn’t eating the same things as them. So I would take the fat off her chicken, and with the potatoes, I would dip them in egg white and paprika and put them to one end of the dish and she would know they were for her. She wanted to eat healthy. She looked the best she ever did. She never ate red meat. She loved fish, stuffed bell peppers. 

She also really liked my bread-and-butter pudding (a traditional British dessert).

It was only if she was entertaining, and especially if it was men she was entertaining, that she would have lamb. Once, Clint Eastwood visited Kensington Palace for a presentation related to a charity. “Let’s do a rack of lamb,” she said.

Afterward, Eastwood asked to meet me and said, “that’s the best lamb I ever tasted.” I said, “Thank you, sir, did it make your day’?’ He laughed and I laughed and the princess, of course, had no idea what we were talking about. She hadn’t seen (his 1971 movie Dirty Harry).

The night she was killed, I had the food all ready. I never talk about the food I was going to prepare for her when she died.

She was supposed to be flying into Heathrow Airport. William and Harry were coming down from Balmoral. They were going to spend a few days with us before returning to school. I got up in the morning, switched on the TV and I remember the presenter saying, “For those of you just joining, Princess Diana has died in a car accident.” I thought it was a stunt or a bad joke, but it was on all the channels: We only had four in those days. I couldn’t believe it.

I called my wife and my parents. They had seen it on the TV, too. I was at home so I called the Kensington Palace, but couldn’t get through. I went into work and took the food with me. I just couldn’t accept that she wasn’t coming back. I went into work and in the office where the secretaries were, the fax machine started. It was her last will and testament being faxed through. Everyone began crying.

The next week was one of helping and packing and organizing what she wanted for the funeral. It was just awful. Then, when her body came back, all the staff were invited to a viewing at the Chapel Royal (a private chapel at St. James’s Palace in London). The day of the funeral, we all lined up outside Kensington Palace to say goodbye to her. 

All these years later, what I remember about her are the fun times, treating the boys, the huge shrills of laughter at Kensington Palace. She had a really naughty sense of humor. I still recall seeing her in her dressing gown and robe, with her hair up in a towel to dry and no makeup on and just looking naturally gorgeous.

Before I worked for Princess Diana, people would sometimes ask me to organize a charity dinner or make donations to this and that and I would say, “No way, why?”

Princess Diana was patron of 109 charities, and I saw the difference she made.

I once overheard her saying to the butler that she wanted 50 blankets. It was the middle of winter and cold and miserable outside. He replied, “Your Royal Highness, we can turn the heating up if you want.” She said she had just been driving through King’s Cross (an inner city area of London) and saw homeless people going through trash bins looking for cardboard boxes to keep warm. So she got these blankets and drove back to King’s Cross and she pulled up at all these trash bins in the area and put a couple of blankets in each one in the hope that people would find them.

That’s what inspired me, and people around the world, about her. The difference she could make just by doing a little bit of charity. It’s why I now work with homeless shelters and domestic violence shelters, why I speak in public about her, and why I donated all the royalties from my first book to charity. I hope that by listening to fun stories about her I can encourage others to do something, to be kind.

That, for me, is how her legacy lives on. 

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