Chef Darren McGrady once cooked for Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, Claudia Schiffer and Princess Diana—all at once. Now, the former chef of Princes Diana, Prince William and Prince Harry he lives in Plano and runs his own catering company, Eating Royally. He also writes cook books.
“They came for afternoon tea for William’s 13th birthday,” Darren remembers. “He came home from school to find three supermodels in the sitting room. … And the birthday cake was the biggest pair of boobs you’ve ever seen. Her Royal Highness had a great sense of humor.”
Darren, The Royal Chef, started his career at the Savoy Hotel in London. He was the Chef-de-partie Saucier—“in charge of making all of the fine sauces and gravies”—when he decided to apply for a position at the palace.
He started out cooking vegetables. “I moved from being one of 70 chefs at the Savoy to being chef 20 of 20 at Buckingham Palace, right at the very bottom. I was veg cook for the staff; I was just slitting bags and cooking frozen mixed veg; it was horrible.”
He later became personal chef to the Queen and cooked for Her Majesty, the Duke of Edinburgh and their guests on a daily basis.
Disappointingly, the Queen’s eating habits are pretty normal: She eats cereal for breakfast, grilled fish for lunch and a “piece of beef or venison” for dinner. “She’s very disciplined,” Darren says. “And, no, she doesn’t wear a tiara for breakfast.”
When I arrive to Darren’s home in north Plano I’m greeted by his dog, Bendicks who is named after the Queen’s favorite chocolates. Beef bourguignon simmers on the stove, and he’s busy folding shredded kale and goat cheese into a mound of creamy mashed potatoes. The recipes for both dishes can be found in his new book, The Royal Chef at Home: Easy Seasonal Entertaining.
The book is an ode to his entire career, combining his experience as a Royal chef with his knowledge of American cuisine. The result is what Darren calls “foolproof recipes for American holidays with a dash of British flare.” Menus range from British staples such as An Elegant Tea and A Proper Sunday Dinner to all-American classics for special occasions from March Madness to Thanksgiving.
Some of the recipes, like Fat-Free Potato Wedges, he created for Princess Diana.
“When Prince Charles and Princess Diana separated, the Princess asked if I’d become her private chef. I moved from Buckingham Palace to Kensington and was there for the next four years, right through the divorce up until the day of the accident.”
One of his fondest memories is dancing with Princess Diana at the annual Ghillies Ball at Balmoral. Having confided that he was nervous—“because I didn’t know how to waltz”—Princess Diana asked him to dance. She saved a dance for him at every Ghillies Ball for the next 11 years.
“It was horrible. Everyone was laughing and looking. In the end, I think I gave her as good a dance as John Travolta did at the White House.”
In fact, all Darren’s fondest memories are of Princess Diana, William and Harry.
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“She would come down to the kitchen and bring William and Harry. I remember holding Harry as a baby at Windsor Castle while Her Royal Highness ate cereal.
“One day the Princess said, ‘We’ve got four for lunch today, Darren.’ I’d never ask who. She walked into the kitchen and it was Gianni Versace, George Michael and Elton John. I stood there thinking, ‘This is cool, I wish we had a piano.’”
Her kind, loving spirit had a lasting impact on Darren.
When she found out he had a girlfriend, Wendy, she sent him a note: “Darren, good news: I’m out Friday, so go out courting.” When Friday came around she gave him a bouquet of flowers and a handwritten note. Wendy and Darren have now been married 20 years and have three children: Lexie, Kelly and their own “Prince” Harry.
He remembers her generosity vividly.
“After the Christie’s auction in New York she came into the kitchen, still in her dressing gown, and said, ‘Look at how much I raised just by selling a few of my old dresses.’” The auction, which took place just two months before her death, raised $3.25 million for cancer and AIDS charities.
Twenty years later, Darren remains passionate about the same causes. He donated his advancement and royalties from his first book, Eating Royally, to the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric Aids Foundation and, today, donates as many dinner parties for charity auctions as his schedule allows. A raffle being drawn in March 2018 by the Suicide & Crisis Center of North Texas has “A Royal Dinner Party hosted by Darren McGrady” as its star prize.
“Most people want a Royal Dinner Party; they want to eat the royal family’s favorites. They want me to introduce all the courses and then share stories about the Royal family.”
Even after her death, it was Princess Diana who led Darren to America.
“Prince Charles asked if I’d become his chef, but I thought I’ll always be mommy’s chef. … She always talked about moving to America, so I went to California. I thought someone on the West Coast, Oprah maybe, would hire me.”
Instead, he was hired by a family who lived in Dallas. “For me, the only thing good about Dallas was that was where J.R. lived.” But he had fond memories of Southern hospitality from a trip he took with the Queen in 1991, so he decided to give it a go.
Since then, he’s been head-hunted by Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft; he’s been a guest on Oprah; he’s cooked dinner for Patty and Emmitt Smith—“Emmitt threw a bread roll at me when I said I was a Giants fan”; and when he met Roger Staubach he thought he was meeting the creator of Starbucks. He’s also the founder of his own catering company, Cooking Royally, and does everything from intimate tea parties to corporate events. But, most importantly, he’s fallen in love with Texas barbecue and Southern cooking.
“Southern cooking is all about drinking a beer on the porch, relaxing, throwing some horseshoes and waiting for the barbecue.”
In his heart, he’ll always be Princess’ chef but, for now, he’s happy in Plano combining the best of British and American cultures: enjoying a cup of tea on the patio with a brisket in the smoker.
Story originally published in Plano Profile’s December 2017 edition.