July 5, 2013

The Royal Chef remembers cooking for baby princes William and Harry

Darren McGrady talks about baby food, palace nurseries and scary nannies.

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Like every mother, the late Princess Diana wore many hats (and in her case, tiaras) when she was raising her sons, William and Harry. But she didn’t, apparently, have one to hang in the kitchen.

“Princess Diana couldn’t cook,” her former chef says, laughing. “No, she couldn’t cook at all. She was just the worst cook.”

Fortunately for her and her sons, the Princess of Wales had chef Darren McGrady to take culinary control. McGrady, who now makes his home in North Texas, served as the Kensington Palace personal chef for four years until Diana’s death the summer of 1997. Before that, he cooked in the palace kitchens for Queen Elizabeth II and the royal family for 11 years. He published Eating Royally, a cookbook-memoir, in 2007.

Of course, the eyes of the world are focused this week on Great Britain for the impending pitter-patter of royal feet for Prince William and his wife, Catherine, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge; Time has called “Baby Cambridge” one of the most anticipated babies of all time.

Before heading to London himself (look for him on Today and BBC shortly after the baby is born), McGrady chatted in the kitchen of his Plano home about his memories of Diana as a young mother and about cooking for the princes — and their strict nannies — as they were growing up.

The new heir to the British throne reportedly is due Saturday, July 13 — two weeks after what would have been Diana’s 52nd birthday. The royal mum- and dad-to-be say they don’t know the sex of the baby. McGrady thinks, without a doubt, Diana would be rooting for a girl.

“Princess Diana always, always, always wanted a little girl,” he says. “When she had William and Harry as little boys, she desperately wanted a girl.”

When McGrady and his wife, Wendy, had their first daughter, Kelly, in 1996, in fact, the princess held her in her arms for half an hour and expressed to them how much she wanted a baby girl of her own.

“If [Princess Diana and Prince Charles] had stayed together,” McGrady says, “I think definitely she would have wanted to try for a girl.”

In any case, he says, she would have loved shopping with Kate for things like baby clothes and furnishings for the nursery.

Strict nannies

And she would have had more than a few words of advice for her about dealing with nannies.

“Nannies are a different breed,” McGrady says. “They’re in constant battle with the mum. Mum thinks one way. Nanny’s been trained another way, thinks another way, and so it’s difficult.”

Although the duke and duchess have said they want to be hands-on in their parenting, McGrady says he thinks they’ll eventually need a full-time nanny.

Theirs will have a major advantage over the nannies of the other royal babies — as heir to the throne, their child will be considered “the most senior” royal, and so will his or her nanny when royal relatives are together at one of the palaces.

“The nanny system had this sort of hierarchy,” he says. “If [Princess Anne’s children] Zara and Peter were there — if their nanny was in first, she would decide on the menu that everyone was having. But then when Barbara came in, who was William’s nanny, she had the senior royal, so therefore she was the senior nanny, so now she was choosing the menu.”

The nannies — who get their own palace footmen at the ready with things like strollers for walking the grounds — would draw up the children’s menus and deliver them to the kitchen each day. Princess Diana, he says, used to “do constant battle” with the nannies over what her boys could eat — even when they were older.

“William’s nanny would say, ‘It drives me crazy seeing those boys watching TV and eating at the same time,’” McGrady says. “Whereas Princess Diana [would say], ‘They’re boys ... just let them be boys.’ The princess always won — no matter what, no matter with whom, the princess always won.”

Letting them be boys occasionally meant, to the nannies’ (and chefs’) dismay, taking the princes to McDonald’s for Happy Meals.

“I was in the kitchen one day and Princess Diana said, ‘Darren, no lunch tomorrow. I’m taking the boys out for lunch,’” he said. “And I said, ‘Where are you going?’ ... She said, ‘We’re going to McDonald’s.’ I said, ‘Come on, I can do burgers,’ and she said, ‘No, it’s not the burgers; it’s the toy. They want the little bag with the toy.’

“The boys were just so American — they loved anything American.”

One of their favorite recipes from McGrady’s kitchen, in fact — peanut butter and jelly muffins — came at their request after a trip to the United States.

“They had gone to USA, to Disney,” he says, “and when they came back, they said, ‘Darren, we had the most amazing muffins there. They have peanut butter and jelly muffins. Can you make peanut butter and jelly muffins?’ So I played around with recipes. They have peanut butter and jelly on top and also in them.”

A later version of the muffins, again at the suggestion of the princes, included one of their favorite foods in the mix: bacon. They loved the sweet-and-saltiness of the bacon, peanut butter and jelly muffins.

Their mum? Not so much, this time.

“I had to stop making them because even Princess Diana said, ‘Uh, maybe not with bacon ...,” he says.

One sweet he did not stop making for them, from early on, was a traditional British treacle tart, best described as a golden pecan pie without the pecans.

“This was popular in the nursery because the filling is sort of gooey-sticky,” he says.

It’s most often topped with an English custard, which was one of the first things McGrady, as a pastry chef, made regularly for William and Harry when they’d visit the queen’s palaces. First, the baby princes would eat just the vanilla custard.

“Then after that, we’d slice bananas or chop bananas into this, so it would be sort of an English banana custard,” he says as he stirs a pot of custard on his kitchen stove. “And then the next thing, we’d actually take the custard and make it into a banana flan, which was the pastry shell, the layer of custard in the bottom and the sliced bananas on the top. And that was William’s favorite [dessert] all through growing up.”

As babies, the royal princes did not, as one might imagine, eat commercial baby food from little glass jars. They ate freshly pureed fruits and vegetables that were in season near the palaces; McGrady recalls pureeing apples the most, but also squashes and carrots in winter and peaches, apricots and pears in summer.

“When they got older, usually whatever the royal family were having, then the children would have the same,” he says. “If, for example, it was a rack of lamb or roast leg of lamb, we’d take that and we’d finely chop it or puree it in the blender with some potatoes or some carrots so that from an early age, they were getting those sort of foods.”

Holiday fun

Holidays with the boys were always fun when they were little, he says. As a pastry chef, McGrady found that Easter was always particularly exciting because it meant rolling out an abundance of chocolate creations, which the queen gives up for Lent every year.

One particular Easter when William was a precocious youngster, McGrady’s “Hickory Dickory Dock”-themed chocolate egg caused a ruckus in the Windsor Castle nursery. In keeping with the British nursery rhyme’s line, “the clock struck one, the mouse ran down,” McGrady had attached a chocolate mouse hanging out of the egg.

“It went up to the nursery, and five minutes later, the nursery footman came down. He put it down on the side, and I said, ‘What’s wrong?’” McGrady recalls, chuckling. “[He said,] ‘Barbara said, ‘Would you do something with this, please?’ He turned it around, and the mouse had lost its head and it was on the sideboard.”

William had pushed up a chair to the table, climbed atop it, leaned over to the egg and bitten the mouse’s head off. The headless mouse was now scaring his cousins, Beatrice and Eugenie.

“So I got another chocolate mouse, put it in there and said, ‘Put it higher on the table next time,’” McGrady says.

Just as William and Kate say they don’t plan to employ a full-time nanny when the baby is born, they also don’t employ a chef. The duchess can’t be faulted for wanting to keep their entourage small, he says.

When Prince William was a baby, he says, Princess Diana would complain that she didn’t get enough “me time” with him because there were always so many people around. So she would come up with ways to sneak some private time with her son.

During summer stays at Balmoral Castle, McGrady says, the royal family would often travel to the hills behind the house for a barbecue dinner. Prince Philip would head these up, and by 5 p.m. or so, he’d let the kitchen staff know whether to prepare dinner or to pack food for a meal away. Princess Diana had asked McGrady to let her know any time they were going out.

“She’d rush up to the nursery and say to [the nanny], ‘Barbara, you have the night off tonight. You go out and have a break,’” he says. “And then Prince Charles would come through and say, ‘Diana, we’re out for dinner tonight. We’re going to the hills.’ And she’d say, ‘Well, uh, I’ve just given Barbara the night off,’ so it meant she could stay with William on her own and have that me time.”

Boys in the kitchen

When McGrady began working as the princess’s personal chef at Kensington Palace, William was 11 and Harry was 9. He would cook five days a week for Diana but would cook on weekends, too, when the boys came home from boarding school.

Though the nannies still dictated the princes’ menus, McGrady recalls one night when the boys themselves decided to take charge.

“The plan was to do roasted chicken, cabbage and potatoes for the boys,” he says, “And there was a note ... that said, ‘Darren, please give the boys pizza tonight instead of the roasted chicken.’ And it was ‘signed’ by the nanny, but it was written by the boys.”

What to do?

“I took the chicken,” he says. “I was scared of the nanny, as was everyone — we were all scared of Nanny.”

When they were home, the princes, like most kids, liked to wander into the kitchen and forage in the refrigerator and freezer.

“They’d ... get ice cream and eat it from the tub,” he says. “The nanny didn’t know they were doing it. She’d have insisted it went into a bowl when she was there, but they’d sit with the tub in the windowsill and eat just like normal kids.”

On occasion, they’d want to help in the kitchen — or at least check things out. Harry nearly pulled down a pot of boiling pasta one day. Another time, William overturned an eggplant dish he was scooping onto his mother’s lunch plate, just as she was walking into the kitchen.

“I looked around and [held up the plate and said], ‘William’s just made you lunch!’ She said, ‘Oh, it’s fabulous, William!’” he says.

Reports say William has learned a few kitchen tricks since then — he prepared meals for Kate when they were courting — and she, it has been said, does much of the cooking for the two of them at home. So they’ll probably avoid kitchen catastrophes like one of Princess Diana’s that McGrady remembers well.

“One Sunday her friend called and said, ‘I’ll come over for lunch; we’ll do pasta and tomato sauce.’ So [Diana] put a pan on the stove, boiled the water, dropped the pasta in and while they were talking, the water boiled over and put the gas out on the stove,” he says. “Sunday afternoon she came in for a banana, and she could smell gas. So she was really worried, and so she called the palace fire brigade.

“They came out and said, ‘The pilot light here just needs lighting again,’” he says. “Monday morning, I came in and she said, ‘Oh, my gosh, Darren, I nearly set the palace on fire!’ She said, ‘But the best part was I had 12 hunky firemen all to myself!’”

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