by Layne Lynch
Nearly 20 years after Princess Diana’s death, the world is still captivated by her, the “People’s Princess.” During her short life, fans across the globe fell in love with her innumerable charitable works, amiable nature, trendsetting fashion sense and distinct fragility. But the truth is, only a handful of individuals truly knew the princess and all her complexities.
One of those people happens to be Darren McGrady, a Dallas-based chef and caterer who worked as a personal chef to the royal family and Princess Diana for 15 years at Buckingham Palace and Kensington Palace. Through detailed menu-planning, McGrady came to know the Princess and her personal palate—crafting her favorites, such as savory stuffed peppers, decadent tomato mousse and rich bread-and-butter pudding, while gabbing with her over cups of coffee and making the “boys”—Prince William and Prince Harry—kid-friendly favorites such as homemade pizza, loaded potato skins and roasted chicken. “It seems like only yesterday I was cooking for her and the boys, and now Prince William just welcomed his second child!” McGrady says. “Those were the happiest times. She would walk into the kitchen and start chatting with everyone. The princess wasn’t like the rest of the royal family; the formality wasn’t something she’d expected.”
Life with the royal family afforded McGrady innumerable once-in-a-lifetime experiences, such as cooking for five U.S. presidents and hundreds of kings and queens, trips around the world by air, land and sea and the chance to utilize the best meats and artisan vittles the Earth’s bounty has to offer. “If Prince Charles was coming home and wanted a rack of lamb, we’d make a phone call and someone would deliver the meat on a motorbike,” McGrady says. “The access to ingredients was incredible. You never get that again.” Along with the rest of the world, McGrady was devastated by the loss of Diana, and ultimately decided to begin his life anew in Dallas—a city he had admired during a tour of the United States. “I decided that if I was going to leave, it would have to be to Dallas,” he admits. And for 17 years, McGrady has continued his culinary career working privately for a prominent family in the area.
These days, Dallas is a top food destination in the region. But when McGrady first arrived to the urban epicenter, the culinary revolution had not yet taken root. Limited access to ingredients wasn’t the only initial hurdle for McGrady. The style and culture of American cuisine—mainly the Southern influence—was foreign. Though it was an adjustment, he slowly introduced Texan nuances into his traditionally British cuisine—and vice versa. For instance, the chef prepares shrimp and grits with sharp, salty lumps of Stilton cheese; Texas pecan pie with English clotted cream ice cream; and scalloped potatoes with bright, aromatic sage Derby cheese.
McGrady’s Texas home also introduced him to barbecue, now one of his greatest culinary loves. “It’s not just smoking meat on a pit,” he says. “It’s a culture and lifestyle of cooking. You sit around the smoker relaxing and drinking beer. You don’t get that anywhere else.” In addition to barbecue, McGrady also enjoys the fare at Dallas restaurants, such as Bolsa, FT33, Casa Rubia and Oak, but he admits that being a continent away from a former life can make you miss some of your favorite heritage meals: “I miss English lamb all the time,” he says.
Perhaps the days of hobnobbing with royalty are behind him, but the chef recently opened his own catering company called Eating Royally (also the title of his first cookbook), which offers a near replica of the royal dining experience and exquisite service—think “Downton Abbey” with an American twist. “There are people who really want royal service you can’t find anywhere in the United States. I want to be able to give diners that experience.”
The royal family has evolved immensely over the years, in part because of the modernity of Prince William, the Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry, who have all garnered reputations for being kind, gracious and approachable. The once stuffy pretension of the British aristocracy has greatly diminished, and in its place is a more progressive, relatable brood. McGrady can’t help but think Princess Diana had everything to do with that swift transition. “She’d be so proud of both of her sons,” he says. “She always was.”