Royal Family Secrets We've Learned From Their Former Chef

Since the royal family functions on the mantra "Never complain, never explain," it makes sense that they're shrouded in secrecy. After all, if you make it your personal mission to avoid overt displays of frustration, whining, or venting, it's inevitable that there's going to be a bit of mystery there. Because of the royal family's opacity, there seems to be an even greater appetite for the revelation of their secrets. Prince Harry certainly capitalized on this with the publication of his memoir "Spare," where he cashed in big time for telling his family's secrets. Harry is by no means the first royal who spilled the tea on the royals; in fact, there have been several memoirs that dished out the royals' juiciest secrets. Hey, people pay a lot of money to get the inside story.

There's another figure who was once within the walls of the royal castles who's now also sharing secrets about the royal family. Former royal chef Darren McGrady has seen it all, and while his role in the castles was a culinary one, food is never just food. He knew the ins and outs of the relationships between members of the royal family, from the late Queen Elizabeth II to Prince William and Prince Harry. The royal family certainly has its complexities and quirks; McGrady can testify to this. After all, the proof is in the pudding.

Why Balmoral was so special to the royal family

Balmoral Castle, the Scottish home of the royal family where they frequently stayed for summer holidays, was the favorite residency of the late Queen Elizabeth II. The family used the space as a retreat where they could enjoy the outdoors and escape from the bustle of London. In the documentary "Our Queen At Ninety," Princess Eugenie said of her grandmother at Balmoral, "I think Granny is the most happy there. I think she really, really loves the Highlands," (via Town & Country). The queen died at age 96 on Sept. 8, 2022, while at Balmoral, solidifying the castle as a major landmark in her life. 

Former royal chef Darren McGrady expanded on the royal family's love of Balmoral while in conversation with "Balmoral is where the royal family really let their hair down," McGrady explained. "They relax and have fun. You see them all the time. At Buckingham Palace, the Queen was too busy and the kitchens too far from her apartment — so we never saw her. At Balmoral, we'd see her all the time. They were much more relaxed and had more free time."

In short, Balmoral offered a retreat. In fact, in Prince Harry's "Spare," he writes that the queen was involved in the kitchens at Balmoral. "Granny's specialty was the salad dressing," he wrote. "She'd whisked a large batch. Then she lit the candles down the long table and we all sat on wooden chairs with creaky straw seats."

How Diana kept her eating disorder a secret

Former chef Darren McGrady knew some of the more intimate details about members of the royal family because of his place in the kitchen. For instance, he knew that the late Princess Diana struggled with an eating disorder. Diana battled bulimia for years, something she spoke about via confessional tapes in Andrew Morton's biography "Diana: Her True Story." She said, "The bulimia started the week after we got engaged and would take nearly a decade to overcome," (via Vogue). 

McGrady was actually someone who got involved once Diana overcame bulimia, as he would then cook especially healthy food for her. "One day she said to me, 'Darren I want you to take care of all the fats, and I'll take care of the carbs at the gym.' We changed everything, I threw out my Buckingham Palace recipe book and got into healthy eating," McGrady told "When she was at Buckingham Palace, her bulimia was definitely a hidden thing. We didn't know about it. It wasn't until she confronted it, and everyone put two and two together, that she started really healthy eating ... she liked dishes like stuffed bell peppers and stuffed eggplant — she loved fish." McGrady added that Diana disliked eating red meat, and on the rare occasions she did eat meat for public-facing events, she chose lamb.

If you need help with an eating disorder or know someone who does, help is available. Visit the National Eating Disorders Association website or contact NEDA's Live Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. You can also receive 24/7 Crisis Support via text (send NEDA to 741-741).

Dinner was ultra-formal for the royal family

If there's one thing Darren McGrady would know, it's how the royal family dresses for meals, and the chef says that dinner was a time for formal attire. "They would come in for afternoon tea by the log fire in outdoor clothes, and then they'd all change for dinner," McGrady told "They'd come down in dressy ball gowns, and sit at the table — like a 'Downton Abbey' dinner. All the fine china was brought out. At the end of the meal, a bagpipe player would walk around the table." 

Formal attire meant that the women wore stockings underneath their gowns, while the men wore dressier pants and coats. Women are also expected to dress modestly, so necklines are high and any slits don't reveal too much leg.

The family enters the dining room based on precedence, with the monarch leading the way. The monarch also dictates when the meal ends. No one left the table before the late Queen Elizabeth II was done, and the same applies to King Charles III. However, there were stories that the queen didn't leave people hungry, just because she had already finished eating. Allegedly, she'd slowly push some remaining pieces of food around on her plate to look as if she were still finishing her meal if she saw that other people were still working on dinner.

Prince Philip was mistaken for the gardener

While the royal family dressed up when an event called for glitz, they could also be extremely casual. This was certainly the case with the late Prince Philip, who once looked so casual that chef Darren McGrady mistook him for the Balmoral gardener. "He came into the kitchen and I thought he was the gardener," McGrady told "He was this old man in tatty old clothes, he had a jumper on with the arms hanging out at the elbows — all tattered and worn. I looked and thought, 'Oh, it's the gardener.' It was only after I looked closely that I saw it was Prince Philip."

Part of the reason that Philip dressed so casually, especially at Balmoral, was because he loved cooking on the grill outside. McGrady recalled the ways in which the prince incorporated local foods into the family meals. "Philip would cook out on the grill," McGrady explained. "He'd come down to the kitchens and discuss what food we'd have: 'Do we have any salmon that any of the family have caught? The queen's been picking strawberries with Princess Margaret; let's have those for dinner.'"

In "Spare," Prince Harry also recalled Philip on the grill at Balmoral. "Grandpa, who'd set off half an hour before us, was already tending his grill at the back of the lodge. He stood amid a thick cloud of smoke, tears streaming from his eyes. He wore a flat cap, which he took off now and then to mop his brow or smack a fly." 

Diana secretly took Harry and William to McDonald's

There are several stories of the late Princess Diana taking her sons out on outings to give them a more normal taste of life. They rode London buses together, and she took them to Thorpe Park, an amusement park outside of London, where they had to line up for rides the same as everyone else. But she also brought normalcy to Princes William and Harry's lives through food, namely trips to McDonald's. 

Chef Darren McGrady told that he tried to persuade Diana away from the fast food joint, telling her that he could make a better version of the menu. But she wanted the boys to have that experience. "I remember the Princess came into the kitchen one day and said, 'Cancel lunch for the boys [because] I'm taking them out; we're going to McDonald's. And I said, 'Oh my god your Royal Highness, I can do that; I can do burgers.' And she said, 'No, it's the toy they want.' Yeah, the boys loved McDonald's, and going out to pizza, and having potato skins — sort of the American foods," McGrady said. "They were royal princes but had children's palates." 

He said that they'd come home and watch "Blind Date," a British reality show. They'd allegedly holler at the TV and laugh while they ate fast food. Sounds like some great memories. 

The Corgis really did rule the castle

The corgis belonging to the late Queen Elizabeth II really were everything and had free rein over palace grounds. In fact, the corgis almost had a little too much license, as they once happened to chase chef Darren McGrady. "I saw this lady walking dogs and as I got closer I realized it was the Queen — in her headscarf with a coat on, and a Balmoral tartan," he told "I thought, 'This is so exciting, I'm going to speak to the Queen!' I remembered thinking, 'You've got to say Your Majesty first, after that it's ma'am.' But the dogs saw me and started barking — and all twelve corgis started running after me, so I turned around and started running the other way. I could hear the Queen laughing; she thought it was hilarious."

When he wasn't being chased, part of McGrady's culinary duties included feeding these royal canines, and their menu was no less involved than that belonging to the royal family. McGrady told Hello! Magazine that the corgis' menu rotated between beef, chicken, lamb, and rabbit. He had to carefully dice the meat after cooking it to ensure that there were no bones. "Every day the Queen's footman would come down to the kitchen at around two or three in the afternoon, and take the dog food upstairs to feed the royal corgis. They each had their own bowls," he said. "The Queen would feed them herself, I think after she'd had her tea."

Queen Elizabeth II had war-time frugality

There were elements of Queen Elizabeth II's life that were lavish, to be sure, but she was a surprisingly frugal person too. Former royal chef Darren McGrady had previously worked at the Savoy, a swanky hotel in London, before getting hired to cook for the royal family. However, cooking for the queen could be unexpectedly low-key. "The one thing you can say about the Queen is that she is very frugal," McGrady told Coffee Friend. "It was one of the things that really surprised me — when I moved from The Savoy to Buckingham Palace, I thought every day would be smoked salmon, foie gras, caviar, but no. The Queen is very very frugal and it's simple and plain foods. That comes from her early years of growing up during the war."

When the royal chefs were cooking for big events, it was as sumptuous as we'd expect, but the queen herself kept things very simple and didn't like to waste. McGrady spoke at the West Coast Women's Show and shared how the queen would squeeze a lemon wedge, and send it back to the kitchen to be used again. "If we did a Sunday roast of beef or venison or chicken, if there was anything left, she would ask that it be used for pie," McGrady said, according to the Vancouver Sun. "It's from growing up during the war." Nothing went to waste when it came to the queen.

Princess Diana was scared of the Queen

While Princess Diana and the late Queen Elizabeth II did come to respect and like one another, the early years of Diana's marriage to then-Prince Charles were tough in terms of the relationship between the princess and the queen. This was largely because Diana was scared of Queen Elizabeth II. In Andrew Morton's biography "Diana: Her True Story — In Her Own Words," the writer notes that their relationship was a tense one. "However, it was governed by the fact that she was married to her older son and a future monarch," Morton wrote. "In the early days, Diana was quite simply terrified of her mother-in-law. She kept the formal obsequies — dropping a deep curtsy each time they met — but otherwise kept her distance."

Chef Darren McGrady spoke about this too, in terms of food. On his YouTube channel, McGrady explained that Diana's favorite dessert was crepe souffle d'apricots. When Diana would visit the queen, McGrady would make sure that he made it and had to be vigilant when the dessert came back in the kitchen. "When the platter came back from the royal dining room to the kitchen, I had to fight off all the other chefs from digging in and I put it into the warmer," McGrady said of the dessert. "I knew the princess would come down to the kitchen for seconds. She was too scared to ask for seconds in front of the queen." He said that Diana would sit on the table in the kitchen and help herself to more dessert, away from her mother-in-law.

The queen's favorite food was chocolate

As noted, Queen Elizabeth II famously exhibited wartime frugality and didn't promote excess, even with food. "She's not a foodie at all," Chef Darren McGrady told the Daily Mail. 'She eats to live; it's Prince Philip that lives to eat. He loves food, he's interested in food, [and] he wants to know where it comes from. The Queen, not so much." However, there was one major exception for the queen; she couldn't resist chocolate.

McGrady told the Food Network that this was her major food vice. "The Queen's a chocoholic. Loves anything chocolate on the menu," he said. In fact, when making menus for the queen's approval, McGrady could pretty much guarantee that she'd select the desserts with chocolate in them over anything else. "Anything we put on the menu that had chocolate on, she would choose, especially chocolate perfection pie," he said, per Express. McGrady later spoke about her choices in cakes which were, unsurprisingly, also chocolate centered. "There's also the chocolate ganache sponge cake, which she has for her birthday every year," he explained. 

When it came to her favorite kind of chocolate, McGrady explained that dark chocolate was her absolute favorite. "Anything dark chocolate — the darker the better," he explained. In fact, the queen even kept little boxes of chocolate in her bedroom in case she wanted a late-night sweet.

Why garlic was banned from royal kitchens

Queen Elizabeth II didn't like it when the royal kitchens cooked with garlic. In fact, chef Darren McGrady told the Daily Mail that the queen completely banned it from the kitchen when she would be present for meals. 

Hilariously, though, it wasn't a unanimous opinion in her marriage. "We could never serve garlic to the queen but Prince Philip loved it," McGrady told the Daily Mail. "If we were at Balmoral and she was out, we'd slather his steak in garlic." McGrady went on, "But when she was at the table, there was no garlic at all. She was very Victorian and believed when she was brought up that you don't eat garlic — because if you were holding an audience the next day, you didn't want to be breathing garlic. It was seen as anti-social." 

In fact, McGrady noted that the queen didn't like any food that was too spicy or left too pungent of an aroma after meals. She liked simplicity, and McGrady noted that she actually preferred plain food. 

Afternoon tea was nonnegotiable

While we would expect nothing less, afternoon tea was an absolute must for the late Queen Elizabeth II. While afternoon tea might not strike one as a meal per se, Chef Darren McGrady told Coffee Friend that afternoon tea was by far the queen's favorite meal. "The Queen had afternoon tea every day, wherever she was in the world," he began. "If we were at Buckingham Palace and she was on her own for tea, or whether she had Prince William come and join her, or whether she had a garden party for 6,000 people, or even if she was on the Royal Britannia in Australia," McGrady said that the queen's tea was an absolutely essential part of her day.

British afternoon tea is typically served between 3 and 4 p.m., with a few savory sandwiches and some small cakes. When describing what accompanied the queen's tea, McGrady said that there were usually two kinds of sandwiches with scones. The flavor of the scones changed daily. "The chefs at Buckingham Palace would ring Windsor Castle on a Monday morning and ask what flavor scones the Queen had the day before, just to be sure we didn't serve the same," McGrady said. There would also be small tea cakes, anything from a small chocolate eclair to a larger cake from which the queen could cut slices. Per her love of chocolate, a chocolate ganache cake was a likely sight during her tea.

Why the family gave the Queen Mother a different dinner time

Queen Elizabeth II's mother, the Queen Mother, was notoriously late for everything. Typically the Queen Mother had her own residency in London, Clarence House, so her tardy nature was only a problem for herself. But when she was vacationing with the rest of the royal family, especially at Balmoral Castle, her tardiness became a family problem. The family couldn't start dinner without the Queen Mother there, and with the chefs working under a schedule, it was imperative that meals be served on time. So the royal family came up with a trick.

"Dinner was at 8:30 [p.m.] in Balmoral when Her Majesty the Queen Mother was in attendance," chef Darren McGrady told "They used to tell her that dinner was at 8:15, and she'd be the last one down. They told everyone else 8:30 because they knew she'd be late." Hey, a few little lies never hurt anyone.

Why Prince William and Catherine, Princess of Wales, don't bring their children to big events

While William and Catherine, Prince and Princess of Wales, are famously hands-on parents, we've noticed at times that Prince George, Princess Charlotte, and young Prince Louis don't accompany their parents to grand dinners. There's a specific reason for this that goes back to royal family tradition. Chef Darren McGrady said that royal youngsters ate with their nannies until it was clear that they'd behave well at meals. "The children always ate in the nursery until they were old enough to conduct themselves properly at the dining table," he explained. McGrady told Harper's Bazaar that the same applies to the Wales children, who don't join their parents for larger, grander meals until they learn polite conversation, via the Mirror

McGrady explained that the children's nanny would not only teach them to converse well, but she'd also mature their culinary tastes. "Nanny always had control of the menu and made sure they ate balanced meals that included not only lots of healthy vegetables but introduced them to new grown-up dishes too," he explained. So the young royals have to learn how to like more sophisticated foods as they learn the art of conversation. Hopefully, they get snuck out to McDonald's every once in a while!