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Former chef to Lady Diana cooking up funds for charities
Ronnie Baker / Staff Photo - The Royal Chef, Darren McGrady, spent 15 years serving the royal family in England. Now he serves as private chef for Dallas philanthropists Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wyly Jr. and devotes weekends to family and charities.
By Kim Williams, firstname.lastname@example.org
Many people see good things other people do and admire them, and a portion of those people become motivated and will do a good deed because of it. Darren McGrady not only was inspired by a giving soul, but he witnessed true charity and giving through a royal heart.
Working 11 years at Buckingham Palace and then for Princess Diana the last four years of her life, McGrady came to know what true charity is all about and lives it every day.
Mark Ford, community development officer for Texas Starlight Children’s Foundation, decided to host a holiday tea fundraiser with the help of friends at the Rosewood Crescent Hotel and learned about McGrady through a friend.
The foundation helps children and families cope with the challenges they face daily by bringing together experts from pediatric health care, technology and entertainment to create programs that educate, entertain and inspire seriously ill children.
While at the Starlight event, he invited a Dallas-Fort Worth area Starlight child, Crysta, to be his assistant chef.
“She was thrilled to meet him — she wants to be a chef — and participated in the demonstration for making traditional shortbread,” Ford said. “Thanks to our friends at the Art Institute, Darren also presented Crysta with a personalized chef’s jacket to mark the event. Her mother later shared with us that Crysta stated, ‘This was the best day of my life.’”
McGrady donates his time to several charities throughout the year. In fact, they take up about 70 percent of his free time.
Since the princess’s death in 1997, he has devoted his time to shelters for battered women, breast cancer charities — including the Pink Ribbons Crusade — and charities for children with chronic illnesses and disabilities. He also works to fight cystic fibrosis and donates his time to the cancer society and various homeless shelters.
“I remember one day Princess Diana was going to take William and Harry to a homeless shelter, and she came into the kitchen and said, ‘No dinner tonight — I’m taking the boys to see the real world,’” McGrady said.
McGrady brought his children with him to the Starlight event to observe the giving spirit.
“We also went up to Oklahoma to a battered women’s shelter. The kids came up there, and we took toys along and hung out with the kids,” McGrady said. “It’s important for them to see how lucky they are, and if you’ve outgrown toys and things, it’s important to save them to give them to other people like that.”
McGrady contrasted the princess and the queen regarding their experiences with shelters.
“It’s quite funny being in those surroundings with the royal family, because if the queen was going to a homeless shelter, the schedule was always planned six months to a year in advance, and that shelter was completely painted, redecorated, every person in the shelter had a haircut, bath, shave, shower and everything,” McGrady said. “And the first 10 people the queen would meet would be the mayor and dignitaries like that. It wasn’t the ‘real world.’”
McGrady’s book, “Eating Royally,” is full of recipes he made for the royal family. In there, he also told many stories of what it was like to be a royal chef.
“Two of the princess’ charitable goals were children and AIDS, so I put the two together by donating all the proceeds from my book to the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation,” McGrady said.
McGrady’s work for cystic fibrosis involves fundraisers each year. Amy McMichael, director of special events for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, describes McGrady as regal, majestic, stately, noble and kingly, as they are all synonyms for the word ‘royal.’
“The Royal Chef, Darren McGrady... lives up to his ‘royal’ name,” McMichael said. “This talented chef can also be described as caring and genuine, with a particular soft spot when it comes to children’s causes.”
The first year McMichael asked McGrady to be a part of the gala, she was somewhat anxious.
“I wondered if his busy schedule would work into the time frame for our gala, and if he would be sympathetic to our cause,” McMichael said. “Halfway through our conversation, my fears were put to rest. Our partnership was the beginning of a successful event and majestic night.”
McMichael found it difficult to pinpoint just one thing that made the event take on a truly magical tone.
“Was it the heartwarming stories Darren shared about Princess Diana, or maybe his incredible recipes selected for the dinner menu or the fact that his live auction dinner package raised $20,000 in about two minutes?” McMichael said. “All I know is the common factor was Darren McGrady — a chef who shared his talent and experiences, raised money for CF research, and has given tomorrows today for those living with this disease. To me, that is the definition of royal.”
Before her death, Princess Diana was patron of 119 different charities — something that resonates with McGrady every day.
Suzanne King, vice president of the Pink Ribbons Crusade, has known McGrady for 10 years. The crusade is a non-profit charity dedicated to fighting breast cancer through a traveling exhibit featuring Diana, Princess of Wales. Its mission is to carry on the work of Princess Diana in fighting breast cancer.
“When we first met, he had never spoken publicly about his royal experiences and was uncertain the audience would enjoy his presentation,” King said, “How mistaken he was — they absolutely loved him.”
King said that now with more appearances and practice, McGrady has become an extremely polished speaker. He is in demand throughout America and Europe on a regular basis.
“I’m always amazed how he continues to have the audience eating out of the palm of his hand and leaving them wanting to know more,” King said. “Darren has become quite a regular on “Larry King Live” and has cooked on the “Today Show,” the “CBS Early Show” and dozens of other TV programs across the country.”
King said McGrady has lovingly followed the princess’s example of charitable service, spending countless hours involved with charities.
“In fact, he serves as vice president of the board of Pink Ribbons Crusade,” King said. “The exhibition contains seven of Diana’s dresses as well as a million-dollar collection of royal memorabilia relating to the princess and other key members of the royal family. At each of these exhibits, Darren speaks, hosts sold-out special events such as royal teas and cooking demonstrations.”
She calls McGrady a star — the nicest, most humble one you will ever meet.
“Without a doubt, Darren McGrady is a remarkable man — one who has chosen to give back instead of take. In today’s world, how uncommon that is,” King said. “I truly believe Princess Diana is looking down from heaven, saying, ‘Well done, Darren — I’m so very proud.’”
Besides McGrady’s charities, he also takes time to do fun corporate events such as teaching cooking classes and leading vacations across the world.
Ruth Thompson is the manager of the Dish Event Center at the Culinary School at Market Street in McKinney.
“In August 2007, the manager of our food service department, Gary Taylor, lost his 15-year-old son, Spencer, to cancer. Spencer was a very talented young musician with the McKinney North Marching Band. Gary and his wife, Rhonda, wanted to start a scholarship fund in Spencer’s name for deserving band members. They asked me to contact Darren and see if he would donate a dinner for six to be auctioned off to help raise money for this cause,” Thompson said. “With Darren’s big heart, he came back and said, ‘Let’s do something bigger than that. Let’s host a benefit, get other chefs in the area to participate and donate their time, and sell tickets and raise much more money.’”
After many months of planning, The Spencer Taylor Memorial Scholarship Fundraiser was held at Market Street in McKinney, and thanks to Darren’s insight and leadership, the group was able to raise almost $20,000.
Debbie Gore, author and speaker, was a culinary school manager like Ruth at Market Street Colleyville and McKinney. McGrady credits her to be the person who first talked him into doing cooking demonstrations.
“‘Dream it, see it and believe it, but take the actions to get there’ – that is how I see Darren lives his life,” Gore said. “He watched Diana’s wedding from a hilltop with his family and then wondered what it would be like to work there. He was a top student in his culinary class and sent his resume to the palace. He was called after sending his resume, and the rest is history.”
Many people never rise to the occasion to not only set goals but also to do what it takes to achieve those goals. His mom inspired him at a young age to form a focus for his future and to embrace challenge rather than run from it. His plan for cooking began with his mom, as he grew up watching her in the kitchen.
“I was fascinated that you could take flour, milk and eggs and make a wonderful thing to enjoy,” McGrady said. “But then to make something for not only you to enjoy, but for others to enjoy, was even more motivating to me.
“My dad is like, ‘I’ve got my job, and I’m going stay in it for 30 years,’ and that’s my brother too,” McGrady said. “For me, I’ll do something for so long, and if I get something in my mind that I want to do, I just do it.”
There have been about four stages in McGrady’s life where he’s taken up a new challenge in an about-face stride.
“Once was when I finished culinary school and was working in my job. I was offered to go to Newark, but my mom told me that if I went there, everything would be in a can. But if I really wanted to be a chef, I needed to go to London. So I applied to the Savoy, even though I could have stayed in my comfort zone in Newark,” McGrady said. “While at the Savoy in London, after camping out on the lawn all night and watching the royal wedding of Prince Charles and Diana, I decided I wanted to go to Buckingham Palace, so I applied and took that job.”
While there, he took a job as a pastry chef, then when the position opened to cook for Princess Diana, McGrady made yet another move.
“Even when the princess died, Prince Charles said, ‘Come work for me,’ which would have been easy because I knew all his foods, had cooked for him many times and could’ve gone there, but I said ‘No, I’m going to America,’” he said.
Gore said McGrady mentioned that Diana talked of moving to the States.
“When she passed, he decided that might be a good idea,” Gore said. “He interviewed, as I recall, with Lisa Marie Presley to be a private chef, but instead took a job as a private chef for a family in Dallas, where he still cooks.”
When the princess died, he sent out his resume, and got a job with the Wyly family in Dallas.
“It was a huge culture shock when I first came to Texas because of the difference in food choices and what was considered gourmet,” McGrady said.
Karen Dawson, owner of Southlake Travel, met McGrady several years ago through a mutual friend. She and McGrady lead a culinary tour each year to different world-class destinations to experience the raw essence of why McGrady became a chef. The group’s tour this year was through Tuscany, where McGrady guided travelers through the countryside and town. He gathered his favorite Tuscany specialties before they went to the popular Relais Torre Guelfa for a hands-on cooking class. In addition to wine tastings and fresh market shopping, McGrady and Dawson spent the final dinner with the group at one of Florence’s finest restaurants.
“It’s the personal stories and firsthand experience that Chef Darren can tell that that make every trip magical,” Dawson said. “For instance, he can talk about living at Buckingham Palace, recount gala dinners in the state apartments for four U.S. presidents and several kings or traveling on holiday in the UK or elsewhere around the globe.”
When the tour took the group to Edinburgh, Scotland, they had an elaborate eight-course dinner on Her Majesty’s yacht, The Britannia.
“Darren’s parents brought a shoebox of memorabilia of personal photos and menus from the 11 years Darren had sailed with the queen around the world,” Dawson said. “He didn’t have knowledge of the shoebox and all its memorabilia. We were all thrilled to hear his thoughts and stories behind each item.”
Typically, Dawson’s travelers visit the usual tourist attractions in London, but going with McGrady provided them the opportunity to eat at Princess Diana’s favorite Italian restaurant and walk through Harrods’ Food Court sampling foods that McGrady would have ordered for the palace.
“It showcases the city and its food in a very different perspective than anyone can imagine,” Dawson said. “It’s not only the destination, but the experience you have that goes beyond the normal or expected. Next year we will have a chance to explore the spectacular remodeled kitchens at the recently renovated Savoy, a five-star hotel, where Chef Darren began his extraordinary culinary career.”
McGrady originally wanted to be in the Royal Navy, but after a field trip across the choppy channel to France — and subsequent seasickness — he decided the 15-year commitment was too much. After discussion with his mom, he decided to pursue cooking.
“I got into culinary school, and then it got exciting,” McGrady said. “We were seeing new produce, and I got a job to help me earn pocket money working at a local hotel because my mom knew the chef there.”
McGrady liked the fact that the chef was creative.
“Rather than just doing the boring, old ‘opening cans’ and churning things out from a company like Cisco, he would bring in fresh ingredients — fresh, beautiful mushrooms and things like that,” McGrady said. “Then halfway through my college, he moved up to Scotland to Barkley House Hotel and invited me up there for six weeks. We were shooting rabbits and making rabbit pies and stews, and we were out picking mushrooms first thing in the morning — that really got me into cooking and into the produce.”
Now McGrady is the main cook in his household, unlike many families, but he doesn’t mind at all.
“Wendy cooks sometimes, but it depends what we’ve got going on,” McGrady said. “When I cook dinner, she’s doing things around the house. And I just love cooking anyway — any meal and every meal — so I usually cook.”
During the week, the McGradys eat what he calls a simple meal, like spaghetti bolognese with ground turkey, but he said the family looks forward to coming home from soccer games and activities to having a Sunday roast.
McGrady and his wife, Wendy, have three children — Kelly, 14; Lexie, 10 and Harry, 6, who is named after Prince Harry.
“When I was dating Wendy, I invited her to Kensington Palace to Harrods for lunch, trying to impress,” McGrady said. “So on my poor chef salary, I thought rather than to park at Harrods, I’ll park at Kensington Palace because it’s free parking, and I’d just show my pass.”
After the two ate lunch and were walking in back of Millionaire’s Row to Kensington Palace, they saw Princess Diana driving up the road.
“She had William and Harry in the back of the car, with the protection officers right next to her,” McGrady said. “She pulled up along side us, rolled the window down, and before she could say anything, a little voice in the back said, ‘Mommy, who’s the blond?’ And so after that, we decided if we had a little boy, we’d say it was going to be a Harry — and he’s our Prince Harry.”
McGrady had a special relationship with the princess, as he had gotten to know her through the years, but became especially close during the last four years of her life when he served as her chef exclusively apart from Buckingham Palace.
“My favorite memory was the first time I danced with the princess,” McGrady said. “I was mortified, but I couldn’t say no.’”
Something McGrady cherishes is that he was able to witness Princess Diana’s relationship with her sons.
“I remember her standing next to Prince William and saying, ‘Look at him, Darren. Isn’t he handsome? Drop-dead gorgeous, my boy is.’ And he’d say, ‘Mommy, stop it — you’re embarrassing me.’ She’d say, ‘Look how tall he is — that comes from my side of the family,’” he said “Seeing the mother-son relationship and seeing what no one else in the world was seeing and to have been part of her life — that was so special.”
The McGradys have been in Plano since 1998 and don’t plan on moving anytime soon.
“As we moved here into Plano, we shopped in Plano, we just loved Plano,” McGrady said. “We love it here and a lot of people we talk to say, ‘Well, Plano — it’s boring, it’s flat and there’s nothing there,’ but I just think this is the most incredible place to bring up kids. It’s so family-oriented. You can get everywhere easily and get everything you want or anything you need.”
To further explore McGrady’s culinary world, visit theroyalchef.com.
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