Carolyn Robb talks to Rohit Nair about her time working as Prince Charles and Princess Diana's chef, and her new cookbook The Royal Touch
The year was 1987. There was no such thing as a celebrity chef. Gordon Ramsay was just a young commis chef, Jamie Oliver was barely a teenager and no one had even heard of Nigella Lawson. Home cooking was paramount and much sought after, just less televised and glamorous.
It was a gentler time, an era not marked by rabid competition to create the most ostentatious Michelin star-worthy dish. It was at the same time that Carolyn Robb, 21, a budding young chef, fresh out of Le Cordon Bleu and a few short stints at a couple of Swiss restaurants and cafés, was looking for her big break. Then, came a very special invite: to cook for the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester and their young children. Appropriate jitters and nervousness aside, Carolyn accepted the job and stepped into the Queen's (of England, of course) cousin's household at Kensington Palace.
About 18 months into the job and a destiny-defining dinner later, she moved a step up, one that she recalls fondly. "I always knew I wanted to cook and I dreamed of cooking for the royal family. I just couldn't believe it actually happened!" says Carolyn, reminiscing that fateful day.
At dinner that night at the Highgrove House was none other than Prince Charles and Princess Diana, who loved the food so much that the very next day they sent Carolyn a letter. "A summons from the desk of the Prince himself. Of course I went!" she exclaims. And standing in his office, she gracefully accepted her new job: to cook for Princess Diana, Prince Charles and William and Harry, who were just four and seven at the time, making her the first female chef for the royal family. Ever. "Prince Charles was very keen on having a female chef in the royal kitchen. I think he said that he would rather have no chef than not have a female chef. He believed that women brought much more homely food to the table than men who usually prepared fancy restaurant-like food."
Prince Charles was no slouch in the fresh produce advocacy department, she states. "He would hunt rabbit and pheasants and bring them to me to be cooked. He would forage for mushrooms - in fact, I went foraging with him on more than a few occasions - and bring back some of the most amazing mushrooms to be made into supper. He was incredibly knowledgeable about food and we never cooked or ate anything that had additives or preservatives in them," she says - something that she saw in her own house when she was growing up. "When I was growing up, we didn't have processed food. Everything was made from scratch and I was very happy to follow that same ethos in the royal kitchen. Prince Charles was, and still is, a very vocal advocate of organic farming and eating healthy food."
She fondly recalls the Prince showing off his produce to his guests whenever he had dinner parties. "He used to grow the most amazing vegetables and we used to have long conversations about the menu and what we could use from the garden. In a way, I consider myself very lucky to have worked for someone who was so involved with food. Today, most chefs order their supplies over the Internet, whereas I was picking food with the prince - the gardener and supplier!"
For 11 years, Carolyn devotedly fed her new family, pouring out her heart and soul into everything she made, influenced by everything she learnt from her mother. She adds that she cooked all sorts of things, a lot of her mother's recipes - "Shepherd's pies, sausages, mash, puddings and cakes; typical English fare" - but when it came down to it, the food she made for the royal family was food she would make for her own family. "Of course, I had been to Cordon Bleu and I had cooked at restaurants before, but what I made for them was healthy, delicious, home-cooked food. Most people think that if you're royalty, you just eat lobster and caviar all day, but that's completely untrue. It was often what was in the garden that day, or what was fished from the river. I think that's why I enjoyed the job so much. I put a lot of myself into the food that I made. A lot of love and effort went into those meals over all those years. Not to mention, the royal family was an absolute delight to work for. Particularly the young princes. They were not at all fussy," she recalls.
It's no wonder then, that her new cookbook, The Royal Touch: Simply Stunning Home Cooking From A Royal Chef, is filled with priceless anecdotes of her experiences in the household and 100 stunning recipes that anyone who loves cooking would cherish. Some of her most treasured memories - Christmas cards from Princess Diana, and notes from Prince Charles commenting on her food - she keeps to this day, some of which have been replicated in her cookbook. One that is particularly touching is a note she received from a very young Prince Harry that simply says "Mummy says its (sic) okay!" She recalls how she used to bake tiny treacle tarts, his favourite, and when he had asked for one on one particular occasion, she sent him to ask for Princess Diana's permission. "He came back moments later with that note in her handwriting. I will always treasure that moment." Another favourite for the boys was her mother's recipe for a chocolate biscuit cake - so much so that Prince William asked Carolyn to make it at his own wedding.
Getting the job
Carolyn was born and brought up in South Africa, where her English mother cooked and baked scrumptious meals and delectable cakes while being constantly shadowed by a young Carolyn. "I had four siblings and was the youngest - by eight years - which meant that when my siblings were off to college and the army and the air force, I was still living at home." She says that her South African father was a gardener extraordinaire. "He grew everything possible and there was such a great variety of fruits and vegetables all year-round. And my mother would turn all those wonderful ingredients into the most amazing meals and desserts. That's really when my passion for cooking took shape," she says. It's also perhaps why she bonded so much with Prince Charles - she saw the same love for gardening in him that her own father displayed.
It was her father that wanted her to get a university education, for which she travelled to the UK when she was almost 17. She was learning foreign languages - German, for starters - but she realised that that wasn't what she wanted to do for the rest of her life. "I took a break from university and went to Switzerland, where I worked at a few restaurants and learnt the corporate side of the restaurant business." She followed that up with a six-month intensive course at Le Cordon Bleu after which she landed her job with the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester. Then came that memorable dinner where the Gloucesters hosted the Prince and Princess of Wales. "My mother was over the moon when I told her I was to be working for them. I think the greatest honour was when I got to introduce my family to the royal family." There's even a note from Princess Diana on the meet and greet, replicated in the cookbook.
From 1989 to 2000, Carolyn spent almost every moment of every day ensuring that the royal family and their guests were taken care of. She was flying to every corner of the globe as part of the royal entourage, cooking up the house favourites whenever she could. "I remember a few times when I didn't travel with Prince Charles. he sent notes saying that he wished I had tagged along because he hadn't liked the food he had eaten. He was always worried he would have an upset stomach at important meetings." Carolyn adds that he was always quick to give feedback on the food, often leaving behind comment cards congratulating her on the meals. One of them reads: "You excelled yourself this evening for dinner. The first course was a masterpiece! Well done!" Carolyn adds that it was written with his left hand because it was the day he had broken his right hand playing polo.
The royal touch at home
Although her parents passed away a few years ago, Carolyn, now almost 50, lives in her parents' cottage in the UK, raising her two daughters, coincidentally almost the same ages as the young princes when she first started working for the royal highnesses - three and seven - and tending to her own organic farm like she learnt from her father and the lessons she gleaned from Prince Charles. "The older one, Lucy, loves baking, but she doesn't like eating everything she bakes. I'd say she is more fussy than Mandy, who is much more adventurous with food," says Carolyn. But what she is working on full time now, apart from motherhood, after quitting the royal kitchen, is her brand called The Royal Touch. "I cater for weddings and special events, making many of the things I used to when I was the royal chef. The cookbook was a special project I wanted to do for my mother and I'm so happy that it got published. I didn't expect it to be so soon!"
But why did it take so long? You would think that such a treasure trove of great tidbits on the royal family and recipes would rush through the publisher's table. Perhaps even a TV show or a cookery programme. The truth is, as Carolyn says, she never had the time and the whole TV thing never really appealed to her. "I was always busy. Cooking a daily menu is particularly challenging. Unlike in a restaurant, where you cook the same things every day (until the menu changes), here we were preparing menus everyday, for every meal. After a while, I was really looking forward to actually having a weekend."
|Cook like CarolynFeaturing 100 recipes perfected over more than two decades, The Royal Touch: Simply Stunning Home Cooking From A Royal Chef is perfect for home cooking
That's when Caroline quit and spent some years travelling. She even spent a few years in Dubai, writing food reviews for Time Out magazine. "I think those were the times when I truly appreciated home-cooked meals and got a new sense of appreciation for what I was cooking in the royal kitchen. Eating out almost everyday, sometimes twice a day, really took a toll on me." Carolyn eventually moved back to the UK, into her parents' old cottage. "Now, I'm a full-time mom, teaching my kids about eating healthy and simple home-cooked food."
She says has never been an advocate for fad diets, and thinks they do more harm than good. "It's something I'm teaching my daughters as well. These days, there's so much talk about different diets - low sugar, no carb, low fat, high protein... For me, it's more about having a balanced diet. Not to cut out things, but to eat everything in moderation. Giving people processed food with additives does more damage than good." She says she doesn't count calories and doesn't mind putting in a bit of cream or butter in her food. "Of course, if you eat a lot of it, that's bad, but if it's balanced, there's nothing to worry about. Just make sure you eat enough vegetables and fruits and get enough exercise."
Apart from that, she adds, she enjoys cooking with fresh herbs. "I love using fresh mint, thyme and basil," all growing in little pots in her kitchen. There's also chives, parsley, bay leaves and rosemary. "Herbs add so much depth and dimension to food. Simple, colourful, fresh - those are the key words for me. If you follow that, you'll always make delicious food. It's also important to use real sugar, good quality flour and natural ingredients.
"I think it's really important to grow up learning about your food and what goes into it. My mother taught me a lot, including cooking on a budget and I think that's an important lesson even today." She adds that these days, parents are often really busy, which is why she made her cookbook approachable even for parents with hectic schedules, to ensure that they're feeding their kids wholesome food. And it doesn't hurt that it's inspired by the royals themselves!