The private chef who counted Prince Charles and Princess Diana among her diners talks to Grace M.W. Wong about going organic by royal appointment.
How did you land the job of executive chef to the royal family? 'When I was at Le Cordon Bleu [a hospitality training centre in England], I was recommended for an interview at the palace with another member of the royal family, a duke, who was a neighbour of Prince Charles. I worked for the duke's family for two years after graduating. The defining moment came when I had to prepare a dinner party for the duke's guests, who turned out to be the prince and princess of Wales. After sampling my food they offered me the job of private chef at Kensington Palace. I remember I had to cook a meal for them as a test. The main course was fish with home-made ice-cream as dessert for Diana. Prince Charles had wanted a lady chef - he felt that there would be a slightly different touch in the kitchen. I was honoured to be the first lady that ever got hired for this position.'
What was the most memorable event from your 11 years with the royal family? 'That would be my trip accompanying Prince Charles to the 1997 handover ceremony in Hong Kong aboard the royal yacht Britannia. For five days I took care of the prince's meals, as we were staying on the yacht. There were several culinary teams on board because each royal took his or her private chef with them. The royal family members also entertained dignitaries at dinner parties on the yacht. My most cherished moment was when we sailed out of Victoria Harbour after the ceremony, seeing hundreds of small boats gathered in the harbour with glittering lights to celebrate the handover.'
What sort of food do the royals eat? 'They prefer seasonal home-grown ingredients from their private garden - asparagus and strawberries in the summer, wild mushrooms gathered on their trips to Scotland. They opted for whatever is most abundant in a particular season. Prince William was seven and Prince Harry was four when I started cooking for them. They were full of fun and well-mannered. Unlike many children, the two young princes only took home-cooked meals at proper times, without many snacks in between. Their snacks were fresh fruit. It was difficult for them to dine at restaurants without getting attention. The late Princess Diana always had a busy schedule so an early lunch or a late dinner would be customary time. She maintained a healthy diet and was appreciative of food. Her usual dishes would be salad and grilled fish. No garlic was allowed in any of the dishes for the main reason of public concern. I replaced garlic with fresh herbs as seasoning and created sauces with herbs to enhance the taste of the food. British food is blander than Chinese food.'
What was the hardest part of the job? 'The hardest part was the huge commitment on my time and life. The hours were long and I travelled frequently with the family. It is a job that requires always putting the royal family's needs first. I basically followed Prince Charles wherever he went in the world. One must be 120 per cent committed to the job, with a very flexible attitude towards one's own desires in life. I could do it at the time because I was single; with a family, now it's different.'
What do you hope to achieve as an organic chef? 'Prince Charles is a pioneer of the organic food movement in England. His farm is certified organic and I had the chance to use ingredients from it while working for him. Organic farming is expensive at the moment and still small in terms of food varieties. But it is already a big trend in United Kingdom supermarkets and farmers' markets. Buying locally is much more important as we support our farmers and encourage a cycle of repeated business. My catering business does private events for private clients. I serve almost everything organic and locally grown if possible. Organic baby food is increasingly in demand now.'