Learn, Laugh, Live


July 2023 meeting: Chef to the Royal Household

This meeting featured a talk by Colin Alderson, entitled “Chef to the Royal Household”.

Our speaker began his talk with details of his early life; he was born near Thirsk, now North Yorkshire – the village where the real ‘James Herriot’ ran his veterinary practice. Colin’s father was a sheep farmer, and the family lived some distance from the nearest village. The walk to school would start at 7.30am, to get there by nine o’clock. The journey took him past disused lead mines, the paths through woods and fields became even more of a task in the winter months.

His family had near neighbours, Sir Thomas and Lady Sopwith, who held shooting parties at Scar House, their stately home. These were attended by members of the Royal Family, including Princess Alexandra and our current King. Colin worked there, as a beater and other tasks, receiving a tin of ‘Quality Street’ at the end of the day. His godmother subsequently became the housekeeper of Scar House.

At his secondary school in Richmond, Friday afternoon lessons were woodwork and metalwork for the girls, and cookery for the boys. Colins’ skill and aptitude in this subject, in particular meat pies and other pastries, led to teachers encouraging him to further develop his skills. He acted on their advice, and spent two years training at Scarborough College. Subsequently he worked at a restaurant in Wensleydale and, while there, decided to try for a job as a chef in London.

Not even expecting a reply, Colin sent a handwritten letter to Buckingham Palace which, to his surprise, led to him being invited for an interview in London. The invitation had actually come from Sandringham, where the Queen was in residence. His interview with the Master Chef was successful, and he was offered a post as a royal chef. Colin recalled that whenever a phone call was received from Buckingham Palace, his father would remove his hat if he was in the room at the time.

Colins’ three month trial period involved him becoming familiar with every aspect of the royal kitchen. This enabled him, along with every chef, to produce anything the royal family wanted to eat - and anywhere where they happened to be. His description of how ‘Poached egg on toast’ was created to royal specifications was delivered to a nearly silent audience of our members, hanging on to every word. This was one of many insights to life at close quarters in the Queen’s kitchens.

Meals taken by the chefs were nearly identical to the ones that we might have seen on the TV programme ‘Downton Abbey’. All the staff at one big table, with a strict hierarchy and ‘knowing your place’.
Having passed his three-month trial, Colin was assigned quarters in Buckingham Palace. This was on an upper floor, and three windows in from the left-hand side of the palace when viewed from the front. It was off a corridor which ran the whole ‘width’ of that floor and, which Colin recalled, had a permanent smell of furniture polish, and the sound of ticking clocks. He had to walk down over 400 stone steps to get to the kitchens, which were in a similar corridor and where work started at 6.45am. The start time applied each day, even if a function the previous evening didn’t end until, for example, 3am or even later.

He went on to describe the six week period when, each year, the Royal Family would move to Sandringham. Almost the whole of the kitchen, and staff, travelled with them. One of the staff, who worked in the royal kitchens for over 40 years was a Mr Aubrey. Colin remembered that Mr Aubrey would peel and cut potatoes to make one length of the vegetable, which would then be fried to encircle the joint of meat for the meal – and woe betide anyone who broke this ‘chain’. Mr Aubrey also recalled to Colin how he and the Queen Mother would sit together in a room below the kitchens at Windsor Castle, cleaning fruit which would be made later into jam.

One of Colin’s many illustrations was of a sieve, which was used for twice straining cooked chicken, to remove any sinews from the meat and make it easier for guests to eat. Perhaps disclosing a state secret, he told us that an electric mixer and blender in the kitchen would sometimes be used instead though. Another slide reminded us of the house where the Duke of Edinburgh spent the last days before his death two years ago.

Colin showed us some daily menus for the royal family; again Mr Aubrey would write some notes and observations as would the Queen herself on many occasions. For example, the Queen would replace one of the sweet courses for a savoury dish to accommodate the expected guests for a particular meal. Colin showed us, possibly, the most preferred daily menus – the ones where the Queen was either out for lunch or dinner, or even better; both meals. Guests who came to stay with the royal family would be weighed on arrival, and again on the day they left – a weight gain would indicate they had enjoyed the food there as much as the visit.

Sandringham was also a place where new recipes and dishes, often from the families’ travels abroad, or even for guests expected on formal visits, could be made. The dishes would be tried, tasted and, if necessary, adjusted. The Queen would be interested and involved in this process.

During his five years of service as one of the Queen’s chefs, Colin travelled abroad on the royal yacht Britannia, and recalled that, after dinner at sea, the dining room would be cleared of tables and the staff would be invited to watch a film with the royal family in there. He mentioned one night of very stormy seas and gales watching ‘The Towering Inferno’ as the ship was enroute to Mexico, on one of the late Queen's two tours to that country.

Back in Britain, Colin also worked at Windsor Castle, where the Queen would spend the last years of her life. Colin showed us a picture of a mechanical, electric powered, wooden horse, which was used to help train Princes William and Harry to play polo. He also remembered Prince Andrew living at the Royal Lodge within the castle grounds, along with the visits to the castle by Princess Margaret and the Queen mother.
Colin accompanied the family to Holyroodhouse, where the Queen was based for visits to towns and cities and cooked for the royal family on their stays at Balmoral.

Time didn’t allow for all the stories and memories from Colin, but he answered a number of questions from our members after the end of his presentation. During his talk, Colin had mentioned that, for the past ten years, he has volunteered in preparing meals at a hospice near to where he lives now.

We enjoyed an absorbing and detailed account of life alongside the royal family over the five years of his service - responding with well-deserved applause for our guest speaker this month.