Recently, I was offered the opportunity to interview Carolyn Robb, Royal Chef to the Prince and Prince of Wales, Prince William, and Prince Harry for 10 years. Given my current fascination with the very British ritual of afternoon tea (and our long-time obsession with Le Cordon Blue Paris), I jumped on it!
A Royal Chef
Carolyn Robb was born and raised in South Africa. She began to cook at a very early age; as soon as she could firmly grip a wooden spoon in her tiny hand! Inspired by her mother, a wonderful cook, she had her sights set on cooking for the Queen one day…
After studying languages at University, Carolyn traveled to Switzerland to spend a winter season working in a ski resort hotel. The experience of Swiss hospitality inspired her to seriously pursue a career in food. She attended the Tante Marie School of cookery in Surrey and, after gaining her diploma in Cordon Bleu Cookery with distinction, she moved to Kensington Palace where she began work as chef to TRH The Duke and Duchess of Gloucester. Two years later, in the summer of 1989, Carolyn was offered the position of chef to TRH The Prince and Princes of Wales.
A Royal Chat
Your first job after graduating from Le Cordon Bleu was as chef to TRH The Duke and Duchess of Gloucester at Kensington Palace. How did you land such a prestigious position without experience or references?
I think I came with a good reference from cookery school and I was one of the quiet ones, which seemed appropriate for a life inside the palace walls! I had an interview with the Duchess of Gloucester and instantly liked her enormously and got along very well with her. I was very enthusiastic about food and cooking and was so excited by the prospect of a job with the royal family – this must have come across to the Duchess during the interview.
Was there a security screening you had to pass?
Yes, anyone working in the Royal Household undergoes rigorous security checks.
Thinking back to your first day on the job, how nervous were you?
Yes, I was nervous! I was just 21. I had had a very carefree childhood growing up in South Africa (in flip flops and shorts) so the formality of this new environment was quite daunting, but at the same time I embraced this new exciting opportunity – there was no other job in the world that I wanted more than this one.
Do you remember what you cooked that day?
I am going to assume that you made some missteps when you were just starting out. What was your biggest mistake as a new chef?
I was very fortunate and I didn’t ever have any major disasters.
Two years after being hired as chef to the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, you became chef to TRH The Prince and Princess of Wales and the young Princes Harry and William. What did you cook for the young Royals that you never cooked for Prince Richard and Birgitte?
They all liked very similar things. A new thing for me when I joined the Prince and Princes of Wales was making a lot of fresh pasta.
You credit your mother for giving you a brilliant foundation in cookery skills. What did you learn from her that you were able to put to use in the Royal kitchens?
One of the most important things that I learned from her was always to be organized, to work neatly, to keep the washing up under control – not let a huge heap pile up to do at the end of the day, and not to be wasteful with ingredients. All of these skills are important in keeping a royal kitchen in order.
Did you ever cook any of her recipes at Kensington Palace?
Yes, many of them and a lot of variations on things that she had taught me – no one can eat ‘cordon bleu’ style food every day. Really good home cooking was what was always received best of all.
What’s the largest number of people you ever cooked for and how many dishes were served? Tell us about that menu.
It was about 300 people and we were on Her Majesty’s Yacht Britannia in Hong Kong at the time of the handover. It was a 4-course meal, I think it was an antipasti starter followed by either chicken or lamb and homemade ice cream and finally a fresh fruit course.
Which of your recipes are you most proud of?
The chocolate biscuit cake!
I’ve noticed a resurgence in popularity of traditional afternoon tea, high tea, heritage tea and garden parties, on both sides of the pond. The Milestone Hotel in Kensington, for example, recently launched an all-new high tea concept, and afternoon tea is popping up on menus across Canada and the USA. Can you tell me what the difference is between them? For example, how is afternoon tea different than a garden party?
Traditional afternoon tea is served around a table and a pot of tea is accompanied by cream scones, a selection of finger sandwiches, small cakes, and cookies. In the 18th century afternoon tea was largely a social event for the upper classes while high tea was a necessary meal for the working classes. It was eaten in the late afternoon early evening and generally consisted of a cooked dish accompanied by bread and butter and tea. A garden party is a social event for a group of people, often a large group (as in the Queen’s garden parties at Buckingham Palace, where 10,000 guests attend each one!) Generally a mix of tea and other drinks are served accompanied by small sweet and savory nibbles.
Did you prepare afternoon tea for members of the Royal Family?
Yes, I did.
I tend to think of afternoon tea as a social event for the ladies. Is this an accurate perception or do the men of the household also enjoy the ritual of tea?
Afternoon tea is a daily occurrence in the royal household, however, it is not a ‘Social event’ it is merely a cup of tea and a slice of fruit cake (in the case of HRH The Prince of Wales!) If there were guests there was sometimes a more extensive selection of things to eat.
Besides the Scones with Vanilla and Orange Zest, which recipes in your gorgeous new cookbook, The Royal Touch, would work well for an afternoon or high tea?
All of the cakes and cookies in the book are suited to serving for afternoon tea. Dishes such as kedgeree could be served for high tea, followed by a slice of cake.
Your culinary journey has been a fascinating one. What’s next for you?
I am working very hard on establishing and growing my brand The Royal Touch. There are many exciting projects in the pipeline! I also have a second book in the back of my mind.
Recipes for a Royal Tea Party
If you’d like to throw your own Royal-themed tea party, here are some of Carolyn’s recipes that are perfect for the occasion. Both are from Carolyn’s new cookbook THE ROYAL TOUCH: Simply Stunning Home Cooking From A Royal Chef.