Carolyn Robb, former personal chef to the Prince and Princess of Wales, and her sister Deirdre Reford, an occupational therapist, on cooking for royalty and supporting each other.
I was born in South Africa, the youngest of five. It was a lovely, carefree childhood. My siblings were all away at boarding school, university, the army and navy. I remember when Deirdre was studying occupational therapy, she'd come home and practise on me: I sat on her lap while she checked that my joints worked. She's always been an amazing big sister, even with the age gap.
Often being the only child at home, I was always in the kitchen with Mum making marmalade, cakes and cookies. I came to England aged 20 in 1986, did a Cordon Bleu diploma, then got very lucky with my first job working for the Gloucesters at Kensington Palace. Deirdre moved over here in the early 1990s, so I started to see more of her.
I'd always thought I'd love to cook for the Prince and Princess of Wales, and then they came for dinner with the Gloucesters. Prince Charles was looking for his first female chef. I had an interview with Princess Diana — she came into the kitchen, kicked off her shoes, there was lots of laughing and joking, which was so typical of her. You felt instantly at ease. She was very easy to cook for and loved simple things: cold minted lamb, salads, soufflés, stuffed aubergine. She didn't really have a sweet tooth.
Charles loved sweet things but he didn't like coffee, chocolate, nuts or garlic. Everything was based on what was in season in the garden. In asparagus season, I might serve it three or four times a week. You wouldn't dare serve asparagus or strawberries in December. He adored fresh pasta and sent me to work with some of the top chefs in Italy to learn how to make risottos and gnocchi. I did stints with the Roux brothers at Le Gavroche and Roger Vergé in Provence, so I could bring back new ideas to him.
When they ate together as a family, there were no special meals for the boys, just something everybody would eat. But when the Queen came for lunch, I cooked her roast pheasant.
Harry loved treacle tart when he was tiny. I used to make them the size of a 50p piece for him. One morning, he came into the kitchen before breakfast and asked for one. I said, "I think you best check with Mummy." So off he went, scampering back a few minutes later with a note Princess Diana had written: "Mummy says it's okay [below]." Diana loved those boys, they were her priority.
Harry's very caring and gentle. Even as a little boy, he'd always want to know how you were. But he's also a lot of fun. There was mischief in there as well. I think he'll be a fantastic father.
William adored chocolate biscuit cake and meringues. They loved coming into the kitchen and baking — a piping bag full of meringue and a brother to aim it at. When they were at Eton and had access to a kitchen, they'd come home on Sundays and want recipes for spaghetti bolognese or chicken kiev. I'd put biscuit cake and flapjacks in their tuck boxes.
I travelled with them on overseas tours. We had great fun on Britannia [the royal yacht]. Charles had his staples that travelled with him: breakfast stuff, boxes of special honey, sultanas, linseed, bottled Highgrove plums.
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When he broke his arm in 1990 [during a polo match] he went into hospital in Nottingham but life and meetings carried on. I set myself up in the hospital kitchen and cooked for him and guests who came to see him. Diana and the boys visited — Diana helping with the washing up, as she often did.
After they separated, I stayed with Charles until 2000. It was a tricky time. I wanted to do whatever I could to contribute any small comfort. Just to be there in the kitchen, when the boys would come in and out; we'd chat, have fun, and I'd make treats for them.
Working in the royal household is more than a job. It's days, nights, weekends, but I was young, single and could throw myself into it. I was 21 when I joined and 34 when I left. I felt as though one of my arms had been cut off. I was so used to having that pager attached to my belt.
In 1998 I met Bill [William Hootkins], an actor in Los Angeles, so we did the long distance thing for a while. At the start of 2005 I decided I wanted to give it a go, then Bill was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. We married in July that year and he died that October. Deirdre was amazing — she left her family for weeks to come to California and help me care for him. I wouldn't have got through it without her.
I'd always wanted children and explored the donor route with IVF. I got incredibly lucky. I was 43 when I had Lucy and 47 with Mandy. I never envisaged being a single parent. I wouldn't have made the decision without knowing Deirdre was there.
Her husband died in 2012. We lost our mother in 2013 and our father the following year. It was grim. Deirdre cared for all of them. She kept everything turning over. The only thing I think I've ever done to support her is providing meals and chocolate cake.
I was 14 when Carolyn was born. She was almost like my first baby because of our age gap, but it's lovely. When she was little, she'd say, "One day I'll cook for the Queen." Sure enough, she did.
We were very close from the outset. I lived in South Africa for years, where I trained and worked in psychiatry, mental health and occupational therapy. By the time I moved to the UK to work in physical rehabilitation and palliative care, I had three small children [she later had a fourth], and Carolyn became an amazing aunt.
It was a big step for someone so young, going to work for the royals. And she was going into a man's world. But I knew she was going to make a success of it. Carolyn is totally unflappable. She took recipes from our childhood and made them for Prince Charles. And I know the young princes loved her chocolate biscuit cake, which was Mum's recipe. William had a chocolate biscuit cake served at his wedding.
I lost my husband in 2012, but I was lucky to have 29 years with him. Then we lost our parents. Carolyn was a great support. There were always meals. I'd have probably given up eating if it hadn't been for her. Even now, I'll come round and a meal appears.
We don't live in each other's pockets, but we know what's going on in our lives. If I'm away, she looks after my dog; if she's away, I look after her children. We've talked about sharing a house one day. Carolyn is my left hand and my right hand, always there. Life might not have worked out quite as you hoped it might. You're not growing old with a dear husband. But you've still got family. That's irreplaceable.
Carolyn is more enterprising and brave than me. She's a stronger person because she's done so much off her own bat. I've never thought, "Carolyn can make biscuits better than I can," though I don't like cooking for her because she's so good and I'm so basic.
I know my life would have been a lot less special without her. She's done so much with her life, through tough times. I'm so proud of her.
Carolyn on Deirdre: She always carries a tape measure, Swiss army knife and Velcro in her handbag, ready for any repair or eventuality.
Deirdre on Carolyn: When she was little, she always had bit of paper to write things on, and to this day she always leaves you little notes, poems or limericks.
The Royal Touch, Simply Stunning Home Cooking from a Royal Chef, by Carolyn Robb, is out now. Visit theroyaltouch.com
Written by: Roya Nikkhah
© The Times of London