I Was a Chef for the Powerful, from Queen Elizabeth to President Bush

"Bush loved to throw Texan barbecue parties and was maniacally obsessed with security,” says chef Enrico Derflingher.

17 giugno 2021, 9:53am

This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.

Today I learned: when world leaders meet for official events in Europe, organisers often call chefs from an association called Euro Toques to take care of the food.

Founded by French chefs Paul Bocuse and Pierre Romeyer in 1986, the organisation is committed to safeguarding European culinary traditions and good-quality food, gathering sympathetic chefs from across the continent to make up its membership.

The current president, chef Enrico Derflingher, has been feeding the powerful for over 30 years. Born in Lecco, on the shores of northern Italy’s famously scenic Lake Como, Derflingher was catapulted into the kitchens of Buckingham Palace at just 26 years old. 

“After graduating from hospitality school, I started working for luxury five-star hotels and Michelin-starred restaurants,” Derflingher says over the phone.

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One day, he saw an advert in the newspaper seeking applicants for a catering job at London’s Italian Embassy. “I arrived in London and was told I’d start working as a chef in the kitchens of the royal household the very next day. They didn’t tell me that before,” he says. Twenty-four hours later, Derflingher was briefly taken through royal private chef etiquette, just in time to be picked up in a car sent by Buckingham Palace.

Derflingher during the years he worked for the royals.

During his time working for the Royal Family, Derflingher says, he was in charge of supervising Buckingham Palace’s eight official kitchens while respecting antiquated rules and indulging extravagant requests.

“We were required to prepare menus not only for events, but for every day of the week,” he explains. “I did the menu every Monday morning, so it was available for everyone, including Princess Diana. I was based at Kensington Palace, where Prince Charles [and Diana] lived.”

Long before food miles were a thing, the royals insisted that most of their produce be sourced from the family’s estates. “Prince Charles in particular loved horticulture, and paid a lot of attention to what was served,” says Derflingher. “The butter came from their cows, the game from hunting trips and the vegetables from the vegetable gardens.”

Derflingher (right) WITH CHEF PAUL BOCUSE. THE TWO WERE CLOSE FRIENDS.

According to Derflingher, the Queen exercises trademark restraint and formality in her food choices – no requests for pizza at 10AM, or for extravagant midnight snacks. The culinary life at the Palace was punctuated by meals scheduled down to the millisecond. “At midday, they have a quick bite, then there’s the 5 o’clock tea. Soon thereafter, they have an aperitif, and at one minute to 8PM, the Queen sits at the table,” he says.

When the Queen gets up from the table, everyone has to get up – that’s the rule. If you aren’t done when you hear her chair move, you quickly swallow your last bite and suck it up. Derflingher also confirms the rumours that the queen enjoys a glass of whisky, just like her mother. Back then, her favourite was the Lagavulin Scotch, a Scottish malt whisky that had the royal seal of approval until 2010. “They had special bottles for the royals,” says Derflingher. The Queen is also into gin, and has reportedly created her own drink with botanicals from the garden.

But not all royals are this measured in their culinary choices. “As kids, Prince Harry and William often wanted pizza, hamburgers and spaghetti with meatballs,” says Derflingher. Other family members requested much more extravagant meals on a daily basis: strawberries in January, rhubarb ice cream – apparently a favourite among the little ones – and chocolate fountains à la Richie Rich.

“Speaking of personal taste, Prince Charles loved filled pasta like ravioli and lasagne, while Diana liked spaghetti,” says Derflingher. “The Queen enjoyed lamb or beef with salad.” 

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Another one of the rules all staff members had to respect was that they couldn’t speak to the royals unless they were spoken to first. Once, the Queen asked Derflingher to the dining room, where she was having a meal with guests, to complement his risotto. “She asked what I wanted as a thank you gift, and I requested a copper pan with Queen Victoria’s emblem,” he says.

The story of how George H. W. Bush stole Lady Di's chef made the front page of the Daily Mirror.

The British royals aren’t the only powerful people chef Derflingher has fed – he’s also cooked at innumerable state dinners in Italy, and in various embassies. In 1989, he was effectively poached by US president George H. W. Bush to work at the White House. “Charles always bragged about me and my cooking,” says Derflingher. “Once, I was cooking for an event in London with George H. W. Bush, Ronald Reagan and Gorbachev. President Bush wanted me at all costs, so I left for the White House.”

Derflingher says the atmosphere in the US was totally different from that of his British workplace. “The royal formalities were replaced by the president’s informality. He loved to throw Texan barbecue parties for 50 people in the garden, and was maniacally obsessed with security,” he says . For example, if the president had to go to the bathroom, he’d write that down on a piece of paper. The message was then given to the head of security, who would check if the bathroom was safe.

“Of course, being in a powerful place like that, you feel like you’re part of history,” says Derflingher, explaining that he was once asked to cook an impromptu dish for the president as he weighed up whether or not to start the first Gulf war. 

After heading up such high-stakes kitchens, Derflingher decided to open Hotel Eden in Rome, where he worked for nine years, hosting powerful clients like Margaret Thatcher and his former employer’s son, President George W. Bush. After that, he went to the Palace Hotel in the Swiss Alpine resort of St. Moritz, and then to Japan, where he opened and managed 30 eateries, including the Armani Restaurant in Tokyo’s Ginza Tower.

Now, he’s now working on an “ambitious project” in China, which will involve catering services and multiple Italian cooking schools.

Tagged:

CHEFS, The White House, VICE International, VICE Italy, rich people, Princess Diana, Buckingham Palace, Queen Elisabeth

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