Gary Robinson is 30 years old and displays the calm self-control that reveals a balance of reserve and curiosity. For four years now he has been head chef to Prince Charles, though he would never use such an informal form of address, preferring ‘His Royal Highness’, or possibly ‘The Prince of Wales’. Gary is in Italy for the weekend to learn about Piedmontese cuisine, particularly wine and truffles. While we enjoy a Langhe Rosso wine and a poached egg with truffles at the Osteria del Boccondivino in Bra, a story unfolds that can only begin with the words: Once upon a time in the Prince’s kitchen….
How do you become chef to the Prince? Is there training, an exam, a course?
No, it all happened by chance. Someone knew I was looking for work, and that the Prince was looking for a chef. So they called me.
But weren’t you stunned, weren’t you nervous? It’s like me being called to edit the Washington Post!
Sure, it was a very exciting moment. In fact, to tell the truth, when the call came through I thought it was a joke, I was going to hang up.
Had you had any contact with that kind of social circle before?
No, not at all, I’m just an ordinary person. I studied at Bournemouth College for 4 years, then I worked in six different restaurants over the next few years; then when I was 26 this offer came up. Which I accepted straight away, of course.
Where are you based for work?
I work with a team of three other chefs in St. James Palace in London and also at Highgrove in Gloucestershire. When the Prince moves, we go with him. Obviously he takes us with him when he travels too.
Doesn’t the Prince like to try foreign cuisine?
It depends: if we’re not in a hotel or an Embassy, we have to cook. On planes, for example, or when we were in Arabia, in tents.
What are his favorite dishes?
He loves Italian food: we cook a lot of pasta and risottos.
Where do the ingredients come from?
Mostly from the Prince’s organic farm, which produces fruit, vegetables, meat (chickens, rabbits, cows, sheep, goats…), milk and, recently, a type of cow’ milk cheese that won two prizes at the British Cheese Awards – for the best new cheese and the best soft cheese. When we have to buy food from elsewhere – for example if we have a large number of guests for lunch or when we buy dry pasta and rice – we only buy organic products. We rarely buy meat. Either we get it from our farms, or else it is usually game that is hunted in the woods.
What other foods do you produce?
Fresh pasta, bread, sweets and cakes, butter, salami, aromatic herbs … practically everything. All in season of course. If asparagus only grows here in July – then we don’t eat asparagus during the other months of the year.
These are sacred principles for the Prince of Wales: respect for seasonal produce, organic farming, healthy food. It’s his credo, it’s what he cares about most of all. He has always tried to run his home and bring up his children in this way.
As well as Italian food, what else does the Prince like to eat?
He likes to eat light meals. That’s why he prefers pasta. But he loves French cuisine too, which often – if it is done properly – is anything but light. So it’s up to me to take the basic ideas of French cooking and create dishes that he will enjoy.
You’re here because of the truffles. Does Charles like them?
He loves them. Absolutely. You can write that, he’s mad about them.
Had you worked abroad before you entered Royal service?
No: I began to attend short courses in foreign restaurants once I started working there. The Prince is very keen on training, and encourages us to travel the world and learn as much as possible.
Where have you worked in Italy?
At Pinchiorri in Florence.
How do you cope with the complicated court ceremonials and protocol? Did you learn straight away?
Court ceremonials are some of the first things we had to learn. From serving protocol, to how to address the people at table, according to whether they are members of the nobility or not. The strictest protocol is observed in the Queen’s home. Things are less formal where we are. Of course, when the Prince becomes King, that will change, but not for the moment.
Are you in charge of wine too?
No. I have my opinions on wine of course but someone else is in charge of the cellars and serving wine.
What are Charles’ tastes in wine?
He isn’t a great wine expert. His real passion is cooking; he’s less interested in wine. He likes the sweeter wines, like some German Traminers, but he lets himself by guided by others.
What do you think of English food traditions? Are there any?
Our chefs have concentrated on international or ethnic cuisine for decades. Today things are changing, there is a general tendency to revive local traditions, and the English are dusting off their own too. I could recommend about a dozen restaurants in London that make English dishes properly.
Yes, but most people wouldn’t know what to order. The only thing that springs to mind when we think of English food is tea!
You’re joking, but I can assure you that London is still the best place in the world to taste tea made as it should be. It’s a question of taste, but also setting and ritual. The best china and cutlery, the finest tableware. This is in all English homes, not just the Royal palaces. The English know how to make good tea, how to serve it, and what sort of cakes and sandwiches to serve with it. They know how to behave; the lady on the right of the hostess must pour the tea, and the lady on her left passes the cakes … It’s a ritual, this is a part of the tradition.
Going back to real English food: give me an example of a really English dish.
There’s a soup made with peas, ham and mint. That’s a classic. It may not easily appeal to modern tastes now, but you can make risotto with those ingredients. I did once, it turned out well. Is it an English dish? Yes, I think that combination of flavors is quintessentially English.
Of course I admit that England is not a gastronomical Mecca: you can still eat badly in restaurants there.
Do you ever get dishes wrong?
Well, I am lucky enough to have just one main client. I work for the same person every day, so I have come to understand his tastes and requirements perfectly. It’s a continual challenge, to maintain a high level of creativity within a series of rules to be respected. If there are foods he doesn’t like, then I don’t use them when I cook, or else I use them in moderation. He doesn’t like strong flavors: I can’t give him leek soup. But sometimes garlic is necessary, so I have to judge it perfectly, so that he will like the dishes. It’s a huge challenge and a serious commitment. If I had a restaurant, on a bad day when things don’t turn out right I might give the client a discount, or not charge him for the wine. Here I can’t do that, things have to be just right every day.
Where do you live?
It depends where he’s living. I have lodgings at St. James Palace, but home for me is a cottage at Highgrove. It’s just behind the kitchen, there’s a garden separating my house from the kitchen. So in the morning before I go into the kitchen I have a walk around the vegetable garden and see what there is, I’ll taste some fruit to see if it’s ripe, and think of possible combinations.
It doesn’t sound like a bad life.
It’s fantastic. The perfect combination of routine and the unexpected. Always the same client, as I said, but he isn’t just any client, so the challenges are endless.
Cinzia Scaffidi ([email protected]), a journalist, is one of the editors of the Slow Food web site
Photo of Gary Robinson at the Boccondivino in Bra
Translated by Ailsa Wood