A-list chef reveals all: millionaires who won’t chew and other bizarre foibles
Michael Harwood, private chef to celebrities and aristocrats, reveals the bizarre requests he caters to – from Beluga caviar for TV dinners to demands for blended Wagyu beef.
Private chefs gain access to privileged worlds through their cooking.
On his very first job as a private chef, Michael Harwood was flown to the south of France to cook for Lord Lloyd-Webber, whose French chef had quit in frustration. Lord Lloyd-Webber expected lavish meals for his influential guests – but could never be completely sure how many friends he might bring along.
To cope with the unpredictable number of diners, Harwood developed his career-long technique of cooking for multiples of 12. After all, as private chef to some of the wealthiest people in the world, Harwood could never tell his clients that there wasn’t enough food.
Throughout his 20-year career, Harwood has cooked for celebrities, aristocrats and royalty and catered to all variety of tastes. Some of the most bizarre requests include: blended wagyu beef so a millionaire in Monaco wouldn’t have to chew, £1,000 worth of Beluga caviar as a TV dinner and demands about the number of calories in one strawberry.
But aside from catering for odd orders, Harwood has gained access to some of the most lavish and exclusives homes in the world. Here’s what he’s learned.
Michael Harwood often cooks for incredibly wealthy – and demanding – clients
Aristocrats and royalty
As someone who grew up in a working-class home in Lancashire, Harwood fell in love with the eccentricities of the aristocratic world and cooked in country estates for several years. Inevitably, he came into contact with a few royal guests and has cooked at a St James’ Palace function.
“Prince William loves cottage pie – that’s well known. I know a chef who was at the Palace for a long time and the Queen and Duke eat very simply, because they spend so much time eating at state functions where all the stops are pulled out,” says Harwood. “It’s a generational thing – like my parents, they have a taste for well-cooked meat, they don’t eat a lot of garlic or pasta. But that’s from growing up in the war, not necessarily a reflection of the fact that she’s the Queen.”
At most country houses there was no supermarket available and Harwood would be given half a cow from a nearby estate and be told to turn it into dinner. In one house, sausages would be stored in 1950s thermos flasks to stay warm during hunts. And in another traditional home, a 94-year-old butler named Bert was bought out of retirement for special occasions. He had worked at the house for 80 years and, after the ladies had withdrawn to the dining room, would entertain the gentlemen with dirty jokes.
Often, Harwood would be asked to cater for a hunt. A typical day’s eating includes: breakfast with sausages, bacon, devilled kidneys, black pudding and eggs to order; flasks of consommé and slabs of fruit cake to eat on the hunt; lunch of beef stew and dumplings followed by steamed suet puddings with custard, cream and ice cream; afternoon tea with scones, sandwiches and fruit cake; dinner of beef consommé, sole meuniere, game, lemon posset, cheese course, and savouries such as mini Welsh rarebits.
Aristocrats don’t tolerate food idiosyncrasies, says Harwood. “There’s no such thing as vegetarianism among the genuine aristocracy,” he says. “You may not eat meat but it doesn’t merit a name. You just crack on and say ‘no thank you’ when the butler comes round with the beef.”
Wealthy businessmen, by contrast, have a far more tolerant attitude towards picky eating habits. These international millionaires are also more likely to hire Harwood for daily cooking instead of a special occasion – the chef has been asked to make foie gras and blinis for one.
Harwood says one Russian client in Monaco asked for plates of baby food. “He wouldn’t speak to me or look at me, but his personal translator told me that he didn’t like chewing. Nothing had been lost in translation – he wanted be to buy the best wagyu beef and puree it,” says the chef.
Another client, a well known interior designer, insisted on diagrams of how the food would be presented on the plate and would redraw plans several times before approving a layout.
Expensive ingredients are common and Harwood would regularly make £1,000 per-portion dinners for one couple in San Moritz, Switzerland. “Their favourite TV supper was baked potato with 200g of Beluga caviar on top,” he says.
Harwood also worked for one American family whose kids would beg for toad in the hole and complained where their dad suggested lobster or strip steak.
Harwood has written a novel with a butler as the protaganist – though the racy annecdotes in The Manservant are fictional
Many of Harwood’s clients have a team of nutritionists and will go from one extreme diet to the next – even switching from Atkins to vegan overnight.
In one house, a lady insisted on using a small side plate for all her food – but would pile up her helpings so that her plate was like the leaning tower of Pisa. Another woman refused to be served smaller portions and insisted on cutting her food in half every night – the butler would bring an empty plate and she would remove half her serving in front of the entire table.
Harwood has also served a single strawberry for dessert – and was then asked how many calories were in the fruit. “I just made up the answer,” says Harwood. “No one wants you to hesitate.”
Celebrities, says Harwood, tend to be fairly discreet about their dietary requirements and well-mannered. But the children of his wealthy clients can be outrageous divas.
“The fights between parents and children are the most vicious – “I hate you mum” and way worse,” says Harwood. “They do it as though you’re not there. I’ve seen a 12-year-old child fling his arm along a table filled with crockery and china – it all smashed on the floor. Of course he wasn’t punished.”
But despite the odd spat or ridiculous demand, there are more than enough perks to life as a private chef. Harwood has travelled to Cuba, Antarctica, Mexico, and the Marshall Islands with clients and, while working for one family, took helicopters more often than taxis. If you can’t make it as one of the rich and famous, then working as their chef is a close second.
Michael Harwood’s novel, The Manservant, is published by Kensington on February 24th, 2015
By Olivia Goldhill 04 Feb 2015