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The day I cooked a crown of lamb for the Queen





Celebrity chef Steven Saunders fondly remembers cooking for Her Majesty the Queen at the opening of The Lowry, Manchester. He cooked a ‘crown of lamb’ for the royal party.

The Queen in Salford in 2000 - a picture by David from Leeds, which was among an exhibition of never-seen before royal photos that went on show at Kensington Palace in July 2022. Image released by: Historic Royal Palaces/PA
The Queen in Salford in 2000 - a picture by David from Leeds, which was among an exhibition of never-seen before royal photos that went on show at Kensington Palace in July 2022. Image released by: Historic Royal Palaces/PA

With the sad passing of Her Majesty the Queen, the nation and the world is mourning her loss. Some of us were lucky enough to have met her over her 70-year reign, and I was one of them.

She touched my heart like she touched millions of others. I cooked for the Queen a few times but I first had the pleasure of cooking for her at the launch of The Lowry in Salford Quays, Manchester, which was a millennium project.

I turned up in Salford Quays in 1996 to look at The Lowry site, at the old run-down Manchester Docks. It was dark, spooky, and eerie. A damp mist rose from the water on this cold foggy day, the area smelled foul and was bleak and deserted.

“We are going to build a monument for Lowry here,” I was informed. I imagined a statue of Lowry himself but instead they showed me plans for a multi-million pound building.

“But there is no one here,” I said. “Not a chimney pot, not a soul Why don’t you invest the money into Manchester town centre?’ I asked.

The Lowry was going to be the home for the original works of art from L S Lowry. The plans looked as though a spaceship had beamed down from space and landed in Salford Quays. They enthused about it.

“The Paris Royal Opera Ballet are going to perform here and many well-known actors and celebrities are already booked for the live theatre. We want you to run the restaurants,” they said.

I sat in a boardroom discussing who might open the Lowry for us. We all loved the idea of the Queen but we also accepted that it was unlikely.

We discussed some well-known actors and some footballers and I was put on the spot to recommend someone. But a few weeks later we received a letter from the Palace confirming that Her Majesty the Queen would be delighted to open The Lowry.

We looked at each other in disbelief and said: “Wow, now we really have to get this show on the road!”

I immediately called chef agencies, sponsors and suppliers, trying to pull this together as quickly as possible as the year 2000 loomed.

The Palace quoted: “Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip are delighted to be visiting and officially opening The Lowry in Manchester and dining at the new ultra-modern restaurant Steven Saunders at The Lowry”

So, no pressure to pull off a royal lunch for about 50 people with Her Majesty the Queen, Prince Philip and VIP guests!

I was given guidelines as to what, and what not, to cook because Her Majesty had several engagements that day.

Small portions, no strong flavours, no rich sauces, no garlic, no onions, no shellfish, and only well-cooked meat, were all on the list.

We came up with a menu using local lamb and I thought that a crown of lamb sounded, well, royal. We started to doubt that everything would be ready in time.

The day before opening, we were sweeping up dust from the fitting of the electrics in the kitchens which had only just been completed.

The electricians were arguing, the chefs were frantic, the managers were stressed and the directors looked pale white with fear.

Opening day arrived. I swapped my chef’s jacket for a suit and as I walked into the reception area I could see tractors and diggers in the driveway. As the tractors moved around the corner, a black limousine pulled up at the front, like a scene from a sit com. It was Her Majesty the Queen, a little bit early. Panic-stricken, we formed a line to meet and greet the royals. We were stressed but we smiled in professional hospitality fashion as I slid into position and awaited their entrance.

Prince Philip walked in first, looked up at the glass that encapsulated the building and asked “Who is your window cleaner?” He was laughing and joking in true Prince Philip character, just as you imagined he would be. The Queen didn’t seem amused.

I sat at the lunch table a few places away from Her Majesty. We were briefed not to mention certain things and to answer her questions but not to ask any.

Steven Saunders. Picture: Keith Heppell
Steven Saunders. Picture: Keith Heppell

In the greeting line, we were told how to address her as Your Majesty then afterwards, ma’am (it rhymes with jam they said).

The table conversation was mainly about the Lowry building, with Michael Wilford the architect answering lots of questions, but someone eventually mentioned food.

“Are you the chef?” the Queen asked me. “Yes ma’am, I am.”

“Well, jolly good lamb, where did you get it?” she asked. I explained that we had bought it from a small organic Cheshire farm.

“My son is passionate about organic, do you know him?’ she asked.

My mind went blank for a second. Do I know him? Who was her son? Did she mean Prince Charles (now King Charles)? Of course she did, but it seemed surreal, and I couldn’t think straight.

“Yes, of course Ma’am,” I replied. “He is patron of The Soil Association, and his Duchy work is a great inspiration to us all.”

She nodded in an approving way. When lunch finished, she approached me.

“Good luck with everything,” she said. “We like your cookery shows.”

Did the Queen just admit to watching Ready Steady Cook? I will never know, but it sounded like it!

When the royal party left, the press were all over The Lowry. They asked me about my experience at lunch with the Queen. I told them how she liked my cookery shows and how warm and friendly she was.

To be honest I was taken aback a bit because I think we all had expected the Queen to be a bit …formal, but she was quite the opposite.

She was so warm that I felt the inclination to hold her hand, but didn’t, of course.

“She is like everyone’s grandmother, she creates an air of properness and decency,” I told them.

My first meeting with Her Majesty the Queen had made a massive impression on me. I felt warm inside and all sort of proper and professional as I walked back into my kitchen.

“Guess who’s in for dinner tomorrow?” my chefs said.

“Who,” I asked?

The chefs shouted out loud: “Only David Beckham!”

After lunching with Her Majesty, it didn’t seem to matter anymore.

“David who?” I said jokingly. “I hope he likes lamb because I’ve got loads left over!”

Queen Elizabeth’s Crown of Lamb with herb crust and blueberry jus (serves 4)

Steven Saunders' ‘Crown of Lamb', which he cooked for the Queen and Prince Philip (59372343)
Steven Saunders' ‘Crown of Lamb', which he cooked for the Queen and Prince Philip (59372343)

Ingredients

4 x 4-bone French-trimmed British lamb racks

For the marinade

  • Olive oil
  • 1 tbsp of crushed garlic
  • 1 tbsp of crushed ginger
  • 1/4 lemon juiced
  • Maldon salt

For the herb crust

  • 1 tbsp of cumin seeds
  • 1 tbsp of coriander seeds
  • 1 tbsp of fennel seeds
  • 2 tbsp of fresh coriander finely chopped
  • 2 tbsp of fresh basil finely chopped
  • 4 tbsp of unsalted butter softened
  • 2 tbsp of breadcrumbs or panko crumbs
  • Some fresh blueberries to finish
  • 250ml of lamb gravy
  • Spinach and new potatoes optional
  • Fresh mint (small bunch)
  • Maldon salt

Method

  • Trim off any fat from the lamb racks.
  • Mix together the lemon juice, ginger and garlic for the marinade and add a little olive oil. Coat the lamb with the marinade and leave in the fridge for several hours.
  • In a dry frying pan, toast the dried spices over a medium heat.
  • Crush them coarsely with a pestle and mortar or use a food blender.
  • Now mix the spices with the coriander and basil and add the softened butter. Cream the mixture together and mix in the breadcrumbs. Spoon the crust on to a piece of greaseproof paper and spread it out thinly with a spatula - enough for four racks. Put in the fridge to chill and set.
  • Heat some olive oil in a heavy-based frying pan, add the marinated lamb racks and seal over a high heat until the outside is well coloured.
  • Transfer the lamb to a baking tray and cut the crust from the fridge to fit each rack.
  • Put in a preheated oven at 190°C and roast the lamb for 10 minutes.
  • Remove and leave to rest for a few minutes and before serving return to the oven for three minutes.
  • Carve the racks into cutlets using a sharp knife so that you keep the crust intact.
  • Serve on some wilted spinach with some roasted new potatoes and a rich lamb gravy. I finished the gravy jus with fresh blueberries but this is optional. Her Majesty loved fresh mint sauce, which is delicious with it. This is a really luxurious meal ideal for a special occasion.


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