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: An image of David of Leeds, which was among a never-before-seen display of royal photos that went on display at Kensington Palace in July 2022. Image Released By: Historic Royal Palaces/PA
The Queen in Salford in 2000: An image of David of Leeds, which was among a never-before-seen display of royal photos that went on display 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 mourn her loss. Some of us were lucky enough to have met her during her 70-year reign, and I was one of them.

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

I turned up at Salford Quays in 1996 to see the site of The Lowry, on Manchester’s old, run-down docks. It was dark, creepy and creepy. A wet mist rose from the water on this cold and misty day, the area smelly, desolate and deserted.

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

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

The Lowry was to be home to the original artwork of LS Lowry. The plans looked as if a spaceship had descended from space and landed at Salford Quays. They got excited about it.

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

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

We talked about some well-known actors and some footballers and they put me 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 up and running!”

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I immediately called chef agencies, sponsors, and vendors, trying to get this organized as quickly as possible as the year 2000 approached.

The Palace quoted: “Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip are delighted to visit and officially open The Lowry in Manchester and dine in the ultra-modern new Steven Saunders restaurant at The Lowry.”

So there’s no pressure to host a royal lunch for around 50 people with Her Majesty The Queen, Prince Philip and VIP guests!

They gave me guidelines on what to cook and what not to cook, because Her Majesty had several engagements that day.

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

We came up with a menu featuring local lamb and I thought a crown of lamb sounded, well, royal. We began to doubt that everything was ready on time.

The day before the opening, we were sweeping the dust from the electrical installation of the kitchens that had just been finished.

Electricians were arguing, chefs were frantic, managers were stressed, and directors looked pale with fear.

The day of the inauguration arrived. I changed from my chef’s jacket to a suit and when I entered the reception area I could see tractors and bulldozers in the driveway. As the tractors rounded the corner, a black limo pulled up out front, like a scene from a sitcom. It was Her Majesty the Queen, a little early. In a panic, we formed a line to meet and greet the royals. We were stressed, but smiled with professional hospitality as she positioned me and waited for her entrance.

Prince Philip entered first, looked at the glass that encapsulated the building, and asked, “Who’s your window cleaner?” He was laughing and joking with the true character of Prince Philip, just as you imagined him to be. The queen did not seem amused.

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

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Steve Saunders.  Image: Keith Heppell
Steve Saunders. Image: Keith Heppell

In the greeting line, we were told how to address her as Your Majesty and then, Madam (rhymes with jam, they said).

The conversation at the table was mostly about the Lowry building, with Michael Wilford, the architect, answering many questions, but someone finally mentioned food.

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

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

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

My mind went blank for a second. I know it? Who was her son? Was he referring to Prince Charles (now King Charles)? Of course I did, but it seemed surreal and I couldn’t think straight.

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

She nodded approvingly. When lunch was over, she came over to me.

“Good luck with everything,” he said. “We like your cooking shows.”

Did the queen just admit she saw Ready Steady Cook? I’ll never know, but it sounded like this!

When the royal group left, the press was all over The Lowry. I was asked about my experience at lunch with the Queen. I told them that she liked my cooking shows and how warm and kind she was.

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

It was so warm that I felt inclined to hold her hand, but of course I didn’t.

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

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

“Guess who’s coming to dinner tomorrow?” my chefs said.

Who? I asked.

The chefs shouted loudly: “Only David Beckham!”

After lunch with His Majesty, it no longer seemed to matter.

“David who?” I said jokingly. “I hope you like the lamb because I have lots left over!”

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Queen Elizabeth Lamb Crown Herb Crusted Cranberry Juice (serving 4)

'Crown of Lamb' by Steven Saunders, who cooked for the Queen and Prince Philip (59372343)
‘Crown of Lamb’ by Steven Saunders, who cooked for the Queen and Prince Philip (59372343)

Ingredients

4 racks of British lamb with 4-bone French garnish

for the marinade

  • Olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 1 tablespoon ground ginger
  • 1/4 lemon in juice
  • maldon salt

For the herb crust

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

Method

  • Trim the fat from the racks of lamb.
  • Mix the lemon juice, ginger and garlic for the marinade and add a little olive oil. Cover the lamb with the marinade and leave it in the fridge for several hours.
  • In a dry skillet, toast the dry spices over medium heat.
  • Crush them coarsely with a mortar or pestle or use a food blender.
  • Now mix the spices with the coriander and basil and add the softened butter. Beat the mixture and mix it with the breadcrumbs. Place the crust on a piece of parchment paper and spread it thinly with a spatula, enough for four grids. Put in the fridge to cool down and set.
  • Heat a little olive oil in a thick-bottomed pan, add the marinated lamb ribs and seal over a high heat until they acquire a good color on the outside.
  • Transfer the lamb to a baking sheet and cut the crust from the refrigerator to fit each rack.
  • Place in a preheated oven at 190°C and roast the lamb for 10 minutes.
  • Remove and let rest for a few minutes and before serving return to the oven for three minutes.
  • Cut the racks into chops with a sharp knife to keep the crust intact.
  • Serve over wilted spinach with roasted new potatoes and a rich lamb gravy. I finished the gravy juice with fresh blueberries, but this is optional. Her Majesty loved the fresh mint sauce, which is delicious with it. This is a truly luxurious meal ideal for a special occasion.