(This is a reporter's diary entry- style blog from Queen Elizabeth II's visit to Taj Coromandel in Chennai in 1997)
It was in mid-1997 that I had received a call one day, from The British Deputy High Commissioner to Chennai , Sidney H. Palmer, to come over to his office for a meeting. He did not indicate the context for the meeting. I quickly went across to his office, which was close to Taj Coromandel, where I was , at that time, posted as the General Manager. As it was not yet in the public domain, he informed me in confidence that Her Majesty The Queen of England was expected to visit Chennai sometime in October ; and the High Commission was eagerly looking for an appropriate hotel for her to stay for about three nights.
It was very exciting news. I told Sidney that the Taj would be extremely honoured to have Her Majesty stay at the hotel. After that, we had several meetings locally, followed by a site inspection by the then British High Commissioner, Sir David Gore- Booth. We were finally delighted to learn that Taj Coromandel was chosen for Her Majesty, Prince Philip and the Royal entourage’s upcoming stay.
As a General Manager, it was an awesome feeling and wonderful news but as a team we knew we had our task cut out for the next couple of months. The hotel had to undertake a huge renovation programme for Her Majesty’s visit, which included upgrading the Ballroom and several rooms and suites.
Regal Preparations for the Royalty's Arrival
It was a herculean task, knowing the limited time frame available, and taking into account work stoppages in a running hotel. We had to be completely ready to welcome The Queen by early October.
The hotel team worked tirelessly with the late Mrs Elisabeth Kerkar, who was the head of interior design, and the project team of The Indian Hotels Co Ltd- the parent company of The Taj to ensure that the renovations were completed in time. It was work at breakneck speed.
In my long career with hospitality, I have had the good fortune of serving, and taking care of heads of state, royalty , business tycoons, spiritual leaders and celebrities from almost all walks of life; but getting an opportunity to host The Queen at the hotel was way more unique and extraordinary. It was a rare honour.
As a pre- visit requirement, all frontline staff had to be thorough with the protocols of greeting Prince Phillip and The Queen. The women staff had to be trained to curtsey the right way, and male staff , the traditional gentle bow of the head. The staff also had to address her as “ Your Majesty “ , the first time that they were presented to The Queen ; and Prince Phillip had to be addressed as “Your Royal Highness”.
Setting the Table for Her Majesty
The ( Deputy ) High Commission was very helpful in guiding us with his valuable insights. Her Majesty was accompanied by her Ladies-in-waiting ; all of whom were of royal or aristocratic lineage ; and who had to attend to her , during various official engagements. Her entourage also had a battery of staff from the Royal Household , such as equerries , footmen , seamstresses , and a personal butler. It was a very different experience. A detailed brief was given to the culinary team , to familiarise them with , and prepare them for , the dining etiquette , and preferred dishes of Her Majesty.
The Chef at the hotel in those days, was a Mr K Natarajan. An extremely talented chef who kept a close watch on the different food requests from Her Majesty. Right from perfecting finger jam- sandwiches, scones and clotted cream at tea time; salmon and smoked cheese sandwiches which had their crusted sides paired off; an ample stock of English strawberry jam, and her favourite Earl Grey tea, from Fortnum and Mason, and Twinning.
The Queen Had Eclectic Culinary Choices
Since many of the English vegetables required, were not available in India as easily, we had to import the finest fresh asparagus, zucchini, strawberries, blue berries, cherries and red and yellow peppers from Netherlands. We also had to train select barmen to concoct her favourite cocktail: Dubonnet and Gin and Martini; the preferred drinks of The Queen, just in case...
The menu for the Banquet at the hotel was sent a few times to Buckingham Palace, before getting it approved. The highlights were the 'Asparagus Parfait Roquefort' with rocket green gram corn and pesto relish, Herbed Prawns with Morel Jus; Supreme of Chicken stuffed with roasted peppers and spinach served ( with ) Dijon chives and potatoes; and finished off with Orange-flavoured Mascarpone delice with croquant and berries.
The Queen Liked Her Tea Served to a Tee
One morning I got talking to her Royal Butler about the Tea service for Her Majesty. He said that she was very particular about her tea and the way it was served. He said that, "‘Her Majesty' likes to pour her own tea with a dash of milk. But I have to ensure I serve it very hot."
My several short moments over the time I had to escort her to her Suite and back were precious. She came across as a very gentle and kind lady, full of humility and grace. She had a bright smile and twinkle in her eyes, no matter how hectic her day had been. On one occasion, she said to me that she is very concerned about the inconvenience that she may be causing to staff and guests at the hotel on account of her stay. That I thought was so very thoughtful.
I shared with her that The Taj Group also runs the St James’s Court hotel, to which she said with a smile, "Oh yes! Is that the one close to where I live, and I think, Charles has been there a few times.’" "Indeed that’s the one Your Majesty," I replied.
You were a Queen loved by millions. Rest in Peace. And, my deepest Condolences to the Royal Family.
The author is the former Sr Vice President at Indian Hotels Co Ltd.