'Downstairs' at Government House

Karl Wells
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A visit with the very busy chef to Newfoundland and Labrador's lieutenant governor

It's not been my privilege to meet the Queen and it's a pretty safe bet that I never will. My Aunt Mabel met her once, in the late '50s. I remember being quite fascinated by a black-and-white picture of my aunt wearing a hat, white gloves, shiny dress and doing a curtsy before Her Majesty on the tarmac at Deer Lake Airport.

While Her Majesty and I have not exchanged niceties, I have met five of her vice-regal representatives in Newfoundland and Labrador: the honourables E. J. A. Harnum, F. W. Russell, A. M. House, E. M. Roberts and J. C. Crosbie.

Government House chef Jerome Smart (inset) in the kitchen. - Photos by Karl Wells/The Telegram

It's not been my privilege to meet the Queen and it's a pretty safe bet that I never will. My Aunt Mabel met her once, in the late '50s. I remember being quite fascinated by a black-and-white picture of my aunt wearing a hat, white gloves, shiny dress and doing a curtsy before Her Majesty on the tarmac at Deer Lake Airport.

While Her Majesty and I have not exchanged niceties, I have met five of her vice-regal representatives in Newfoundland and Labrador: the honourables E. J. A. Harnum, F. W. Russell, A. M. House, E. M. Roberts and J. C. Crosbie.

This doesn't trump meeting the Queen, but I have also visited her Newfoundland and Labrador house a number of times. Government House belongs to you, the people of this province, but technically it is the residence of Queen Elizabeth II, or Her Majesty's representatives. It is a lovely house.

On the main and upper floors, the rooms are stately and elegant. Magnificent pictures of the Queen, Prince Philip, Her Majesty the Queen Mother and King George VI, as well as impressive artworks embellish the walls. Chandeliers sparkle from high, decorated ceilings. Tasteful vintage and antique furnishings create an impression of timelessness.

Despite my numerous visits to Government House, there was one area of the building I had never seen - below stairs. That is, until recently. Having sought and received permission to write about the food service operation (below and above stairs) at Government House, I arrived at its west side door to be greeted by Chef Jerome Smart.

Smart is a tall, stocky, avuncular fellow who looked much younger than I had expected, in spite of his 12 years at the house. When we met he was wearing a light, short-sleeved summer shirt with a palm tree print. I didn't blame him for dressing casual. It was a very hot day.

Backstage

I should tell you that going below stairs, or backstage, to see what's behind the show curtain has always intrigued me. As I followed Smart down the stairs to the normally off-limits belly of Government House, I felt a twinge of excitement.

It smelled different, somewhat institutional - no doubt from the heavily painted white walls, the tile flooring, laundry facilities and storage spaces - where bits and pieces of unused furniture were kept.

One large room off the hospital-like corridor housed a huge, covered, antique billiards table, complete with cue sticks, balls and ancient, complicated looking wooden scoring machine. Above, on an end wall, was the mounted head of the most ferocious looking Bengal tiger. Just beneath the massive head was an inscription that simply said, "Bhopal 1930."

Smart didn't know how the tiger's head had been acquired. I suspect it was a gift offered up years ago when hunting Bengal tigers was perfectly legal. Doubtless the billiards room must have seemed the perfect spot for such a trophy. This was a room where time seemed to have stopped at the period when Newfoundland was on a course for economic ruin and Europe was heading down the road toward a conflict unlike anything ever witnessed.

Staring at the slightly disarrayed, mainly abandoned room, it was easy to imagine colonial governor Sir John Middleton (career civil servant) standing there and taking time between turns to admire the tiger's head. For Middleton, the ferocious head would have been a symbol of British strength, given the trophy's provenance - India, "Jewel in the Crown of the Empire."

The kitchen

At the end of the long, white, sterile corridor was the Government House kitchen. As soon as I saw the large room with its two wide worktables at centre, I thought of the 40-year-old British Edwardian drama series, "Upstairs Downstairs." I could picture Mrs. Bridges cutting up lobsters to make Lobster Thermidor for the Bellamys, or, perhaps, she'd be making her own version of Mrs. Beeton's, Peaches in Chartreuse Jelly for them. I wondered if Jerome Smart's responsibilities were similar to the famous Mrs. Bridges'. According to his answer, they were very similar indeed.

"I prepare and provide all the food at Government House. I buy all the groceries. I do all the cooking for the vice-regal couple and all their gatherings, as well as official functions, be they dinner parties for visiting dignitaries or yearly functions that we have at Government House for Red Cross, Easter Seals and so forth. Of course there's always the annual garden party. I prepare all the sandwiches, cookies and juices for that."

Unlike Upstairs Downstairs with its excess of servants, our Government House operates with a sparse but efficient in-house crew. Jerome works in the kitchen by himself. Government House also has three additional servers and a maintenance man.

Outside, of course, there's a small staff of government workers that looks after the grounds. Manicured lawns, flowerbeds and trees - many of which were planted by various members of the Royal Family - surround the building.

Dumb waiter

I'd noticed a dumb waiter in the stunningly beautiful main dining room of Government House. Smart told me the dumb waiter is an important part of the food service operation. For dinner parties, he prepares all the food in his well-equipped downstairs kitchen.

Then, from one of the three downstairs pantries, the food is loaded onto the waiter and hoisted by rope upstairs. The waiter has a second opening in the Cochrane Room, directly behind the dining room. The prepared food is unloaded into the Cochrane Room where it's plated and brought to waiting guests next door.

I've never been to a Government House "black tie" dinner but, according to Chef Smart, they really push out the boat.

"We always start off with hors d'oeuvres and then we go into a four-course meal. Generally speaking, we always stick to Newfoundland foods and Newfoundland themes. We use our local ingredients: our berries, our fish and local vegetables when we can get them, that type of thing."

By far the biggest Government House entertainment event that Jerome Smart is responsible for is the lieutenant governor's annual garden party, scheduled this for today. According to the Government House calendar of events, "Every resident of Newfoundland and Labrador and any visitor to the province is welcome to attend."

Now that's a guest list. It's no wonder Smart spends from May through July baking and freezing approximately 7,000 cookies for the annual festivity.

Two favourites

Over the years, two favourite garden party items have evolved from the many the chef prepares. In sandwiches (numbering about 2,800 small squares or triangles) it's the Government House egg sandwich. In the cookie lineup, it's the famous Government House lemon tart. I was told the tarts are so popular that within 15 or 20 minutes of the start of the party, they are all gone.

Before ending my visit with Smart I asked if he had ever had the pleasure of cooking for the Queen. He told me he had.

Several years ago, when Queen Elizabeth II was visiting St. John's, she and her husband Prince Philip stopped at Government House for tea. Jerome Smart prepared some of his cookies for Her Majesty, which, thankfully, she seemed to very much enjoy.

I'd bet dollars that those little lemon tarts were on the Queen's tray.

Organizations: Deer Lake Airport, A. M, Newfoundland and Labrador house Government House for Red Cross Queen's

Geographic location: Government House, Newfoundland and Labrador, Bengal Europe India St. John's

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