At 3:10 in the afternoon, two hours before the guests are to begin arriving, Edward Griffiths rides the giant service elevator down to the basement kitchens in Buckingham Palace.
A serious man, a perfectionist really, Griffiths leaves nothing to chance. In this home where the "Boss," as some refer to her in the hallways, is Queen Elizabeth II, Griffiths is the deputy master of the household, and tonight he has yet another party to pull off.
As Griffiths, a blue kerchief perched in the pocket of his pinstriped suit, walks into the pastry kitchen, three chefs in white hats and aprons are squirting homemade raspberry jam on sugary lines of macaroons.
Head chef Mark Flanagan runs down the canape schedule. To serve the Scottish salmon at precisely 6 p.m., the silver trays must depart from here at 5:50 p.m. It takes a full 10 minutes to walk from the basement kitchens to the drawing rooms in this 829,000-square-foot home with 775 rooms.
After the perfect little folds of salmon, the roast beef with pickled ginger and other hot canapes will begin their ascent, followed by the dessert made from berries grown at Balmoral Castle -- another of the Boss's little retreats.
Tonight, the guests are a few hundred Americans working and living in Britain.
"Foreign people expect something English," Griffiths says of the food. "One would not try to emulate what they do better in their own countries."
'Important to be self-critical'
As one of the palace's 350 clocks chimes 3:30, Griffiths speaks in his resolutely calm voice about putting guests at ease: "People who come here might feel nervous or unsure about etiquette. It's built up to be more than it is."
Yet the buildup and planning are intense. The date was selected last year, the palace research team put together a guest list, and then elaborate invitations were mailed.
Now, shortly before the guests will arrive, Griffiths speaks like a general in the battlefield about "seamlessly" moving hundreds of people through various drawing rooms and toward the queen's gloved hand. Even a 30-second pause in the receiving line "is not tremendously welcome," he says.
If there is a gaffe, it will be reviewed in the morning. After every event there is a morning "wash-up meeting," where any flaw or particular success is analyzed. Along with praising staff, says Griffiths, "it is also important to be self-critical."
It's 4 p.m. as he walks past impressive shelves filled with giant shiny copper pots. One dates to the era of Queen Victoria, who took the throne in 1837. On another kitchen shelf is a big box of Quaker Oats.
"So does the queen come down to these kitchens in the middle of the night in her slippers to get a snack?" Griffiths is asked.
While others in the kitchen laugh at the thought, he ignores it. For Griffiths, discretion is as instinctive as drawing breath. He won't discuss the queen's personal habits, most certainly not what she does or does not do in her slippers. He won't even divulge his age. "In my 50s," is as expansive as he gets.
Another staff member quietly adds that if the queen needs a snack, the palace's private living quarters have a separate kitchen.
At 4:15 p.m. Griffiths is back upstairs checking on the barmen putting wineglasses on a long table covered in white linen. A housekeeper is running the vacuum over the plush carpets in the White Drawing Room, where the queen will greet the guests.
He gives a last minute look at the new photographic exhibit assembled just for tonight: photographs of the 80-year-old queen with nearly every U.S. president since Harry Truman, all blown up to life size.
Extra police are assembling outside to check cars and guests coming through the famous front gate, where millions of tourists have stood to watch the Changing of the Guard. Inside, out of the public glare, Griffiths works with a household staff of 400, including people with job titles such as yeoman of the royal cellars, sergeant footman and fendersmith (responsible for mending the metal fenders in front of fireplaces).
Before Griffiths took this job six years ago, he worked in hotels and restaurants, where he says his duties were also "about excellence in service and attitude."
There are differences, though. In hotels and restaurants there is always a bit of guesswork about who and how many will show up. At Buckingham Palace, there are no surprise guests. For one thing, he says, that makes it easier to order the groceries.
With this night's invitations instructing people to arrive between 5:15 and 5:50, the first guests are at the door just as it opens. Most of Griffiths's work is done, but he watches from the wings.
"I'm here certainly until the last guest leaves," he says, before greeting Prince Andrew in the hallway and walking away into the endless draped rooms of the palace.