Butler Who Served British Royals Opens Manhattan School
Classes focus on culinary, laundry and household cleaning essentials.
Butler Christopher Ely has done it all: served dinner to the queen at Buckingham Palace, brushed the bearskin atop a royal guard's helmet, sat on a carriage carrying Princess Diana.
On Friday, the former royal footman will watch from afar as Prince William and Kate Middleton are married — festivities hosted by the palace where he once took care of the tiniest details. These days, Ely has plenty of multitasking to do in America.
After decades of service to royalty, Hollywood celebrities and diplomats, the 48-year-old master butler is opening a Manhattan school to teach genteel old British ways — updated for 21st-century New York. "I really want to revolutionize service," he says, adding with a grin, "Some people are clueless — not very organized." Ely's series of weeklong courses are part of estate management studies at The French Culinary Institute in Manhattan. Three classes start in mid-May: culinary essentials, laundry essentials, and essentials of household cleaning and organization. The first two cost $1,995 each, and the cleaning class $1,750.
Some students already are professionals, but are coming "to up their game," Ely says. "My employers love to entertain their family and friends, and in order to enhance that, the meal should be carefully planned and executed — from the menu choice to the flowers and background music," says Deborah Smit, emailing from her employers' yacht in the Virgin Islands.
She says she wants to learn more skills: accommodating guests with food allergies and preparing picnics of healthy food for children. In addition to working at their Hawaii home, she's first mate and chef on Tom and Donna Johnson's 74-foot catamaran Bella Donna, which has sailed the world from the Greek islands to the South Pacific. Smit's aim in taking the culinary essentials course is "sourcing, selecting, and preparing fresh produce, wherever you may find yourself." The idea for Ely's school came from Dorothy Cann Hamilton, founder and CEO of The International Culinary Centers in New York and California, which include the institute. "European countries have trained household managers, personal assistants, butlers and the like for decades, but in the United States, high-quality training options for professional home personnel has been limited," says Hamilton. "Given our tireless workdays, electronic overload, and competing demands for time, the need for a contemporary version of the English butler is needed." Ely, a proper Englishman, navigates the wired world while neatly dressed in a dark suit and tie. As he sets a table, he lifts a glass to the light to make sure it's spotless; he always uses a cloth. "You don't want fingerprints on anything."
But he also teaches techniques for a fast-food world, he says, because he's asked questions like: "If you drop a pizza, how do you clean the carpet?" At his suburban home, "I drive myself crazy," he says, testing soaps for washing clothing and linens. Then comes the ironing. "It's the steam that does it, not the heat." He plugs in his iron at the ceiling, so the cord stays out of the way. Ironing is a dying art. But the butler bristles at the thought of mass-laundering shirts using chemicals. "They come out stiff, and not totally ironed."
Ely learned the fine points of pressing, and beyond, at Buckingham Palace. Early in his career, he was handed a unique ironing challenge: the huge, rumpled, gold-braided coat of an Arab emir. During a visit by French dignitaries, a woman in the group went outdoors wearing delicate suede shoes. Even Ely couldn't save them. "I scraped off the mud, but ...," he says with a laugh. He also can remove blood stains from cotton with meat tenderizer.
Ely started working for the Windsors at 18 as a footman and stayed for four years. He'd studied food service, French cuisine and housekeeping at Thanet Technical College in Kent,
England. While working as a restaurant waiter, his skills were noticed by a man who was friendly with a royal employee. Ely performed just about every household chore at the palace in London, the countryside Windsor Castle and wherever he traveled with the royal family.
In 1983, he first visited the United States with Queen Elizabeth, sailing on the Royal Yacht
Britannia along the California coast. The next year, he moved to the United States.
He's also endured some distasteful duties. He had to testify publicly in New York about his late employer, philanthropist Brooke Astor.
When her son Anthony Marshall was charged with stealing millions of dollars from his mother, who suffered from Alzheimer's, Ely was grilled about the pair's relationship. Marshall was convicted of grand larceny in 2009 and sentenced to one to three years in prison; he's free on appeal. Normally, says Ely, a butler's duty is "to protect, be discreet, not tell your doorman what just happened." Nowadays, he teaches others the ever-changing, and never-ending work of a butler and his staff, from making beds to gardening and pet care.
This perfectionist executes each task with pride and precision. Some routines befit a privileged life — like a man having his clothing laid out: Trousers are draped
over a chair seat, with shirt folded on top, unbuttoned, cuff links attached. Undergarments are stacked next, then shoes to the side, with socks placed over them. Several ties are left to choose from. Ely says it takes the same basics to run a home, whether wealthy or working-class. For instance, soft old cheesecloths and used toothbrushes still are good for "spit-shining" shoes. And the butler says you don't have to spit. "If you don't know how to do something, you have to find someone who does," he says. After three decades in service, "I'm still learning. And I hope I learn something new from my students.
"Copyright Associated Press / NBC New York
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