It’s A Sweet Life for Executive Chef David Dodd
Writer // Janelle Morrison Photography // Submitted
If you ever met him on the street, you would never know that one of Carmel’s own, Chef David H. Dodd, MBE, CEC, CCE, has a rich history of creating culinary masterpieces for members of the British royal family and has fed numerous military and other historical figures over the decades. Dodd, a brilliant master of the culinary arts, is as humble as they get.
Dodd resides in Carmel with his wife, Denise, and travels to Louisville, Kentucky, where he is the executive director for Sullivan University’s National Center for Hospitality Studies. Dodd’s complete life story is a fascinating biography all in all, but the part of his story on how he got started, what his life was like as a young British man—post World War II—and how he landed the coveted post as royal cake designer for Princess Anne’s wedding cake in 1973 is what captivated me the most.
Dodd was raised by his mother, grandmother and aunts in Portsmouth, England. His father left when Dodd was only 2 years of age. He recalled playing in the ruins as a young boy, as his town suffered significant damage from air raids during the war.
“A lot of Portsmouth was derelict,” Dodd shared. “There were damaged houses and such, but for 9- and 10-year-old boys, it was a playground like you wouldn’t believe. My father left when I was 2, and so I was brought up by my grandmother, my aunts and my mother. At the age of 13, my mother remarried. I didn’t [get on] with that individual, so in 1958, at age 15, I decided to leave home.”
Dodd’s school guidance counselor suggested Dodd explore his passion for the arts, which led Dodd into a government-sponsored apprenticeship in London for three years. Afterward, Dodd began his military career with the British Army.
“At the age of 17, I ‘woke up,’” Dodd shared. “I thought that I’d better start to do something, so when I left the apprenticeship, I moved straight into the army and loved it. I had everything I needed: comradeship, friendship and travel. It was great.”
Dodd married his first wife at a young age and needed his mother’s permission to do so.
“I could go into battle, but I couldn’t get married until I was 21 without her [mother’s] permission,” Dodd recalled. “That was a whole other battle.”
A year into his marriage, Dodd was drafted overseas to Yemen (formerly Aden), which was a British protectorate at that time.
“There was nothing there [Yemen],” Dodd said. “No wife. No nothing. Just the desert and a lot of people that didn’t want us there.”
An injury brought Dodd back to England to a military hospital in Catterick, where he was assigned chef/kitchen duties while he recovered. Dodd’s first wife joined him there.
The next two years of Dodd’s life led him to working directly for General Gordon Upjohn and his wife at their home at Scotten Hall, where he not only rose up in military rank but also gained invaluable experience as head chef and “soufflé king.”
“I had two years with the general and his wife,” Dodd said. “Her ladyship taught me so much about food, and [in] those two years, I made dinner for all sorts of people, including the King of Sweden and Duke of Edinburgh.”
When General Upjohn retired, he sat with Dodd to discuss his next assignment. The general had a friend, General Sir John Hackett, who needed a chef. Hackett was appointed command of the British Army of the Rhine and parallel command of NATO’s Northern Army Group in 1966.
“He [Hackett] was a very well-known and brilliant general,” Dodd said. “He was something else.”
Dodd was assigned to General Hackett’s staff, which included managing the general’s kitchens, including all his residences, his plane, boat and personal train cars. Dodd’s first wife and first born moved to Rheindahlen, Germany, to be with Dodd during this assignment.
Upon General Hackett’s retirement, Dodd was once again asked where he would like to be reassigned. Dodd suggested Hong Kong, but the general felt that Dodd’s talents would be lost in Asia and recommended that Dodd go back to school and become certified to be a culinary instructor.
Dodd and his family moved back to England, where he became the youngest instructor at the British Army’s culinary school. He began competing during this time, which caught the attention of Chef Jack Owens, a chef renowned throughout Europe.
“Chef [Jack] was the most difficult person in the world to work for,” Dodd stated. “He wasn’t arrogant. He was past that. He took off to the side after a competition and said, ‘You know, you have some natural talent, but you have no clue what you’re doing.’ I said, ‘You are probably correct, sir.’”
According to Dodd, Owens offered to train and privately instruct Dodd in the evenings, which Dodd wisely accepted. Four years later, Dodd received his certification, equivalent to a master’s degree in the U.S.
After more than 20 years in the British Army, Dodd received his Master Chef and Master Pastry Chef Diplomas from the City and Guilds of London Institute, in addition to numerous awards, titles and other accolades. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II awarded Dodd membership to the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for his laudatory services to the culinary profession as well.
The Royal Wedding Cake
Having caught the attention of Queen Elizabeth II, after designing and creating cakes for other members of the royal family, including a military-themed birthday cake for a then young Prince Andrew, it came to pass that Dodd was selected out of numerous pastry chefs to design and create the royal wedding cake for Princess Anne.
Dodd was given two weeks, from the time he was alerted that he had been selected by the head of the Royal Household, to create designs and present them to the queen.
“I took the design to Buck House [Buckingham Palace], and the only thing that the queen did not like about any of the drawings were these two small bells with a ribbon that I put on the top tier,” Dodd shared. “She [the queen] said, ‘It’s a little twee.’ I’ve never really figured out what twee really means, but it’s sort of a ‘We don’t think that we’re going to have that.’ So, I put the couple’s initials at the top instead.”
The royal cake designs, as well as Dodd’s work, were top secret, and extravagant measures were taken to keep the design from leaking to the press. The only reason there is a video and photographs of the princess’s cake is because Dodd hid a camera in his wastebasket. He understood the historical importance this cake represented and wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to document his experience to share with generations on down the road.
The only visitor who was granted permission to visit Dodd was his former mentor, Chef Jack Owens. Owens was battling cancer at that time and was no longer working.
“He came the day before we moved the cake to Buck House,” Dodd recalled. “He came in with a colonel whom he was going to have lunch with that day. He said, ‘I thought I’d stop by and look at the cake if I can.’ I opened the blue velvet-lined English oak boxes that were made specifically for the cake. He started at the large end of the cake and walked down. He didn’t look at me but at the colonel and said, ‘Should we go for lunch?’”
A dumbfounded Dodd just stared at Owens as he started toward the door to leave.
“He walked to the door,” Dodd said. “He turned around and said, ‘Oh, by the way, you’ve done nothing to be ashamed of.’ That was the last thing he ever said to me.”
The day of the wedding, Dodd arrived, via escort, at Buckingham Palace to construct the five-tiered cake early in the morning.
“I went down to see the princess off,” Dodd said. “She came down that long staircase, and she was beautiful.”
After 20 years of service to the British Army and members of the royal family, then Sergeant Major David Dodd of the Army Catering Corps retired from the military, and another exciting chapter began for him.
Life Across the Pond
Dodd was selected to head up the first-ever culinary arts team for the U.S. Army in 1975. He went to Fort Lee, Virginia, where one of his first students, the late Walter Rhea, went on to become a director at Sullivan University. Rhea would later convince Dodd to come to the university to teach.
Dodd founded the university’s Lexington Culinary Campus in 2005 and has led the National Center for Hospitality Studies as executive director since 2014.