In 1997 the Restaurant Guild International declared Walter the Five Star Chef of the Year, making him the first African American to earn that distinction. He's been one of James Beard's Rising Stars, one of the Top Five Chefs in the Southeast, the Top Black Chef in America, and the Best Chef in the Triangle.
Chef Walter Royal is getting ready for a 500-person banquet. He also has to prepare for the nightly business of managing the acclaimed culinary offerings of the Angus Barn in Raleigh. You might think he'd be stressing. But not Walter.
He savors the sweet and the simple. Even with the high stakes job of being the executive chef at a destination restaurant, he appreciates that it's not about the fame or the ego that could be carried by an award-winning culinary pro. It's the simple things that matter, such as family, loving your job, and being there for people.
All those elements come together for Walter, who sees the Angus Barn management and staff as family. He'd rather stay there than take his reputation and strike out on his own. He truly values feeding people--with food, yes, but also with emotional support and knowledge.
Down to Earth
Walter smiles a lot. "We have to be happy," he says, "because the happier we are, the better example we set--especially when we're in the public eye."
That attitude has won the respect of a growing army of admirers even among foodies accustomed to dealing with high-powered talents. One Southern Living interviewer, for instance, remembers being impressed with how easy Walter was to talk to.
"I expected to meet this really self-important man who was too busy to take time out of his schedule because he was in charge of this major empire," says former Senior Writer Andria Scott Hurst. "But here came this big teddy bear kind of guy--so sweet, so charming, and funny."
But how do the folks who work with him every day feel about the chef? "Walter is very creative and a very good leader and teacher," says chef Betty Shugart, the kitchen manager who's been with the Angus Barn for 44 years. "All the employees are just crazy about him."
At Home in the Barn
The feeling is mutual. For instance, listen to his regard for "Miss Betty," whom he calls a mentor. "She has made my 11-year-tenure here wonderful," says Walter. "She has directed me through elegant cocktail parties and crazy football Saturday nights. This is something you don't learn in school; you don't get it from a book. You get it from working with a mentor. Regardless of how old we get, we can still learn from someone," he says.
"We're a huge restaurant, but it still has that ma-and-pa feel," Walter says. "It's important to me, because a lot of things are just so corporate and impersonal. When you work at a place where the owner is there working beside you, that helps you do your job better, manage your people better, and take care of your customers."
He credits owner Van Eure, who inherited the Angus Barn from her parents, with maintaining the atmosphere that has kept several employees at the restaurant for a quarter century and more. "I'm the rookie," Walter says.
A Generous Helping
The other thing you get from Walter--he believes in helping others. "I made it on the back of someone else," he says. "I should be a support to someone else, whether it's a new culinary person coming up or a person a little down on his luck." He mentors future chefs at the restaurant and also speaks to culinary schools. He raises money for causes ranging from mental illness to heart disease to cystic fibrosis. Walk for Hope, which Angus Barn sponsors, raises money for mental illness research, specifically for the Triangle community.
Walter's involvement in such endeavors comes naturally. His mother, who still lives in Alabama, suffers from heart disease, and before becoming a chef, Walter worked in a mental health facility, where he trained patients to develop job skills. "Thank God I had that psychology background," he says, laughing. "I use it every day."
He has no desire to move on. "I'm very happy where I am," he says. Wouldn't he like to own his own place? "I'm a part of something great," he adds. "Why should I have the whole thing on my shoulders when I have an incredible management team to work with?"
Still, maybe one day, he allows. "Some day I may want a little simple blues and jazz club with lighter fare," Walter says. "But that's 30 years down the road."
The Simple Life
Whenever he can, Walter likes to get back to the basics. "I love to garden," he says. Accompanied by his dog, Peggy, Walter raises herbs including oregano, mint, and basil, and recently, he planted fig trees. When he can get away, he goes fishing and spends time with his 4-year-old grandson.
But he'll tell you that a healthy portion of his time still revolves around food. "Most of all, I love sharing with people--knowledge, food ideas--whether it's having people over, talking to a high school group, or engaging a customer in the restaurant."
In the end the simple matter of generosity drives Walter--at home and on the job. "He wants everybody," says Andria, "to share in the goodness."
For more information visit www.angusbarn.com.
"A Royal Life In Raleigh" is from the January 2008 issue of Carolina Living, a special section in Southern Living for our subscribers who live in North Carolina.