In the glittery expanse that is the Angus Barn, with its three kitchens, its famous wine cellar, its second floor bar lined with turkey shaped whiskey decanters, Walter Royal’s favorite spot is an unassuming one.
Upstairs on the catwalk leading from the Wild Turkey Lounge to the banquet hall, there’s a table tucked into a nook, likely lost in the lively chaos of an Angus Barn dinner service. It’s both at the heart of everything and hidden away.
Perhaps nothing could be more Walter Royal, who has been the executive chef of the iconic Raleigh steakhouse for the past 25 years.
In that time, the Triangle has grown into a rich and diverse dining scene, increasingly recognized nationally for its restaurant community. A chef like Royal is sometimes lost in the glitz and acclaim of now, but his pedigree in the kitchen has very few rivals, counting two of the South’s cooking icons as his mentors and a career that makes his case as perhaps Raleigh’s first celebrity chef.
HEARING THE CALL OF THE KITCHEN
The God’s honest truth is Walter Royal wanted to be a farmer. His grandparents were farmers, and as a kid in Alabama he’d spend summers with them, toiling and sweating in the sun, fishing in the afternoon, getting his hands dirty and eating from the earth.
“For lack of a better word, I felt free,” Royal said.
But his parents, as parents sometimes do, said no, having seen the harder side of farming and, he said, wanting something better for their kids. His mom was a social worker, and his dad taught at the Tuskegee Institute and owned a construction company.
So Royal, the youngest of five children, went to college, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology and playing some football along the way. When he graduated, he set out on a career in mental health.
“It’s something 40 plus years ago that was needed,” Royal said. “It appealed to me that people need help. We all have weak points, and as humans we should reach out.”
But quickly Royal felt the call of the kitchen. It was something he had felt since he was a teenager, eating the delicate tea cookies of his grandmother, he told The News & Observer in 1995, the magic of butter and sugar as strong as anything on earth. Royal said his parents saw professional cooking as a dead end for an African American man from Alabama.
But their son’s seriousness, call it stubbornness, won out.
“One of the things they were reluctant about, there were no other African Americans at the top of that field,” Royal said. “(I had to show them) I could survive and be OK. Just like any parents, they wanted the best for me.”
He left the world of mental health and enrolled in a three-month cooking school in Atlanta, led by one of the godmothers of Southern Cooking, Nathalie Dupree.
“Growing up in rural Alabama, there was nothing but barbecue fried chicken and stuff like that,” Royal said. “I needed to learn. I needed to be refined. I needed to get my hands on other good food. Not to say that fried chicken and barbecue wasn’t good, but there was more to Southern cuisine than that.”
Dupree, who now lives in Charleston, S.C., has written more than a dozen cookbooks on Southern food and won several James Beard awards for writing. She said that Royal stood out in her school.
“He surprised me,” Dupree said in a phone interview. “There weren’t many young, educated African-Americans, male or female, deciding to be a chef. This was before food TV. It didn’t have any glamour at that time. You had to be passionate to leave a sound profession and want to do it.”
A FEARRINGTON HOUSE MENTOR
Royal didn’t finish the three-month course. Instead Dupree insisted he pack up and move to North Carolina, where famed Southern chef and author Edna Lewis had taken over the kitchen at the Fearrington House in Pittsboro. That decision would bring Royal to the Triangle, beginning a four-decade career of influence in local kitchens.
“I didn’t give him any choice,” Dupree said. “I knew it would be a wonderful experience for Walter. I told him, ‘You have to go there, you have to take this.’ It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Lewis was renowned in cooking circles and her books, like “The Taste of Country Cooking,” are Southern cornerstones today. But Royal admits he had no idea who she was. The woman he found was nearly 70, dressed in long flowing clothes and celebrating the kind of Southern food he grew up eating.
“When I first met her, she was goddess-like,” Royal said. “(We shared) the love of food. The love of adventure. Not being afraid to get in and get our hands dirty. When I say the love of food, I don’t mean the cooking. I mean the growing of it, the history of it, explaining it, having an open mind for it. (Nathalie Dupree) knew that Edna would be able to pull that out of me. I have to tell you, I’m one of the luckiest people on the planet to be able to work with Edna.”
In those sacred moments after dinner service, Royal and Lewis would sometimes share a glass of Jack Daniels at the bar. Royal said his mentor was like a grandmother to him, one who nurtured and understood a love of food and stoked its possibilities. It was an awakening.
“To say, OK, this is something you love, have a passion for, something that’s in your soul, but you have to let it come to the surface. Edna helped me draw it to the surface, helped me open these eyes and look around,” Royal said. “Not only seeing an apple as something that grew and was beautiful, but could be delicious and you could share it and tweak it and you could find 30 other ways to prepare it.”
Today, under chef Colin Bedford, Fearrington is one of the South’s most innovative kitchens. The menus Lewis prepared may appear somewhat more humble, spoonbread compared to octopus, but were no less aristocratic, Royal said. The food was country ham, crab cakes, vidalia onions, pan braised quail, chocolate souffle, produce indigenous to the South, picked and cooked at its peak of flavor.
“I am Southern throughout,” Royal said. “To me, all great food started in the South and migrated north.”
‘A GENTLE SOUL’ AHEAD OF HIS TIME
When Lewis left Fearrington, Royal stayed. Fearrington owners R.B. and Jenny Fitch handed the kitchen over to Ben and Karen Barker, not long out of cooking school at the Culinary Institute of America, who had been at Chapel Hill’s La Residence for the previous two years.
“We weren’t qualified for that job,” Ben Barker said in a phone interview. “Walter was there when we arrived, and he welcomed us and made our adaptation to a new venue more seamless. He became a good friend and teacher in how to make Fearrington work for us.”
When the Barkers left Fearrington to open the legendary Magnolia Grill in Durham, Royal joined them. Ben Barker said their James Beard-winning careers might be different had they not met Royal.
“He has such a gentle soul and is a profoundly strong human being,” Barker said. “We could not have achieved Magnolia without him, without his demeanor and sense of calm and his ability to stay steadfast in the face of challenges.”
Eventually Royal left Magnolia to lead his own restaurants, starting with the Southern-Cajun Crescent Cafe in downtown Durham.
Today, the restaurant’s New Orleans menu of gumbo and etouffee might be an exciting addition to an already thriving food scene. But in the early ‘90s, it was lost in a ghost town. Twenty years later, its space at 317 Main St., would become the original Dame’s Chicken & Waffles, one of downtown Durham’s most popular restaurants.
“It was two decades ahead of its time,” Barker said. “What he was doing was establishing his Southern bona fides in that venue. Downtown Durham was not ready for the kind of restaurant he chose to do at that time.”
There are no regrets in Royal, only a tip of the cap to timing.
“It helped launch me to do other things,” Royal said. “It was a building block for me.”
Royal also led Claire’s Mangum House in Durham’s Lakewood and later became executive chef at the Inn at Bonnie Brae, a large, old Southern mansion that had been converted into a restaurant and bed and breakfast reminiscent of Fearrington House. While he was there he caught a James Beard semifinalist nod for Rising Star Chef of the Year. Later, he’d cook at the James Beard House in Manhattan with local chefs Scott Howell and John Toler, the trio teaming up to serve a taste of North Carolina.
Royal made the dessert, according to a News & Observer story, making polenta bread pudding with persimmon ice cream and spicy rabbit on yeasted angel biscuits.