RALEIGH — Walter Royal, executive chef at the famed Angus Barn steakhouse and Iron Chef America winner, knows a thing or two about cooking. An Alabama native, he grew up on a family farm surrounded by fresh ingredients, passed-down recipes, and the food flavors of the deep South. We sat down with the renowned chef to discuss his heritage in the kitchen and the art of Southern cuisine.
Roots run deep
“When I was about nine or ten years old at home with my mother, aunt and grandmother. It was Thanksgiving and one of my favorite things at that time was pecan pie. It was outstanding, but very labor intensive. Back then you had to collect the pecans and shell the pecans,” he said with a hearty laugh.
He pronounces it “pe-con pie” rather than “pea-can pie,” and at the ripe young age he knew he fell in love with food and all that is represents.
“We always had large family gatherings. Food becomes what memories are made of and what you are very comfortable with,” said Royal. “It was like, ‘Which family member made the best of this? Or the best of that?”
His family made numerous dishes and memories he still recalls fondly. There’s the pecan pie, country cured ham with a glaze, fresh turkeys from his grandparents’ farm and the apple cobblers that were “oh, divine,” he said. He would grab water crest down by the creek and one of his favorite childhood memories remains channel fishing for catfish.
“What you love can be done at any age. After about 9 or 10 years-old, I loved cooking and knew it was something I wanted to do,” said Royal. “I also loved football.”
He played football and attended LaGrange College in Georgia. Following graduation, he worked in the mental health field for years until decided it was time to change directions.
“One day I decided I was going to cooking school. For me, it wasn’t just loving the cooking, it was the farming and growing of animals. It was one total package,” said Royal. “But my parents weren’t going to let me be a farmer without an education and you know what? They were a 1,000 percent right. The better prepared in your mind, the more successful you’re going to be.”
Master of Southern cuisine
“I call it American regional with a Southern twist,” said Royal. “A lot of people when you say Southern cuisine think of fried. A lot of people don’t realize, at the beginning of this country every new phase or fad came through the South. It came through New Orleans; the Gulf of Mexico and it migrated North. When the French came in with their techniques of cooking, when the Spaniards came, everything migrated up. New Orleans was a melting pot of every country and all food to this day.”
“Some of my Northern friends New York, New York, New York. they say. No, you need to spend some time in the Delta,” he added.
Royal has spent his share of time cooking in the South. Following graduation from Nathalie Dupree’s Cooking School in Atlanta, he landed at the Fearrington House in Pittsboro and the Magnolia Grill in Durham before settling down at the Angus Barn where he’s been for 21 years.
‘A fine ballet’
Royal appeared on Food Network’s “Iron Chef America” where he faced off with Celebrity Iron Chef Cat Cora. Tasked with preparing dishes using ostrich, he included an ostrich burger with homemade chips, ostrich satay with peanut dipping sauce, and ostrich filet with smashed rutabagas.
“I was scared to death. I’m a country boy in a stadium in New York City, and it was every piece of equipment you could image. A lot of it I didn’t even know how to turn on and I was intimidated by all of these stars. And then I told myself, ‘do what you do every day which is good, clean and simple food.’ That’s what we did,” said Royal.
He did and he won.
“Ostrich is nothing more than red meat,” he said. “Getting the timing down which goes to what we do what every day. You’re only going to sit here for so long. People dining, it’s like a fine ballet.”
Try new things in the kitchen
“Don’t be afraid to experiment, play around with stuff, read, eat out, and travel. When I travel, I hit where the locals go. It’s rare that I will go to a five-star restaurant when I’m traveling. I want to go where the locals go, the little off road spots,” said Royal.
Of course, everyone has mishaps in the kitchen, even the experienced cooks.
“You are going to make a mistake. Learn from it. I’m not that great of a baker. I have my go to desserts lemon sour cream pound cake, apple pie, ice cream, but I cannot bake bread worth a flip. I always burn it,” said Royal. “If you’re going to dine at my house, if you don’t bring the bread, you’re not going to have any.”
Royal passed on his passion for cooking to his son and grandson, both of whom are named Walter. Royal lives in Durham and enjoys gardening when he can. In the end, this chef will return to where food begins as his plans are simple, “I’m going to be a farmer before I leave this planet,” he said.