This blog won’t make sense to those located beyond the reach of Raleigh’s famed Angus Barn restaurant. It may even not make sense to those within reach who haven’t experienced the personal touch of their famed Chef Walt. But maybe keep reading so you can learn about a person who has touched more lives than he ever could have counted.
Learn about a person who meant something to so many yet never once showed an ounce of self-importance. A person who was consistently lauded as the best in his field, yet never batted an eye when out-of-the-box requests came from those brave enough to ask.
Well, he didn’t bat an eye while you were looking. I have no doubt he did a lot of eye-batting back in the cocoon of his kitchen.
Yesterday, Chef Walter Royal was laid to rest in the land he loved and always intended to return to, Alabama. Chef Walt passed away earlier in the week, leaving a painful hole in the hearts of so many touched by his aura and very much unprepared for this goodbye.
My family came to know Chef Walt through our time at the Angus Barn, time that now spans three decades, three generations, and began when my parents frequented the restaurant while preparing to put down southern roots. While Chef may have preferred to stay planted behind the cooktop, he could often be seen shuffling among diners, while begrudgingly accepting accolades. I often wondered if he secretly loved hearing those songs of praise but, as a quintessential Southern gentleman, always insisted they were completely unnecessary.
This won’t be a long blog. I won’t delve into Walter Royal’s life story or how a crooked path finally led him to his dream of making magic in the kitchen. That story is worth a read, yes. A simple search bar entry will offer a gateway to hundreds of articles about Chef Walt.
I spoke with a few of my Angus Barn friends last week after hearing the sad and sudden news of Chef Walt’s passing. Friends? Family, really. We have long considered ourselves family though we’ve yet to nail down if we are a part of the Angus Barn family or if the Angus Barn is a part of our family.
This week’s conversations started with words of shock and quickly morphed to meandering memories. Remember when Walt introduced us to fried green tomatoes? What about those Father’s Day grilling classes? How about when Dad insisted Walt make whatever he wanted for him? Oh, remember when he snuck the kids away to make ice creams sundaes?
I even got to hear the entire story of Mama K leaving endless voicemails for Walt at the insistence of Alice to “Get that man hired!”
Each night, Chef Walt’s kitchen serves some 600 tables, all orchestrated perfectly so that each diner would have the culinary experience of a lifetime. Yes, it is the entirety of the Angus Barn staff that makes the experience, but the food … good grief. From behind the stove, there is no telling if a meal is for a VIP or a first-time guest or a guest that would never return.
No matter, each plate is always prepared to the perfection that Chef demanded.
My family sits on that “regulars” roster, though not currently as regular as in years past as distance has become our nemesis. Still, we make the hours-long trip at least once per year and are always welcomed back as if we were only out of sight for just a few days. We have a long list of favorite memories garnered from reservations that turned into rambling stories.
It is not hard to pick out a favorite memory related to Chef Walt as it involved, well, bologna sandwiches. Yes, we called on this world-famous chef to plate simple, white-bread, mayo, and bologna sandwiches. Yes, this man who prevailed victorious on Iron Chef by transforming the secret ingredient (ostrich) into both a masterful meal and delectable dessert, was now challenged to serve bologna.
The reason for this odd request originated years and years prior when my father met my mother’s parents for the first time. Invited to her family’s boat on New York’s Finger Lakes, my dad was giddy with thoughts of opulence. Instead, he found himself on a simple houseboat dining on bologna sandwiches. The lesson passed down to the following generations?
Sometimes, to get the big things, you have to stick to simplicity.
When my parent’s fiftieth anniversary approached, we children went into our usual mode of “How do we do something unexpected for parents who have done it all?” Yes, dinner would be at the Angus Barn. Yes, we’d invite a few surprise guests. Yes, we’d decorate the private room reserved for our party. We’d done enough family celebrations to plan them in our sleep so coming up with anything unique took some thinking.
As the shindig approached, I zipped out an email to Walt that I was sure would be met with a laugh and possibly deleted.
Any chance you could make some bologna sandwiches?
The answer came almost immediately, before I could even follow with the above tale.
We can do that.
Nary a batted-eye. At least not via email.
I should have expected the tower of sandwiches that greeted us when we arrived for the anniversary party as Walt did nothing with simplicity. I should have expected these to be quite literally the best bologna sandwiches in history. To this day, we have no idea what magic he used (ostrich?) to make these heavenly delights.
And, my goodness, did my parents crack the biggest smiles when they saw them.
That was Chef Walt in a nutshell. His ability to make people feel joy may have been his greatest talent. His method was through memorable meals and it worked like a charm, each and every time.
I have no doubt that Chef had a slew of understudies ready to take the helm at a moment’s notice, just in case. I have no doubt that the transition will be seamless for diners while, back in the kitchen, it will take quite a bit longer to feel right.
For me, it is not the food but the hug that I will miss the most. Walt towered over me so when greeted, it was enveloping, instantly muffling my ears so that I could barely hear him ask, “How have you been?”
I’ve been alright, Chef, but I sure wish I’d had a chance to see you one last time.