People - June 2007

Chef relishes fame from his TV dinner
By Chris Roush

For more than two decades, Walter Royal has cooked in some of the Triangle’s best restaurants, but he sweated taping his appearance on television’s Iron Chef America last year. “First of all, we’re in New York City and in a kitchen with equipment that I had never used before in my life. And then it’s in a chef stadium with all of these famous people looking at me.”

But butterflies in his stomach didn’t stop him from defeating series regular Cat Cora in an episode that aired in December on the Food Network. The featured ingredient, which must be used in each recipe, was ostrich. “I said to myself, ‘Treat it like you would beef. It’s a lean, red meat.’” He prepared ostrich burgers, ostrich pot pie and a chocolate soufflé using ostrich eggs. It won him only a taste of glory and bragging rights.

Some of those went to his employer. Angus Barn was still exercising them in March, when the 47-year-old Raleigh steakhouse hosted Iron Chef America dinners featuring his ostrich recipes. Often lauded as one of the Triangle’s top restaurants, it grossed $12.2 million last year, up 3% from 2005. Royal, 50, claims his victory will help forge a future as bright as its past. “Angus Barn is an institution. But the younger generation watches Food Network, so that helps us attract a different audience.”

He developed his passion for food growing up in Lake Martin, Ala., but didn’t make it his life’s work until after getting a bachelor’s in psychology in 1978 from LaGrange College in Georgia and starting on a master’s in sociology and psychology at Auburn University. He left for Atlanta for a year’s study at TV chef Nathalie Dupree’s cooking school. In 1985, he got a job as sous-chef at Fearrington House, outside Chapel Hill. Four years later, he left for a similar gig with Magnolia Grill in Durham, then worked at two other restaurants before becoming Angus Barn’s executive chef in 1996.

The job is less about cooking than management — menu development, tamping down costs, scheduling employees, buying food — and his success at com-petitive cooking hasn’t cowed all contenders. His son and namesake, a police officer in Wetumpka, Ala., wants to face him in a culinary contest. “He’s a pretty good cook,” Royal says. But this time, he’s not sweating it.