Chef Walter Royal, who led the kitchen at Raleigh’s Angus Barn for 26 years, has died

Walter Royal, the longtime chef of the Angus Barn, who honed his craft alongside acclaimed Southern chefs and became a local celebrity on his own, has died.

His death was announced by the Angus Barn Monday night.

Royal led the kitchen of the famous steakhouse for 26 years, one of just three chefs in the restaurant’s history and the only one to wear the title of executive chef.

A calling

Born in Alabama, Royal was the grandson of farmers and before cooking had been a football star who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology.

But after a brief career in social work, he couldn’t shake a calling for the kitchen. He enrolled in a cooking course he had heard about led by famed Southern cookbook author Nathalie Dupree.

He sought out a culinary school because he said he wanted the tools to showcase Southern food beyond the cliches.

“Growing up in rural Alabama, there was nothing but barbecue, fried chicken and stuff like that,” Royal told The News & Observer for a 2020 profile. “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.”

From there, Dupree helped Royal connect with Edna Lewis, an iconic Southern chef who was cooking at Pittsboro’s Fearrington House in the early 1980s. She took Royal under her wing and there he found the refinement he was looking for.

“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.”

Once Lewis moved on from Fearrington, Royal stayed behind and helped new chefs Ben and Karen Barker find their footing in the historic kitchen. Royal departed Fearrington with them as they opened Magnolia Grill, the now-closed Durham restaurant where the Barkers won two James Beard awards.

On his own, Royal opened his first restaurant, Crescent Cafe, serving a casual Cajun menu in downtown Durham, before the city was the dining destination it is today. Later he led ambitious fine dining kitchens Claire’s Mangum House and Inn at Bonnie Brae in Durham, the latter helping earn him a trip to cook at the James Beard House in New York.

Royal at the Angus Barn

The Angus Barn hired Royal as its executive chef in 1997. The job, leading one of the busiest destination restaurants in the state, is one of North Carolina’s highest profile restaurant positions.

“With Walter it was immediate,” Angus Barn owner Van Eure said in 2020. “I knew this was the man for the Angus Barn. He came in and won everyone’s hearts.”

For Royal it meant a steady structure of familiar steakhouse classics, but countless events to show off his creative flourish.

It led to an appearance on Food Network’s “Iron Chef America,” battling Cat Cora.

Royal had planned to retire from at the Angus Barn and was at the restaurant Sunday, according to a spokesperson.

For Royal, he said he enjoyed intertwining his own legacy with a larger one.

“That’s how people feel about the Angus Barn, they want to be a part of it for the next 100 years,” Royal said.