When Walter Royal was growing up in Alabama, his house had one unbreakable rule: Dinnertime. 6:30. Be there.
Dinner is still important to Royal, but for different reasons. He’s executive chef of high-end steakhouse the Angus Barn and Pavilion – and claimed victory on cable cooking show “Iron Chef: America” in 2007 with his ostrich satay and ostrich egg chocolate souffle. Royal believes in the power of the dinner table, for both sating a hungry stomach and easing the pressure of life’s problems.
He passed that message on to kids at the Wade Edwards Learning Lab last week.
Staff writer Chelsea Kellner caught up with Royal before his lecture to talk about family cooking, feeding large groups and the secret to concocting your own recipes.
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Responses have been edited for length.
Q: Is there something special about food that helps foster good conversation?
A: I’m a firm believer that if you can bring in situations that have happened in your daily activities and talk about it around the table, it eliminates potential problems. When your family is sitting around having these conversations, you become more aware of your family.
The time a family spends together, when it’s around good quality food, shows them little things about each other at first, like oh, I didn’t realize you loved pineapple upside-down cake. Then you learn more. If it’s good food, and especially if you can get the family to make dinner together, that opens the door to so much goodness.
Q: How do you get everybody in the family involved in cooking?
A: You look at what each one can contribute, and everyone can contribute something. You’re helping everyone feel welcome and wanted.
Q: How has your appearance on “Iron Chef” affected your life and career in the five years since?
A: It was a win situation for all of us, not just me and Angus Barn, but the community as well. It took me places and opened doors that would have opened without the show, but opened a little sooner.
Q: It’s almost Easter – any advice on cooking for large groups of people?
A: Organization is everything. Organization and planning. You need to have shopped a couple days in advance, you want to plan the stages of cooking. You don’t want to bake the ham with the chocolate chess pie.
Q: How do you make sure everything is ready at the same time?
A: That’s why you stage it. If you know you’re going to start with light appetizers, whether it’s pimento cheese on toast points or crab cakes, that’s a 30-minute process where you have people nosh with a glass of wine. Then a soup or a salad course, and, well, you’ve bought yourself an hour and a half of cooking time. Everything else should roll like clockwork.
With large groups, you don’t do anything like chocolate soufflés or baked Alaska. You make a beautiful poundcake with fresh berries, maybe, or a wonderful pie with ice cream.
Q: How hard is it to invent your own recipe? What’s the secret?
A: I encourage people to do that. Try to create your childhood memories. If you have something that you remember from going to grandma’s or Aunt Susan’s or someone, and they did a wonderful soup, say, or deviled eggs, then try to figure that out in your head, and every time you get together as a family, tweak it a little bit until you get it perfected and it’s your special dish.