Sarah Walor photo
The rising arc of culinary star Walter Bundy has cast light well beyond Richmond, though it's his devotion to local, seasonal ingredients and his reinvention of Lemaire that earned him our food writers' nod for Chef of the Year.
Executive chef of Lemaire at The Jefferson Hotel since 2001, Bundy sparked his culinary career helping Sam McGann and another college friend open The Blue Point restaurant in Duck, N.C. "Sam really loves what he does, and he showed me I could do it, too," Bundy says. Raised in Richmond and educated at St. Christopher's School, he was then a psychology major at Hampden-Sydney College.
Over time, working with many talented chefs inspired Bundy to enroll in the New England Culinary Institute, but he points to Thomas Keller at The French Laundry as being most influential. Keller's "sheer professionalism, intensity and passion for food was powerful," Bundy relates. "I showed up there every day and worked my way through the brigade system." He also applied his gardening skills and took charge of the micro-greens garden for the renowned Napa Valley restaurant.
Lemaire's recent metamorphosis, after closing in late 2008 and reopening in July, promptly grabbed a bit of the national spotlight when Esquire magazine featured it among its "Best New Restaurants of 2009."
Bundy's passion for local products is evident in the reinvigorated menu. "Our goal was to bring the freshest local products with a Southern flair. It's all about Virginia and the products that scream Virginia," he says. Ironically, he notes, "We've always sourced local products but we weren't talking about it. The difference between the menus now and then is that we are doing more volume and a little less fussiness."
Esquire food critic John Mariani praises Bundy's creations as an antidote to the fat- and sugar-laden perception of Southern cuisine. "Bundy represents all the traditions of the South, and he uses his imagination and creativity to make Lemaire one of the best restaurants in the United States," Mariani says. "He's changing the minds of many Americans about Southern food."
Constructing the new menu was a collaboration involving numerous stakeholders. Bundy reflects, "It was a humbling process. Everyone had the best interests of Lemaire in mind, and we had to merge all those opinions. Once we finally held the tastings, everything fell into place."