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Walter Bundy, the legendary executive chef of Lemaire for 15 years, sets off on a new adventure: his own restaurant. (Photo by Stephanie Breijo)
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The dock of Bundy's childhood. (Photo by Stephanie Breijo)
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Out on the hunt with Walter Bundy. (Photo by Stephanie Breijo)
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(Photo by Stephanie Breijo)
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Situated in the new Libbie Mill - Midtown development, Shagbark aims to bring relaxed Southern fare to the West End this spring. (Photo by Stephanie Breijo)
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At the tail end of rockfish season, Walter Bundy snags a fish right before the fog sets in. (Photo by Stephanie Breijo)
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With decoy in hand, Bundy takes in the field where he'll be hunting Canadian geese shortly. (Photo by Stephanie Breijo)
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(Photo by Stephanie Breijo)
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Out on the water, Bundy navigated through a heavy fog. (Photo by Stephanie Breijo)
You can learn a lot about a person in the thick of it, and in the case of Walter Bundy, the thick was a dense fog fast enveloping a 25-foot-long cuddy cabin boat in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay.
“LEFT, WALTER, LEFT!”
Connor Johnson — the chef’s fishing companion and current lookout stationed on deck — has spotted a comically large tugboat off the port side heading straight for us. With fog this thick, it’s impossible to say what the tugboat is even pulling. What we can see is a taut line, and the boat’s red and cream hull approaching in time with its bellowing horn, growing louder.
“RIGHT THERE, WALTER. JESUS.”
The chef’s face flashes from startled to serene. “I’m going, OK, it’s OK. It’s fine,” he says, steering our fishing expedition out of harm’s way and deeper into the fog. He’s handling it well, considering; the heavy rain and 50 mph winds had been forecasted for the second-to-last day of rockfish season. What we hadn’t anticipated was visibility limited to 200 feet in any direction. But from a man as comfortable on the water as a Nantucket whaler, we barely saw a hair raised; steady hands guided us cautiously through the Piankatank River and to his family’s docks in Horse Point near Deltaville.
Navigating through heavy fog, chef Walter Bundy steers calmly toward shore. (Photo by Stephanie Breijo)
Here is a man you want leading a kitchen.
Back on land the chef stands at the foot of the same dock where he learned to fish, a light drizzle pinging against his rubber overalls. “I like bein’ on the water because you never know what’s comin’ your way.” He smiles before turning to unload more gear. “Feels like the Old West, you know?”
Ask any chef in town to name a handful of Richmond’s culinary forefathers and Walter Bundy’s name will surface. As the executive chef of Lemaire for nearly 15 years, he helped the city gain national and global culinary acclaim, and elevated one of Richmond’s final outposts of fine dining from within The Jefferson Hotel. Just last year, Lemaire was named the 101st best restaurant in the country, according to France’s La Liste. It was the only Virginia restaurant in the ranking.
His attention to plating reflects his years of training under the James Beard Award-winning Thomas Keller in the three-Michelin-starred Napa restaurant, The French Laundry. His reverence for locally raised meat and wild game only hint at the man’s lifelong fervor for hunting and outdoorsmanship.
Challenge, in nature, in work, in his education, is something Walter Bundy has always needed to stay interested. It’s that push, push, push.
On the eve of his biggest career endeavor yet — a restaurant all his own, called Shagbark — he’s not sure if he’ll succeed or if he’ll fail. But if he fails, he’ll learn. He was comfortable in the kitchen of Lemaire — there was little risk. In a way, in Bundy’s world, little risk is a failure in and of itself. But now that he’s out on his own, he’d rather face it head on, regardless of the outcome.
“I don’t wanna be the old man in the wheelchair sittin’ there goin’, ‘What’s wrong with you, man? Why didn’t you take a chance and put out your own vision?’ And I mean, there is no reason. I used to always be crazy and take chances, and then you have kids and you get kind of complacent and safe. So… I’m all in.” He pauses. “It’s like kayaking. I used to say when you put into a crazy river, creek, class six river, the hardest part’s puttin’ in. Once you put in, it’s all about just survivin’.
“I’m all in at this point. I’ve got no choice but to paddle, is the way I look at it.”
Working with Walter Bundy can be a great many things to the stream of talented chefs who’ve had the honor, and sometimes challenge, of serving under him.
Bundy’s menus, often dotted with the names of local purveyors, provide a window into his devotion to Richmond-area farmers and makers. In short, his cooking was “farm to table” before it was cool. Like, a decade before it was cool.
“He had an incredible connection to local farmers. I mean, nobody was doing it as intensely as he was. Sometimes I’d even make fun of him — there’d be so many farm names on the menu, for every ingredient,” says award-winning chef Sean Brock, who served as Bundy’s sous chef at Lemaire from 2001 to 2003. “But no, it was very important for him to give credit to the farmers, and that really stuck with me.”
Aaron Cross, now executive chef of Rancho T here in Richmond, pauses a long time. He’s considering the word “mentor” in regard to Bundy’s reign of Lemaire, where Cross spent three years. “He’s a lot of different things. He’s what you need him to be. If you don’t know a lot and you don’t have the skill set, he puts a lot of supervision over that, tasting things right behind you, showing you the right techniques. If you do have a good set of skills, a good experience level, it’s a little more philosophical, a little more free-flow, like, ‘I know you know how to make this. How can we make it even better? What do you think?’”
In the mornings it isn’t unusual to find Bundy energized and smelling faintly of aftershave, invigorated from an early hunt or workout. From there he sets the pace for his kitchens, demanding both focus and attention to detail no matter how tall the weeds get during service. He’s hands-off, but not scared to tell you what he thinks. He expects respect for the craft, so don’t expect sympathy when you roll in the day after a night of heavy drinking.
“Nobody is without their meltdowns in that environment,” Cross adds, “but for the amount of volume we went through, for what we did, for the quality we were constantly chasing after — solid as a rock.”
Brock, now a celebrated chef at Husk in Charleston and Nashville, would roll his eyes at Bundy’s perfectionism in the early aughts: how particular Bundy was about taping down white linen to the tabletop where plates passed from the chef into the hands of servers, keeping the linen smooth. Now, Brock says, he’s right there with him: “When you first see it you think, ‘OK, it’s a little much,’ but then you realize later in life how important those lessons were, and you look around your kitchen and you’re doin’ the same damn thing … even when I went to Nashville, I was able to take all those things Walter taught me.”
Despite the many hours he has spent with chefs under his tutelage and all the accolades, Bundy — often with hands in his pockets and an inscrutable expression — is a bit of a mystery to the dining community. Turns out, the guarded man behind some of the region’s most meticulous plates is full of just as much wild spirit as technical restraint, and it took years for Bundy’s culinary journey to loop him through some of the country’s top kitchens and then back to where it all began.
Walter Bundy was born in Charlottesville, into a family with grandmothers who loved the sea just as much as — if not more than — their husbands. Gaga, his maternal grandmother, in large glasses, seated in a fold-out chair and with cigarette lodged firmly in its elegant holder, would cast her line into a small nook endeared as her “flounder hole.” “She’d say, ‘Watch this!’ and she’d cast it to this little spot; I’ll be damned if she didn’t pull a little flounder out every once in a while,” Bundy smiles. Childhood fishing lessons on the docks and in the bay introduced him to the region’s marine life — often spot or croaker, sometimes nabbed with his grandfather’s surgical tubing wrapped around a weight to form bait resembling an eel. Filleting and frying them up followed, his grandma Jane teaching him how to cook.
Hunting expeditions with his father taught him to embrace Virginia’s wild game: what was to become a lifelong passion and one of his largest culinary inspirations. Though his father’s career as a doctor in the Navy moved the family as frequently as once a year, Bundy views Richmond as the center of his world. It formed his childhood. It’s where he met his wife. “I started St. Christopher’s School in kindergarten and then we moved around,” he says, mentioning stints in Florida, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Wisconsin. “It was good, but this is home,” he says. “I wanna celebrate it and show it off. That’s my thing.”
Long drives through the country with Bundy will teach you that the city’s renowned chef has many defining traits, including a wild streak. By the time Bundy returned to Richmond and St. Christopher’s in sixth grade, he’d begun testing his outdoorsmanship, snorkeling out in the reefs of Biscayne Island off of Miami’s coast or kayaking the Gauley River’s rapids in West Virginia. His love of the outdoors was infectious, and would set the course for his culinary jobs in the years to come.
He’d also gotten his first taste of partying. “When I went to school here, I was a wild child. I don’t know how I didn’t get kicked out of St. Christopher’s,” he says shaking his head, his eyes wide.
After graduating from the private boys school in 1986, he continued his partying at Hampden-Sydney College, just southwest of the city, and hit Grateful Dead shows with dorm-mates. “I would follow a couple shows and then come back to school and duck in,” Bundy says wryly. “We did Louisville [and] Cincinnati shows. We’d go to Telluride for the music festival.” In between concerts, he’d seek thrills in his surroundings. “I love to ski, but I love to ski the steepest shit I can find because it’s a rush. I love to kayak because I love the water,” he says, “but I’d be runnin’ the craziest shit because it’d give me a rush. And I’d always push, push, push. I’d always go to the better [kitchen], I need to push, push, push. I think it’s probably that addictive personality.”
As is all too common in the culinary world, Bundy’s addictive, adrenalin-fueled personality also latched on to alcohol, and concealed a certain clarity he wouldn’t find for years. But in the late ’80s, during summer breaks, it also led him toward the waves of North Carolina’s Outer Banks, where he could spend his days surfing, and his nights working in restaurants to get by; it also unwittingly steered him straight into his career.
The Blue Point restaurant, sitting just above the waters of Currituck Sound, was Bundy’s awakening. “I saw this guy, Sam McGann, starting this little restaurant serving this killer food and enjoying what he was doing every day,” he remembers. “Yeah, it was hard work, but he wasn’t sittin’ behind a desk and he seemed happy and driven and I’m like, ‘Man, that’s looks cool and it’s creative.’ I’ve always felt like some part of me has always wanted to be artsy — like paint and draw — so I saw this guy and was like, ‘You know, that seems like a pretty cool thing.’”
After college graduation, Bundy returned to Richmond, which brought him to The Tobacco Company for a brief work stint, but more importantly, to Chetti’s Cow and Clam Tavern, the bygone watering hole, where he met his future wife, Carolyn, doing oyster shooters.
It was a whirlwind romance. She moved into his apartment within a few days, and lived with him a month before moving to Santa Fe to focus on her jewelry line. Bundy flew out to visit her after three months and, after realizing Santa Fe’s landscape and climate made for year-round activity, he moved out to join her three months after that. The young chef spent his summers scouting in the mountains, bow-hunting in the fall and skiing in the winter, and when the snow melted in the spring, he would kayak. Time in the kitchen at Coyote Café introduced him to Southwestern cuisine, which he prepared there for three or four years.
“Then I realized that I needed to go to culinary school,” he says. “Well, I didn’t know that I needed it, but I felt like I needed a ticket, something to validate who I was. My dad kept saying all I was doin’ was screwin’ around and I said, ‘Well, if I’m gonna fuck off, I’m gonna go work at the best restaurant I can, wherever I go, because I wanna go explore the U.S. and just have fun with it and learn to cook.”
Bundy’s frame is small but fairly muscular, the result of nearly four decades of exercise and time spent outdoors. In a decision that surprised no one, he again structured his future on proximity to the great outdoors and eyed the New England Culinary Institute, or NECI, in Vermont; if he was going to school, he was going to ski. The day before his entrance exam, he flew to Las Vegas to celebrate the opening of a Coyote Café there. “I had a really rough night with friends, then had to do the test the next day. I was pretty much barfin’ the whole day,” he laughs. “Then I got on the plane and flew back, and they passed me.” A huge smile crosses his face.
In Vermont, Bundy shared a house on the side of a mountain with a friend, and structured his schedule to attend class only in the winter: prime time for the Montpelier slopes. Bundy consulted Zagat for where to go next. Upon graduating, he searched for the best restaurants in Los Angeles, and had his heart set on Patina; the owners countered with an offer of a spot at their new restaurant, Pinot Blanc in Napa. He accepted.
But it wasn’t long before his friends from NECI began singing the praises of The French Laundry, Napa’s new bistro. “It was kind of like this kind of crazy temple and no one could get in and you got paid nothing, but it was the baddest of bad,” Bundy says. “So I’d go peel potatoes on my days off every Sunday for months and finally Thomas gave me a job.”
Bundy worked alongside Keller in 1996 when Keller won the James Beard Foundation’s Best California Chef, and in 1997, when he won the highly coveted title of Best Chef in America. Under Keller, Bundy grew to love foie gras. He learned to run a tight ship. He implemented the restaurant’s microgreen program. “You’d work 10, 12 hours a day and then go out in the garden and plant micros. It was just micro- greens in raised beds, but now they have like people take care of the huge garden they have. But when I was there it actually meant something, being in the kitchen and across from Thomas right there.”
On a long stretch of Route 33, rain tapping against the windshield, Bundy stares intently over the steering wheel on the drive back from our fishing trip, which began and ended at his childhood dock. I get the impression that he’s less focused on the road’s middle distance, and more so on his mentor.
“He taught me. He was just such a perfectionist.”
“You really learned that lesson well,” Johnson, his fishing buddy, pipes up from the backseat.
“Well, what does that mean, asshole?”
“Exactly what it sounds like.”
“Well, I’m not really a perfectionist.”
Three men to my left hammer and drill into the gleaming length of an air duct while Bundy looks on. Winter Storm Jonas, still visible in the few inches of snow hugging the edges of Libbie Mill-Midtown’s parking lots and sidewalks, delayed Shagbark’s construction this week. It’s all-hands-on-deck to reach the restaurant’s mid-May opening now, its chef and co-owner tells me as we step through tall metal support beams and into what soon will be the kitchen: Bundy’s shrine to organization. “It’s about the flow of food and it all coming through the chef, and being able to make sure that everything looks right and is plated properly and is able to get out the kitchen efficiently and quickly and hot.”
In choosing to build Shagbark in Libbie Mill-Midtown near the intersection of West Broad Street and Staples Mill Road, Bundy has also chosen to build the restaurant of his dreams. The cold, dark shell — a term for a gutted space sans heating, electricity or plumbing — was a blank slate for Bundy to design his stage for celebrating Virginia’s produce, game, seafood and dairy. Here in the kitchen, he’s created a space for each: a meat station, a fish station, a hot-appetizer station, a garmache station, a pastry, oysters and small-plates station. Near the kitchen door, but in the center of it all, will be Bundy himself, surveying the room and the kitchen’s flow, and stamping approval on each dish carried to the dining rooms or the bar.
“Chaos and disorganization will lead to chaos and disorganization,” he says. “You work cleanly, you put out clean stuff. I don’t care what it is you do. If you’re a mess, your end product’s going to be a mess.” I suddenly recall Walter Bundy, the fisherman, periodically splashing water on the deck of the boat to slide our boots’ dirt and debris back into the bay. “I hate dirt,” he’d told me, “I can’t stand it.”
For all Bundy’s attention to organization, that’s not to say Shagbark will feel sterile. A restaurant built upon heritage should impart warmth in a number of ways, and Bundy has built warmth from the name, up. Just inside, to the right of the restaurant’s entrance, will sit the embodiment of Southern culture, lineage and wilderness: a massive communal table cut from a 12-foot-long, 41-inch-wide Civil War-era shagbark hickory tree that sat on his wife’s family’s farm for generations.
Bundy’s shagbark hickory tree calls for a specialty saw to cut its wood into slabs for tables, doors and partitions. (Photo courtesy of Walter Bundy)
The menu’s Virginia-inspired cuisine will spotlight whatever fresh ingredients are available: cilantro, serrano peppers from Bundy’s own garden, pickles, cucumbers, fresh crab, heirloom tomatoes. It’s Southern, but not kitschy. It’s elevated, but not a special-occasions restaurant. Nearly everything will be available for under $30.
“I wanna nod to history [with] things like Brunswick stew and pimento cheese, oysters, roasted oysters, but kind of put them in a bit newer light,” he shares. “I’m not going to be reinventing the wheel. I just want to put out nice food and a really nice place for people to come. I’m not trying to do anything crazy. I think if you put your head down and your best foot forward, and you put love into what you do, you care about it, you should end up with a really nice product.”
More of the restaurant’s namesake will form a partition between the 50-to-60-seat dining room and the 30-seat bar, where Bundy hopes Libbie Mill’s growing neighborhood will stop in for a casual drink and a small plate or two. Toward the back of the restaurant guests will find two private dining rooms, cordoned off with sliding, frosted-glass doors. Outside, a patio will spring up in the warmer months.
Looking past the metal beams, Bundy can see the restaurant taking shape. He’s far from his peripatetic partying days. He has two children now, which he credits as helping him to grow up, but it’s sobriety, he says, that’s enabled him to achieve this career-long dream.
“In hindsight, I’m a better person for it. You know, I wasn’t bad but there are certainly some instances where I was probably a real bad dickhead. I’m more in touch with reality, like I’m more present. I feel like I can give more of myself, 100 percent,” he says, his eyes piercing. “Every day that I don’t have to pick up a drink is a great day. I hope that continues for the rest of my life. Of course I’d like to have a Champagne here or a glass of Sauternes with foie gras, but oftentimes it would escalate and then you’re like, ‘Where’s my car?’ or ‘What did I do last night?’ I don’t miss any of that. Now I get to be present.”
Standing next to Bundy, it’s hard not to feel the excitement that comes with a lifetime building to this. He says he’s a bit concerned about detaching himself from the prestige of The Jefferson Hotel. A decade and a half with a AAA Five Diamond, Mobil Five-Star hotel could do that to a chef. “But you know what?” he asks. “It’s too late now.” I look over just in time to see him crack a smile.
Bundy is sheltered by the dried switchgrass fronds of a long blind in Charles City County. Today he is a land-loving version of the chef who once calmly steered us to shore in the middle of a rainstorm. He peers through the reeds to watch Canada geese dip over the fields surrounding a nearby marsh, pitching to adjust their altitude.
It can feel impossible to read Walter Bundy at times, but in this moment, he’s in awe. “I don’t mean to be corny but all these creatures are so amazing, so beautiful. They taste wonderful. I don’t know, I like being part of it. Every time I see a duck I’m like, ‘Man, that is the most beautiful thing in the world.’ Or a fish, like that rockfish. That is so beautiful and so amazing.” He pauses. “I love the pursuit of it. I love figuring it out. I love succeeding. I don’t love failing, but I like to learn when I fail, you know what I mean? It’s real.”
“I don’t mean to be corny but all these creatures are so amazing, so beautiful.” - Chef Walter Bundy(Photo by Stephanie Breijo)
When Bundy was a boy, he went under water in the dead of winter.
The hunting blind sat in the middle of an island, which, in turn, sat in the middle of a creek near Lake Anna’s nuclear generator. There was ice in the water that morning, which the 10 year old had not failed to notice while surveying his surroundings for duck.
In an effort to cross a ditch and reach the blind, Bundy fell and plunged into the freezing waters, his small hunting waders filling up entirely with the cold. Through sheer will and the aid of his father, the boy made it to the other side of the creek, shaking and worrying this morning could be his last. His father calmly helped his son remove his waders and tilted the water out of them, then put them back on him. Just when the child thought they would abandon the hunting trip and trudge back to the car, he heard, “You’ll be alright.”
“You know what? I was OK. I wanted to be out there more than I wanted to be warm.” It was a pivotal moment for the boy who would be chef. “Everyone has their moments where you either quit doin’ it forever or you love it so much that nothing can stop you from it.”