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Walter Bundy: Lemaire executive chef draws inspiration from hunting, fishing, mentors

Just mention hunting or fishing and Walter Bundy launches into stories of how harvesting nature’s quarry inspires his work as a professional chef. His understanding of the cycle of life and the consumption of its fruits taught him how ingredients should taste at their freshest. Later work with chefs such as Mark Miller and Thomas Keller further augmented his cooking expertise.

While enrolled at the New England Culinary Institute, Bundy developed a love of wine that led to a cook’s post at The French Laundry in Yountville, Calif. After returning to his hometown of Richmond, Va., he became executive chef at Lemaire in the Jefferson Hotel. The restaurant’s upscale Southern cuisine is centered on local ingredients, some of which come from Bundy’s urban garden — a plot built over an asphalt lot. That intense focus on fresh and indigenous ingredients helped Lemaire earn an Esquire magazine Best New Restaurant award in 2009.

Title: executive chef, Lemaire, Richmond, Va.

Birth date: Feb. 7, 1968

Hometown: Richmond, Va.

Education: Hampden-Sydney College, bachelor’s in psychology; New England Culinary Institute, associate in culinary arts

Career highlights: working for chef Mark Miller at Coyote Cafe, Santa Fe, N.M., and chef Thomas Keller at The French Laundry, Yountville, Calif.; being executive chef at Lemaire when rated one of the best new restaurants of 2009 by Esquire magazine; cooking with chef and TV personality Bobby Flay in Bundy’s home after a hunting trip

How does a guy who gets a psychology degree and then applies to be a tobacco buyer wind up as a chef?

I’d already been cooking in college, which was an eye-opening experience; I saw you could get paid at a job without having to be stuck behind a desk. But I finished my degree anyway.

Later, my girlfriend at the time was living in Santa Fe, [N.M.], and she had friends working at Coyote Cafe. When I went out there, I ate there and thought, “This is it. I want to cook here,” and so I moved … and became the head grill cook.

After getting your culinary degree, you worked for Thomas Keller. How challenging was that?

Of course, it was incredible to learn from him, but it was really hard. Every day you made it through that hell was a great day. People who were way more qualified than me walked off the line because they couldn’t take the pressure, but I never wanted to be that guy.

How much of that experience is evident in your current work?

I would like to do our food more in the style of Thomas Keller, but it would probably be with less pretense. The challenge I have at the Jefferson is we’ve got to do room service, which forces us to make some compromises. I’d like to have a room service kitchen for that, but it’s not in the budget. Still, at the end of the day, we’re doing killer combinations of great flavors in our food, and I’m really proud of that.

Why are hunting and fishing so important in your life?

That’s my time-out … when I’m observing everything that’s beautiful. The killing part is the worst part about it, but I understand that I’m utilizing God’s creation. When I was younger, it was more about catching the most and getting the biggest, but now it’s about enjoying the process and enjoying the animals more. And the cooking goes along with all of that.

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