Sportsman and Culinary Artist Showcases Virginia with Local Farm-to-Table Approach
Photos by Eric Kallen
In 2016, Walter Bundy was three or four months away from realizing his dream of opening a restaurant that showcases what Virginia has to offer, complete with cuisine inspired by Southern roots and French techniques. He also wanted a thoughtful space that reflects his love of locally sourced ingredients and materials, handmade plates and art, as well as his affinity for the sporting life. But one of his big challenges was selecting a name for his new establishment.
“I was searching for a name that spoke to me, one that no one else had used already,” Bundy admitted. “That was a lot harder than I thought it would be. Then I came up with ‘Shagbark,’ which a buddy jokingly said sounded like the title of an Austin Powers movie.”
The name of Bundy’s restaurant was inspired by an old shagbark hickory tree that was growing along the banks of the James River. Fittingly, shagbark is a common hickory found in the Eastern United States. He appreciated the indigenous tree and admired its appearance, which has unique, smoke-gray bark that twists away from mature trunks in long, shaggy strips.
“I’m very much an outdoorsman and heavily into conservation,” Bundy added. “Shagbark is a hard, tough wood, and I was excited to repurpose this fallen tree throughout the restaurant. Once the shagbark was milled and I recognized the opportunity for our community table, everything came together. We carried the wood throughout the space and used it for the lounge tables, host stand, sconces and partitions, which were all milled and fashioned from that old hickory.”
Bundy was born in Charlottesville and spent his formative years in Richmond. His father was an avid gardener and hunter, and his grandmothers enjoyed fishing the Chesapeake Bay and Piankatank River at their homes and docks near Deltaville. They also taught him how to cook and appreciate food.
The boy cherished being outside, especially in the Middle Peninsula. He enjoyed tilling the soil and walking in it with his bare feet. Bundy picked vegetables, berries and fruit from his father’s garden and orchard. He loved discovering and harvesting fish, oysters and crabs. The lessons he learned from hunting with his father also instilled an appreciation for Virginia’s wild game. These combined experiences left an impression and helped define his future culinary interests.
Since his father was a Navy doctor, the Bundy family moved frequently and lived in Florida, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Wisconsin. But Virginia, and in particular, Richmond, always centered him and felt like home.
“I moved a lot with my dad and lived in different places,” he said. “As I grew older, I kept traveling to different parts of the country to learn about different cuisines, but Virginia kept pulling me home. Living elsewhere made me realize how much I love my home state.”
With Shagbark, Bundy’s aim is to celebrate his Virginia heritage and sporting interests, which include fishing for trout, rockfish and local puppy drum, as well as hunting deer, duck and upland birds. And that’s exactly where our lives intersected—not at his restaurant (although I can’t wait to eat there)—but at a game preserve just north of Richmond.
This past winter, our mutual friend Ted Barrett, who owns and operates The Preserve at Dundee, was kind enough to invite The Virginia Sportsman and Bundy to join him on a guided hunt followed by an amazing wild game meal of Bundy’s own creation. Situated in Hanover, the heavily wooded, 200-acre property feels remote and offers different upland hunting environments, including traditional pine forests, open fields and sloping hills.
Afield, we marveled at a Llewellin Setter and two Brittany Spaniels as we worked our way through high grasses, brush and thicket. They pointed, and we dispatched chukar, quail and pheasant. It was a fine day, and we ended it with libations and a gourmet meal cooked over an open flame: Chukar French Onion Soup, with sweet onion, gruyere cheese and brioche; “Chicken Fried” Pheasant, with pimento cheese grits, stewed pole beans and blackened jalapeño-tomato sauce; Basque-Style Grilled Quail, with wild mushroom ragout, goat’s milk ricotta, preserved Meyer lemons with tomato confit, grilled garlic bread and parsley.
“I like to cook and prepare food as local as I can,” Bundy said. “At Shagbark, seasonally this can include soft shell crabs and rockfish from the Bay, tomatoes from Hanover County, peanuts from Surry County, muskmelon from Deltaville, hams from Wolftown, and many other ingredients including rhubarb and squash blossoms. We also offer wild foraged chantells, morels, ramps, fiddlehead ferns and many other seasonally foraged items. My good friend has a commercial operation that provides us with rockfish in the fall and winter. I also source from friends who are clam and oyster farmers on the Eastern Shore.”
He admits he took a non-traditional path to becoming a chef and restaurant owner. While being raised in Richmond, Bundy attended St. Christopher’s School and graduated from Hampden-Sydney College. He knew he didn’t want a typical desk job and, in addition to hunting and fishing, wanted to pursue cooking and other passions including traveling, kayaking, surfing and skiing.
Bundy began his culinary career helping Sam McGann and John Power open The Blue Point restaurant in Duck, N.C. Then he moved to Santa Fe for a position at the Coyote Café and learned about Southwestern cuisine. Over time, working with talented chefs inspired Bundy to go to culinary school.
“I enrolled at the New England Culinary Institute [NECI] in Montpelier, Vermont,” Bundy said, “because I wanted smaller class sizes and on-the-job training, which I thought was helpful.”
After graduating, he wanted to study under and grind it out with the best in the industry. He researched the best restaurants in Los Angeles and tried to land a job with Patina. Instead, the owners gave him an opportunity at their new restaurant, Pinot Blanc, in Napa. At the time, the buzz surrounding Thomas Keller’s nearby The French Laundry was impossible to ignore.
Bundy went on to work alongside Keller in 1996 when Keller won the James Beard Foundation’s Best California Chef. Only a year later, Keller won the highly coveted title of Best Chef in America. Under Keller, Bundy grew to love foie gras and learned to run a restaurant. He even implemented the three-Michelin-starred restaurant’s microgreen program.
When Bundy returned to Richmond, he became the executive chef of Lemaire at The Jefferson Hotel and stayed for 19 years. While there, Bundy helped put Richmond on the gastronomic map and played a part in earning the city national and global culinary acclaim. In 2015, Lemaire was named the 101st best restaurant in the United States, according to France’s La Liste.
“My time at Lemaire was an incredible experience, and I am truly grateful,” he recalled. “Opening a new restaurant was a big decision. I talked myself out of it many, many times. It’s tough to jump off a cruise ship into a halfway blown-up dinghy, but that’s what I did with Shagbark, which turned out to be a pretty damn good ship as well.”
Located in the Libbie Mill-Midtown development, Shagbark continues to receive accolades—including a AAA Four Diamond Rating, Taste of the South magazine’s Taste50 and a Wine Spectator Restaurant Award. It has truly become a stage for local farmers, fishermen, artisans and artists—including Mike Brown at Tree Hill Pottery (@treehillpottery), Susan Cary (@susancaryart), Guy Crittenden (@guycrittendenstudio), Greg Osterhaus (ousterhausart.com) and Mary Kathryn Woodward (@mk.holden.woodward).
“When you work in a restaurant, every night really is a theatrical performance. You dance, delight people, feed and take care of them. Then you come back and do it again the next day. That’s what I enjoy.”
I can’t wait to experience Shagbark and take in a local show. Be sure to catch your own Bundy performance by reserving a table at shagbarkrva.com.
Joe Shields is the editor in chief of The Virginia Sportsman. He is a writer and communications executive based in Charlottesville, Va. His writing and photography have appeared in The Virginia Sportsman and other publications. He is also an award-winning, gallery-represented artist whose work is found in private collections and galleries. Whether fly fishing or surfing, drawing or painting, he celebrates sporting life and culture in his narratives and art.