Chandler chef basks in national magazine spotlight - SanTan Sun News SanTan Sun News

Chandler chef basks in national magazine spotlight

April 29th, 2021 SanTan Sun News
Chandler chef basks in national magazine spotlight

By Kevin Reagan
Staff Writer

Don Royer has had a turbulent year.

The restaurant he was working at in Paradise Valley closed suddenly due to a downturn in business caused by the pandemic. It was a disappointing blow to Royer, who had been preparing to buy the business before it shuttered.

The professional chef managed to eventually find a new job last October at Chandler’s Ginger Monkey Gastropub.

But a couple months into his new gig, Royer’s health was abruptly compromised after he contracted COVID-19. He spent several weeks in the hospital, believing the virus might bring him to the brink of death.   

“It crushed me,” he recalled.

As Royer was recuperating, the Gulf War veteran was contacted by a national magazine that was interested in profiling his journey from the military into the culinary world.

A couple of months later, Royer found himself on the cover of Veterans of Foreign Wars Magazine, a publication with a circulation of more than a million readers. 

The publicity has been overwhelmingly flattering and Royer said he’s appreciative of the many pieces of fan mail he’s already gotten from other veterans who were moved by his life story.

“It’s been really overwhelming getting a lot of messages,” Royer said, “I’ve been getting a lot of love from veterans.”

Royer grew up in Iowa in an Italian-German family that fostered his interest in cooking at a young age. His grandparents taught the young Royer how to garden, fish, and hunt – skills that all became useful later in his professional career.

In 1989, the then-teenager enlisted in the Air Force and began taking culinary classes at Denver’s Lowry Air Force Base. He later earned a bachelor’s degree in hospitality management from Johnson & Wales University in North Carolina.

Most civilians probably don’t know that the military has a robust culinary program, Royer said, that allows servicemen the opportunity to learn how to cook a wide variety of cuisines from all over the world.

During his 11-year career in the military, Royer was deployed to Iraq during Operation Desert Storm, the international conflict that claimed the lives of 148 American soldiers in battle.   

Royer said his return home from the war was a lonely experience that left him feeling like no one in America seemed to care about his service.

“When I came back from Desert Storm, there was no one there to greet me,” Royer recalled.

After his retirement from the Air Force, Royer spent the following years working at assisted-living facilities, hotels and restaurants.

Royer later found a community in the VFW, which offered an outlet where Royer could connect with veterans who understood his experiences.

“You can go into those private organizations and you’re not judged if you’re having a bad day,” he said. “Every one of those guys have been in some war.”

VFW was founded in 1899 by veterans of the Spanish-American War who banded together to lobby for better benefits from the government. VFW has since grown to include more than 6,000 posts throughout the country and a membership consisting of over a million veterans.

VFW started publishing magazines in the 1910s and its monthly magazine is currently ranked as one of the top 60 publications in the country.

Royer said he is honored to be profiled in the April edition, especially considering who else has appeared on the cover in recent months.

February’s issue profiled professional basketball player David Robinson of the San Antonio Spurs and champion wrestler Sally Roberts was featured in March.

It’s good company to be in, Royer noted, since he sees himself as a humble chef from Arizona.

Royer said he hopes the magazine’s readers will find some inspiration from reading about his journey from Iowa to Iraq and his penchant for entrepreneurship.

It’s been cathartic sharing his experiences publicly, he added, and has helped Royer come to terms with some of the darker memories from his past.

“It’s a healing process still, but I just got to keep moving every day,” Royer said.

Royer is now spending his days bouncing between two restaurants in Chandler and helping other chefs break into the culinary industry.

Last year, Royer started a website called “Chef Life,” which spotlights up-and-coming chefs and advertises their resumes to local restaurants.

Royer said he loves finding opportunities to coach and mentor aspiring chefs who need some guidance honing their skills.

He also is helping a friend develop a television series about professional ice sculpting. They recently shot a pilot in Los Angeles, where Royer carved a block of ice into a giant military tank.

Despite his recent successes, Royer is still recovering from the scars he has sustained this past year. The coronavirus has significantly diminished Royer’s breathing capacity, prompting him to continuously have an oxygen tank on standby in case he starts to feel winded. 

“My lungs are not 100 percent,” he said. “I have these long days and I get home and I need air.”

But brighter days appear to be ahead in Royer’s future and he’s planning to carve out paths of opportunity for other culinary professionals.

The goal has always been to develop a restaurant group that allows its employees to buy into the business and build a future for themselves, Royer said.