In the cutthroat restaurant world, Walter Sterling can stand the heat

Chef's Choice

Chef Walter Sterling poses with a man and woman behind a catering table covered with food at outdoor event
Perfect Plates: Chef Walter Sterling (center) with friends at Hospice of the Valley's sixteenth annual Off the Vine Vintage Wine Auction, held in Paradise Valley in fall 2017.

When Walter Sterling 94BBA told his friends and family in 1996 that he wanted to be a chef, the Food Network was only a few years old and chefs were not stars.

The then-recent graduate with a double major in Spanish and international studies had a promising career lined up in import-export, but office life didn’t appeal. As his classmates matriculated at law and medical school, Sterling was still chasing the buzz of his parents’ lavish parties at their home in Paradise Valley, Arizona, during his childhood. “They’d dress us up in suits and white gloves to serve, and everyone would be having such a good time. Things would always get a little crazy, and I became addicted to the energy,” says Sterling, whose first official hospitality job was checking IDs at Atlanta’s Neighbor’s Pub to cover his living expenses his sophomore year. “My parents paid for tuition, but everything else was on me. My friends looked down on me for working in places like Café Diem and Dark Horse Tavern.”

After subbing for a short-order cook on a whim, he discovered his passion in quite possibly the city’s smallest commercial kitchen. That greasy gig begat bigger and bigger positions at Tiburon Grille, Basil’s, and Eclipse di Luna—basically an overview of Atlanta’s dining history. Basil’s Lebanese owners took him in and introduced him to the restaurant ritual of the family meal before service. In stark contrast, he would soon be eating his family meal in thirty seconds over a trash bin, after chef restaurateur Paul Luna hooked him up with Günter Seeger.

Anyone fortunate enough to dine at Seeger’s restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead during its decade-long run probably still dreams about that meal. Seeger earned a Michelin star at the age of twenty-seven at his first restaurant in his native Germany. In one of his boldest moves, Sterling took a huge pay cut to leave Eclipse to cook for Seeger. 

“I made $542 every two weeks, after taxes, and was living with three guys who also cooked there,” he says of the move. “I call it a paid PhD.”

Not racking up school loan debt in culinary school proved to be a brilliant business decision and established the balance between the creative and financial sides of the industry that has defined Sterling’s hospitality group in Phoenix. Rather than leasing a space for his first venture, Ocotillo, in 2015, he worked for others until he saved enough to partner with an architect to buy a lot in an emerging area and build its award-winning Southwestern industrial design themselves. To generate profit without losing quality, they opted for high volume, with two hundred seats and a heavy event component. “The industry stereotypes are you either have good food that doesn’t make money, or a businessperson who only cares about the bottom line and serves chicken Caesar salads,” says Sterling, who oversees finances in addition to cooking, writing menus, and ordering ingredients. “If the finances don’t work, nothing works. It’s the harsh reality.”  

While running two restaurants (Starlite, a refined barbecue concept, opened last year), with one hundred employees, Sterling and his wife, Maile, welcomed twins in January 2019. The family splits their time between Phoenix and Venice Beach, California. Sterling’s next project, Chantico, launches this winter, and will offer authentic Mexican cuisine like scallops from the Sea of Cortez and spaghetti squash flautas as well as Tex-Mex classics

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