A new cook walks into a Denver kitchen, and the first thing another cook says to him is “Don’t I know you from somewhere?” The two look at one another, trying to figure out the connection before it dawns on them both: elementary school. Although Travis Messervey and William Johnson hadn’t seen each other since they were ten years old, the moment of recognition was nearly instantaneous.
The restaurant where they met up again as adults was Bistro One (in the space that’s now Adelitas Cocina y Cantina), and today these two cooks are the executive chef and executive sous-chef, respectively, at Beatrice & Woodsley, Kevin Delk and John Skogstad’s whimsical South Broadway creation with the storybook theme and sylvan setting. Messervey and Johnson took two very different paths to end up in the same location, but they’re of one mind when it comes to executing the restaurant’s intricate, multi-ingredient dishes.
Messervey’s family moved from Aurora to Loveland when he was still a kid (which is how he lost touch with Johnson). His introduction to the food-service industry came from his mom, a cook, who got him a job in a dorm kitchen at Colorado State University. “I started washing dishes, and I never looked back,” he recalls.“I moved down here to go to culinary school at Johnson & Wales. I went to school for a year, and then the Adam’s Mark Hotel offered me a job as a sous.”
Culinary school is great for some cooks, he says, but he was more interested in learning on the job. He wasn’t into cooking much when he was a kid, and in the early part of his career, he was drawn to the business by the fast pace, the kitchen community and the late hours. “I don’t have a whimsical story about standing on a milk crate cooking next to my grandmother,” he notes. “I fell in love with the lifestyle — and then grew out of it.... It was probably when I had my son; I started taking all aspects of my life more seriously.”
Messervey’s son is now ten years old. “We were his age when we first met,” he says of Johnson. Soon after, they built a raft and carried it through their neighborhood to the High Line Canal. “We had just seen Huck Finn,” he explains.
Johnson took a less direct approach to the kitchen. After graduating from high school in Aurora, he joined the Navy, where he became a diesel mechanic and was stationed in Bristol, England. After serving out his commitment to the military, he started looking for work and realized that the restaurant industry held a certain amount of appeal — but he was going to have to learn it from the bottom up. He was in a relationship at the time and decided to make a go of it in Bristol. “We’re going to be poor and it’s going to be hard,” he remembers telling his girlfriend.
One of his first jobs was at a new soul-food restaurant run by English owners; the cuisine wasn’t something he had much experience cooking, and he assumed he was hired primarily because he was African-American. The food was good, if not particularly authentic, he recalls: “We’d do a Sunday roast and it was still pretty British. There were no collard greens, and not even any wings.” But then, it was impossible to source chicken wings in Bristol at the time without buying whole birds. After that, Johnson worked in a seafood restaurant, where “they set me up to pay more attention in the kitchen,” he remembers. “It was a lot of fun. I didn’t even care if I was working twelve-hour days.”
But then his relationship ended and he moved back to Denver, eventually landing at Bistro One — where Olav Peterson was beginning to make a name for himself as a talented chef — and meeting up with Messervey. But when Peterson left to open his own restaurant, Bittersweet, Johnson went with him and stayed for another five years. “Olav let me explore in my own way, with guidance,” Johnson explains, adding that Peterson and Messervey have been two of his biggest culinary influences.
The two remained friends while working in separate kitchens; Messervey left Bistro One soon after Johnson and wound up taking a position at Beatrice & Woodsley under opening executive chef Pete List. His guidance and mentoring was enough to keep Messervey at B&W for three years, but since he’d spent his entire career in Denver, he wanted to experience something new, so he moved to San Francisco “to see a different part of the country and its food scene,” he explains. “The amount and variety of produce that we never see here was really eye-opening.”
A year in California was enough for Messervey, though, and he came back to Colorado. He was working in Boulder when he got a call that Beatrice & Woodsley was in need of a new exec, and returned to the South Broadway kitchen just a couple of months ago. One of his first moves as the new exec was to call Johnson and offer him the sous position. Messervey also started working with the owners to build a menu based on his own personal style combined with B&W’s recognizable themes.
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Messervey draws many of his ideas from books — not recipe books, but rather those that delve into the history and culture of food. Recently he’s been reading about North African cuisine and the migration of ingredients and cooking techniques into France, Spain and other parts of the Mediterranean. As an example, he points to a French-toast dish on his brunch menu that starts, classically, with custard-soaked brioche, but also includes tahini in the custard and is topped with pickled dates, poached black walnuts, pomegranate syrup and za’atar butter. “We also like to take a look at early-American history and the immigration patterns coming here,” he notes.
Messervey is the quieter of the two friends; it’s clear that he’d rather be cooking than talking about cooking. Although the menu is filled with fun and clever names and references — a “wascally wabbit terrine,” for example — he and Johnson always come up with the dishes first and then brainstorm the names with the rest of the staff later. “I have an aversion to the word ‘artistry’ when it comes to cooking,” Messervey admits.
But the results can be artistic just the same. “When you apply proper technique, you’re going to end up with something beautiful,” Johnson says.
Messervey and Johnson both realize that Beatrice & Woodsley has a reputation they need to uphold, even as they make it their own. “I see it more as our own restaurant,” Messervey says. “I see it as a restaurant that set a standard and set a bar.”