By Timothy G. Beeman II
Big news came through the local culinary wires a few weeks back. That news created a wave of conjecture and wonder in the Triad restaurant world. The news was that Chef Travis Myers had left River Birch Lodge, where he was a staple for ten years, a reason for the success of that particular restaurant and a reason that people came back. But, the speculation did not stop there. Why did Chef Myers leave? Is he starting something new? Is he leaving the area? Gossip and rumor would be an exaggeration but to say that curiosity was abound, that would be accurate.
I had gotten a chance to talk to Chef Myers, in confidence, just a few days after the news broke. He informed me as to what his plans were and I was instructed to keep that on the down-low and that is never a problem with me. I like to report when there’s something to report. That time was not the right time. Now, however, is that time.
I have always been a huge fan of Willow’s Bistro in Winston-Salem. Let me rephrase that. I have always been a fan of Chef Will Kingery, owner of Willow’s Bistro, King’s Crab Shack & Oyster Bar and Silo Bistro & Bar. Willow’s, it should be noted, is Will’s “baby.” It is the upper-scale casual that people in this town needed and it continues to need and want. When Chef Myers told me that he was going to Willow’s, I was a bit concerned. The concern was three-fold: was Will getting rid of Willow’s and if not, how was Chef Myers going to be utilized and would it work? In the end, I figured it certainly would.
Stephanie and I had an opportunity to sit down with Chef Myers this past week and we discussed the move, his role, his life. One of the first things that he said to us was that the atmosphere was welcoming and within a few days he felt like he had been there for years. Will had basically given him the freedom to conduct business as he saw fit, be more than a chef, be an operator. He talked about plans for food, of course, but he also talked of plans to the ambience and décor of the restaurant. Not, mind you, changing Will’s vision but enhancing it. He understands Will’s love and devotion to this restaurant and shares that vision. But, Will, besides being a great chef, is a business man who has three restaurants to manage and who knows if more is not out of the question. He needs the room to operate these ventures and Chef Myers is giving him room to do so. With Chef Myers in there, Will doesn’t have to worry about his “baby” being lost.
Possibly, too, Willow’s was starting to get complacent with itself. Chef Myers will be that shot in the arm to make sure that Willow’s not only maintains that upper-echelon of service and quality that has made the restaurant great in the past, but also helping it reach new heights. Chef Myers certainly is not in this just for the paycheck. Granted, that helps. However, one word that he mentioned at least eight times in the conversation was “passion.” He is passionate about his food, about his role, about this restaurant. He also demands passion from his kitchen staff. Cooks are one thing, but Chef Myers doesn’t want a cook, he wants chefs. He wants people that are passionate about their food. That translates to works of art that not only satisfy customers but satiate them. The fruit of his chefs’ labor makes the customers come back, rave and spread the word. Cooks aren’t going to do that. Chefs are going to do that.
Chef Myers also gave praise to the other managers of the restaurant. The bar and Front-of-House is overseen by him, but he works with the managers to make sure that all is running smoothly. There were a few housekeeping items that he had to take care of when he first showed up, but they were mostly minor and it only added to the mood and quality, as a whole. Minor things like door stops, paper towel types and dispensers, items seen by the customers in the kitchen. Nothing, at least on the surface, anyone is going to really notice a change of, but will just feel that the restaurant is better. The menu boards, the liquor selection, the vendors and suppliers. Seeming small touches that will create a world of difference that you will probably never notice happened, just notice that things are better. He says that he and the other managers, including the GM all work together, bounce ideas off each other to make the restaurant the place to be; a destination.
I asked him what took him away from River Birch Lodge and he said he was planning on leaving anyway to try to start another business and was approached by Will and his partner, Norb Cooper, about coming in and seeing if they could make a partnership work that would improve the restaurant, make them some money and give Chef Myers a project he can take, put his mark on and make an impact in the community with, not unlike how he did at RBL. Also, upon Chef Myers’ arrival, not only did the quality of the food return to what made the restaurant great, but its social media presence has been elevated to “through the roof” levels. Chef Myers’ Instagram, Twitter and Facebook feeds have been decorated with some of the most amazing photos of his culinary creations. That may seem minor, but even though you cannot taste pictures, people taste with their eyes. The right food styling can do wonders.
When asked about his goals he says, “I want to make smart decisions in the kitchen and buy the right product. Some things I’m going to buy are going to be more expensive, like artichokes that are marinated and seasoned instead of the canned stuff that we’re using now. I’m going to have to pay more to get local cheese; we’re going to get Humboldt Fog in and Goat Lady Dairy.” The old adage is “you get what you pay for.” It is that way whether you’re in the restaurant business, the travel business, anything. You cannot skimp on quality. He goes on, “We’re going to start butchering in-house. We do some now, but we’re going to do it all. We’re going to grind our own meats, too.” When asked about the alcohol choices, he said there was going to be a slight overhauling of the selection. “We’re going to do wine dinners and liquor pairings. We’re going to do more public events outside. We need to expand our liquors. I can do this but it has to be in stages.” Local ingredients have always been an essential element of Willow’s theme and Chef Myers is vehement about perpetuating and improving on this premise.
It is quite apparent that Chef Myers is indeed “passionate” about his job, his food, his reputation and the reputation of Will, Norb and Willow’s Bistro. He is not supposed to be there until noon just a few days a week but he usually comes in at 8am, even on his days off. He wants it to work. He loves what he does. He is passionate about Willow’s. That is great news for the customers and lovers of food. That is great news for Winston-Salem. That is great news for the South of Business 40 (#SOB40) area.
You may notice that I didn’t talk much about the food itself. I talked about Chef Travis Myers and what he means to Willow’s and what he will bring to the restaurant. There’s a reason for that. Keep an eye on The Man Who Ate the Town: A Food Blog, as there will be a review of the tasting that went along with the conversation, accompanied by pictures. This will be very soon.