Like most 18-year-olds, Tavel Bristol-Joseph did not know what he wanted to do with his life. After going through a difficult childhood, in which his troubled father passed away at an early age, simply finding out who he was consuming most of his free space. “That’s how crazy my life was,” he says. “I didn’t have time to sit down and figure out what I wanted to be. It was just, I’m gonna be what I can to be. ”The only thing that was apparent to him at the time was his strengths in two very different areas: cooking and basketball.
One year before his arrival in New York from his native Guyana, he had spent a lot of time in his family kitchen, making pound cake, cookies, and fresh bread for Sunday school at her aunt’s church. But his time on the city’s famous basketball courts was just as important to him. A Lakers fan in Knicks country (“now this takes a little spine, ”he likes to joke), he devoted as much effort to his post movements as to his culinary game. It was until a fateful afternoon when his mother showed up to watch him play a pickup game in Brooklyn.
“I was terrible that day,” he laughs. “I think part of it was because she had never really seen me play before, and I was just nervous. But then she put her arm around me and asked me how I was. I admitted that I was really, really bad. The next day, she enrolled me in cooking school.
A firm believer in his uncle’s mantra of ‘pick one thing and make sure you’re the best at it’, Bristol-Joseph let go of those dreams of Kobe and went to work in the baking program at the New York Restaurant School. In addition to his daily classes, the city’s diverse culinary scene made it possible to continue his education as he happily ate his way through Italian, Thai and Puerto Rican cuisine for the first time. No opportunity to cultivate one’s palate has turned out to be too small. For example, if a member of his family walked to the supermarket, he immediately hung on to browse the produce aisle. “I had never eaten strawberries or kiwi. Hell, I never even had an American apple, ”he says. “So I was like a sponge soaking up whatever I could.”
This insatiable appetite to discover other cultures, to explore through food, is even more evident today. Co-owner of Emmer & Rye Hospitality Group, Bristol-Joseph now oversees six distinct concepts that span the gamut from a Basque-style tapas bar to a brainy new American concept obsessed with heritage cereals to a real-fire restaurant where frozen desserts (such as kakigori with matcha) are presented in juxtaposition with a multitude of smoked proteins. It is a range that has enabled the pastry master to be recognized as one of the Food and wine Magazine’s best new chefs of 2020.
But what to offer next to his adopted city, a place where he had already introduced the unique pleasures of deeply caramelized Basque cheesecake and Japanese shaved ice that reaches mountain peaks? This time he returned home.
At its latest concept, Canje, which opens this month, you’ll find deals like braised red snapper in a coconut fish broth and a golden beef pepper shaker with orange zest, fresh ginger, chili peppers and cinnamon sticks. It’s the type of Afro-Caribbean food he would see simmering on his mother’s stove in Brooklyn, and still finds himself cooking when he’s not on time. More importantly, it’s a category he took for granted in New York City, but sorely lacked representation in Austin. Because of this shortage, he doesn’t hesitate when he blatantly says that Canje “is going to change the needle of Austin’s food scene.”
While his chef partner, Kevin Fink, often takes the reins on the salty side of the Emmer & Rye group, Canje will be different. Given the ultra-personal reach of the project, Bristol-Joseph will be removing his pastry toque to lead much of the management on their Caribbean East Side spot. Set in the former Last Straw space, the duo’s latest concept considers the entire Caribbean diaspora, especially its amalgamation of influences, such as East Indies, Portuguese, African and indigenous Taino.
Get Bristol-Joseph talking about the latter, and he will regale you with the origin story of the jerk chicken, which the native tribe helped forge alongside African slaves. At Canje, the chef puts his own riff on the classic, replacing a dry mix with fresh ingredients that have been mixed and then aged for months. It’s the kind of inventiveness that made him horny enough to take his gaze away from his heritage of sweets. “If I ever had to make a savory concept, it made sense that I would make the food that I grew up with and that I’m so passionate about,” he says.