“When adversity strikes, that’s when you have to be the most calm, take a step back, stay strong, stay grounded and press on.” – LL Cool J
The time for grieving what once was is over. The urgency of keeping patrons and staff safe replaced the grief as Tavel Bristol-Joseph and his partners welcomed back diners in the city of Austin, Texas. “We have a long way to go. But we are blessed to able to still be in the conversation, to still be part of the restaurant industry,” says the acclaimed restaurateur.
As co-owner of five restaurants, the 39-year-old executive pastry chef put his faith in the brand he and his partners built on trust, hard work, relationships, sustainability and hope. “That is what is going to keep us going. My story is always and should always be about hope, believing in yourself and believing you are here for a reason,” says Bristol-Joseph.
Surviving the Pandemic
The coronavirus crisis that shut down thousands of restaurants across the U.S. taught Bristol-Joseph to lean even more on his team. Support, advice and criticism from his managers helped the owners consolidate their five businesses. He and chef-owner Kevin Fink took on every task to keep their restaurants operating, from washing dishes to making deliveries. “We have two choices. We can sit back, relax and adapt to the change that is already happening. Or we can have a conversation with each other, get to know our strengths and weaknesses a little bit better, and create what the future is going to look like,” Bristol-Joseph says.
The managers of the Austin restaurants moved the operations of Henbit to Hestia. TLV moved to Emmer & Rye. That made it possible for the restaurants to provide lunch and dinner takeout services. The management staff partnered with Austin schools to feed families and kids with donated meals from Henbit. The team also created a YouTube channel to help raise money to support jobless workers. “We had to lay off about 130 employees,” says Bristol-Joseph.“We kept on all the management team. The managers who were cooking or answering phones were setting up the websites and changing to a different platform so we could do delivery and takeout.”
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While shifting to survival mode, the Guyana native received one of the highest culinary honors awarded. Food & Wine Magazine named Bristol-Joseph one of the Best New Chefs in the U.S. He considers it groundbreaking to be on the list released in May. “This was the first year that I and two others who have baking or pastry backgrounds have been named best new chefs,” says Bristol-Joseph. “I see it as a stepping stone to get me to greater goals, so I’m very honored, blessed and surprised.”
Victory Over Adversity
The national recognition might be unexpected because of all the chef-owner overcame along the way. Bristol-Joseph’s father died when he was seven. He grew up poor, sleeping on floors and baking with an auntie in Guyana to stay out of trouble. A visa restriction kept him there until he graduated from high school and moved to the U.S. to live with his mother in Brooklyn, New York the person he grew to admire most.
His goal of becoming a professional basketball player died when he saw the competition. So, he found another dream to pursue. He earned a pastry arts certificate from the New York Restaurant School. “My mother, Deborah Bristol, was the one who crushed my basketball dreams because I couldn’t tell her I was better than everyone else,” Bristol says. “But she was the first person who gave me unconditional love and supported me in any direction I wanted to take in life, even if she didn’t agree.”
After climbing the ranks as a pastry chef in New York and Arizona, Bristol-Joseph met Fink, a Food & Wine Best New Chef in 2016 and a James Beard finalist in 2019. Together, they launched their first venture, Emmer & Rye. The critical acclaim given to the seasonal and local concept with a dim sum cart received high marks from food critics. The praise reinforced the pastry chef’s belief that he could conquer the demon of being told he would never be someone worthy of recognition. “Those things stick with you and it follows you for the rest of your life sometimes, or until you come to a place where you surround yourself with people who do celebrate you,” Bristol-Joseph says.
The applause Food & Wine gives the pastry chef for his creations at the Austin restaurants leaves no doubt about his talents. A quote from the magazine’s May announcement on 2020’s Best New Chefs sums up his creativity in the kitchen. “Tavel Bristol-Joseph is a savant when it comes to sugar, flour, and yeast: His Parker House rolls, served with a glacier of cultured butter, are more pillowy than a cumulus cloud after a thunderstorm. His plated s’mores, a dark chocolate mousse with wobbly torched meringue surrounded by a moat of coconut ash and koji cream, is the most finessed version of any dessert inspired by a campfire.”
Art of Creativity
Bristol-Joseph understands precisely what drives his creativity. Some people create primarily from their senses, but imagination and emotion inspire his creations at Emmer & Rye, Hestia, Kalimotxo, Henbit and TLV. Food & Wine says his “globally inspired desserts make their menus among the most exciting in the country.” The chef-owner begins his explorations of what to make with questions. “What will make me feel great? What would be the perfect ending to this meal? And that is when I start to create.”
The restaurateur earned his Best New Chef honor by focusing on each of his five restaurants’ unique qualities, from the architecture to the savory menu. He takes an emotional journey through his mind examining how he feels, a remembered taste or something seen. “I think a great poet said creativity is kind of like the wind. It flows. It’s like the wind coming down a hill,” Bristol-Joseph adds. “You’re able to bask in this wind for a little bit, and then it goes away. It doesn’t stay with you.”
Bristol-Joseph believes in letting go of what you have created so that you can be inspired again when the wind of creativity blows. It took trial and error to make the Basque cheesecake that wowed Food & Wine’s restaurant editor and food experts. He made it numerous times to get the creamy texture and darkened crust as close to perfection as possible. The executive pastry chef doesn’t let the focus on results upset or frustrate him when he learns something new. “You can be in love with the journey and every little step forward that you make you celebrate it because it’s a shift in the needle as far as your understanding of food.”
Every one of Bristol-Joseph’s pastries or desserts tells a story about his creative journey. “I love everything that I’m making right now. I’ve been blessed to be in a position where I don’t make things that I don’t want to make. I’m not cooking for anyone else. I’m cooking for myself.” And the best is yet to come. “To be completely honest, the best dessert that I’ve made is the dessert I haven’t made yet. That’s actually the best one because I’m going to be so excited when I create something else. It’s going to shift my world.”
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Building a Legacy
The Austin restaurateur’s world shifted in other ways when he and Fink opened Emmer & Rye in 2015. He gained a new voice as an owner and a man of color with a story to share. “That’s one of the main reasons I wanted to become an owner; being able to control your destiny and control the trajectory from which you can influence people and create a platform for that. That was really important for me,” Bristol-Joseph says.
As a chef-owner, he became more of a leader, learning the restaurant business from menus to billing, budgeting to employees and décor to media. Bristol-Joseph loves to manage and nurture the teams working at his five restaurants. “I can help mold other people into becoming, not just a pastry chef. I can do that with every person from the general manager to the dishwasher. Now I control all of those futures. I’m happy and excited to take those responsibilities on.”
Bristol-Joseph, his partners and staff celebrated his Food & Wine honor on June 14 with an ice cream social. The event kicked off efforts to raise money for a Bristol-Joseph Culinary Arts Scholarship. The Greater Austin Black Chamber of Commerce and Austin Community College (ACC) joined him in launching a scholarship program to help ACC students of color with finances, mentoring and jobs. “I’m creating the root of what the future is going to look like, not necessarily leading what the future is going to be because I’m already living my dream. My goal now is to encourage others to live theirs,” Bristol-Joseph says.
The five Austin restaurants Bristol-Joseph co-owns are manifesting the visions of a diverse group of people. His partners include a Jewish man and his wife, a married gay man and an Israeli. The Black Lives Matter protests that erupted around the world after a Minnesota police officer killed George Floyd sparked conversations among the pastry chef’s co-workers. “I’ve surrounded myself with people that share the same thoughts as I do. I know for a fact that those are things that my organization won’t stand for, any type of inequality or racial discrimination or anything of that nature. We don’t stand for it,” Bristol-Joseph says.
The restaurateur with Caribbean heritage feels the injustices and discrimination getting attention now are all too familiar to Black people. The fear of mistreatment and the fight against inequality have been with Bristol-Joseph for a long time. On one occasion, a diner laughed in his face when the chef said he was one of the restaurant’s owners. “I see everything that is going on, and for me, it’s business as usual. I’ve been racially profiled in my restaurant, all of those things in the building.”
The calls for support of Black-owned businesses encourage Bristol-Joseph. However, he believes people of all races have to get to know one another. He wants us to learn the stories behind each other’s dreams to make changes that last beyond one visit to a minority-owned restaurant. “My fight is about equality and integration, how we can continue to grow, and how we can continue to get better because we can’t do it by ourselves. It’s not one race that is going to change everything. We have to continue to work together.”
Hope for the Future
None of the current challenges, including race relations and the pandemic, dampen Bristol-Joseph’s optimism. He is a survivor who wants those struggling, especially young people, to believe they can make it too. “I want people to realize that they have a choice. You always have a choice to be where you want to be and how you want to be perceived. You have a choice in your future,” says the chef-owner. “I have had every reason to fail. I’ve had every reason not to be successful. I’ve had every reason to go the opposite route, and I chose not to.”
Bristol-Joseph and his partners are working together to keep the pandemic from robbing them of their hard-earned success. They stay focused on doing everything possible to keep their five restaurants operating while protecting customers from COVID-19. “The only winning is surviving. That’s it. You’re not going to make a profit. Everyone knows that. But you will survive. As long as we are able to survive, that is our wish.”
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Survival is possible because Bristol-Joseph’s recipe for helping his team set the course for a brighter tomorrow relies on one key ingredient. “Hope is always about the light that keeps shining and never goes out. It is that light I look for every time I’m in the toughest places in my life.”
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