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Tavel Bristol-Joseph

The Emmer Hospitality partner shares his recipe for life: hope, choice & hard work

Article by Jennifer Birn

Photography by Jenna McElroy

Originally published in Austin Lifestyle

If you’ve ever been to Emmer & Rye, Hestia, Kalimatxo, TLV, Henbit, Canje, Ladino, the restaurants under the Emmer Hospitality umbrella, you’ve tasted a bit of what Tavel Bristol-Joseph has created. If you’ve had the good fortune to spend time with him, you’ve learned his story is one fueled by hope, optimism and the certainty he was meant for more.

We caught up with Tavel, Emmer Hospitality’s Director of Hospitality, at the Austin home he shares with his wife Brittany and dog Gus Gus. After he whipped up a delicious Ambrosia we dug in for a chat. Here’s some of our conversation in his own words.

His history, and his why

 

My mother left Guyana when I was nine months and came to the US. I grew up with my father and his mom, uncles and aunts in a two-bedroom house with seven people. We struggled, sleeping on the floor, sometimes with no running water or electricity.

My father got killed when I was seven-years-old and I grew up moving from house to house. Everyone said, ‘Yeah, we’ll take T in,’ but you’re not their child, so you’re always going to be second, and you’re treated that way. I don’t want anyone to ever feel like they’re not enough or they’re not at the same level. I know how that feels and I know what that can do to someone.

 

Timeline of an inspirational career

 

I wasn’t the best kid. I would get out of school and play basketball with my friends, then get home at 6pm and my aunt would be mad and tell me I had to bake with her for Sunday school. I took the punishment and pretty much every Saturday I was in the kitchen with her making cheese rolls, tarts and beef patties.

I came to the US at 17 (after his mom returned to Guyana and took him to the embassy and successfully got him papers to travel). I went to restaurant school in New York and started working at River Café (where an internship turned into a job). Then I went to Blue Fin in the W Hotel in Times Square. I was the pastry/sous chef there for two years, my first management job. After that, I went to Arizona (for a girl) and ended up working with my current partner Kevin Fink.

We both worked for his dad’s restaurant group, he was Director of Operations and I came in as Corporate Pastry Chef. We became friends and when the corporate chef left I slid into the role and worked there for seven years!

Kevin and I realized we worked well together and nourished each other’s ideas. Kevin had the idea to branch out and do our own thing. We were rockin’ with the group, but we wanted more. He said ‘I think Austin is where it’s at and I’m looking for a business partner, join me on this.’ Honestly, it wasn’t about business or thinking we’re going to be successful; it was, ‘My friend, you have an idea and I’m going to help you get to where you need to be.’ In that same conversation I said when I’m ready to open my own place, I’m expecting you to do the same, and he said, ‘Absolutely!’ So, we came out here to open Emmer & Rye. 

 

Austin and Emmer…

Emmer’s opening kept getting pushed back. We ran out of money so both started working for Uber. We would be planning the restaurant during the day, picking out colors, aprons, everything - and then at night I’d come home, take a shower, talk to the lady for a bit and then get in the car around 10pm and drive Uber until 2:30am.  It was a great way for me to learn the city and in one early review we had, the first comment was, ‘I think that’s my Uber driver.’

It was a stress to come from out of town and say we’re cooking local food and representing Austin, but the city opened its arms because it realized we were being real and trying to uplift the community and work with local farmers. We were asking them, ‘What do you grow well here?’ and telling them we’ll buy that and whenever it changes, we’ll change our menu. We didn’t want the farms to grow anything for us, whatever they grew we would use. That changed the narrative and that’s why Emmer is now a staple.

We were nerds about how we were going to change the system with an open kitchen, the cooks not just in the kitchen but coming out to serve you, doing fine dining food, but fast. We did fresh milled grains, fermentation and make our own vinegars, all of our spices, break down whole animals to do our butchering, work with 40-50 different farms, and change the menu every single day.

Creating cakes (and more) via collaboration

 

When I was the pastry chef that was my sanctuary, now it’s more about ‘how do I share?’ I believe that’s what success is. It’s how much you can give, not what you can take. If I can give my corporate pastry chef and pastry team a glimpse into how my brain works then I’m giving something to them, a lesson they can learn and pass down to somebody else.

For the Bristol-Joseph Scholarship we pay for school, but more important than that is the mentorship. You have access to me; I have friends everywhere if you need a job. I wanted to do it because I was tired of hearing, ‘There are no good chefs in the industry.” I said, ‘You’re right, and I’m going to do something about it.’ I’m not going to do it so they can work for me, they legally can’t, I’m going to do it so they can work and better our community. I started it two years ago, after I won Food & Wine Best New Pastry Chef. We were in the middle of a pandemic and I wanted to do something with this platform I’d been given.

Motivation to keep opening restaurants…

 

It’s about all of us as a collective. There are five partners and none of our concepts are the same. It’s doing whatever we’re passionate about, not about trying to make the most money. Emmer was Kevin’s passion project and we came together and did it and that’s how we’ve continued. Mine is Canje. We’re constantly growing in that way that’s very natural, we’re not just putting together a concept. 

Chef in the kitchen… exec out front

 

I like both roles equally… at different times. When I can change someone’s life, when I can hire someone and inspire someone, it’s the greatest thing ever. When I’m in the kitchen and can think of an idea and create it, it’s the best thing ever, to see what you have in your mind out on a plate, because we’re storytelling. When you see that story come out and someone gets it, it’s the best thing. When you say that story and someone doesn’t appreciate it, it’s the worst thing in the world.

As a chef, as a hospitality person, we crave approval. Every chef is insecure. They act like they’re tough, but that’s a shield. They’re all faking it, they’re all insecure. Because, what do we do? We make stuff and ask if you like it. That’s what we do, we need that. If the restaurant is empty, we’re having a terrible day. That’s why front and back of house to me, I treat it all the same. You’re just working with different ingredients.

 

Getting through tough times


I grew up without the opportunity to choose. I was at the mercy of others and not permitted to ask ‘why?’ The first time I was given a choice is when I came to America and was asked, ‘What do you want to do, and how do you want to do it?’ That changes you. That was hope for me because I never had it.

What kept me going in Guyana with everything I was going through was knowing that I was bigger and better than any situation I was in. I’ve known since I was a kid that I was destined for something else and this was not it. I had every opportunity to make bad decisions, I had all the tools for that, but when you know you’re better than where you are and you’re destined for something, that’s what keeps you going during those hard times.

On success

 

Now that things are flowing for myself, for our business, I’m still in shock about the level of success and recognition that we’ve gotten. It shows that it’s not a myth that with hard work, focus and dedication you can gain success.

I never want my story to be about this guy who came from hard times. I always want my story to be about progression and positivity. Yes, there are references to what I went through, but the focus should always be about how to overcome. To me, that’s more interesting than what you’ve been through because it has to be about hope. We all have sad stories, everyone does, but what you don’t hear a lot about is how people got through it.

 

Rapid Fire

Favorite Quote: Why did you wake up this morning and why should anyone care?


Favorite Book: What’s Cooking in Guyana. It’s the first cookbook I ever read and it really inspired me to take risks and chances.

Favorite restaurants other than your own?  I love Nixta, The Garrison, and for barbecue I love Valentina’s.

Favorite Cuisine: A tie between Indian and Thai food. They both love rice and I love rice.

Favorite thing about Austin: The chef community is one of the most welcoming and collaborative communities I’ve ever been a part of.

If you could have a meal with one person living or dead: My father.

Favorite kitchen gadget: A spoon, I love spoons (even his wedding invitation was a spoon!)

If you could have one superpower, what would it be? Make people love me.

Editor’s note: To know Tavel is to love him, so I think it’s safe to say he’s already got that superpower in the bag.

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