Chef Tavel Bristol-Joseph is a Food & Wine Best New Chef, Austin-based pastry chef and restauranteur featured in Marcus Samuelsson’s new cookbook, The Rise: Black Cooks and The Soul of American Food. His Guyanese heritage inspired the following recipes: Oxtail Pepperpot, Jerk Tartare, and Coconut Fried Chicken with Platanos.
I already made a post raving about the delicious oxtail pepperpot, so I decided to try my hand at the coconut fried chicken. While I am familiar with frying chicken, I had never used coconut milk in my marinade or coconut flakes in my breading. It added a slightly sweet crunch to the chicken that was perfectly complemented by the honey coconut sauce that I drizzled on top.
The recipe calls for the chicken to be served with a side of deep fried plantains. Because I was too impatient to wait for my plantains to ripen–they take FOREVER to turn yellow and then want to go bad in a day–I decided to go the tostones route. I fried the plantains, smashed them and soaked them in ginger-garlic infused water, and fried them again. It resulted in a crunchy, tangy chip. I actually learned this technique from one of Marcus’s other cookbooks, Marcus Off Duty: The Recipes I Cook at Home.
The Interview with Chef Tavel Bristol-Joseph
I sat down with Chef Tavel Bristol-Joseph to talk about his recent culinary accolades, being a Black restauranteur, and the inspiration behind his lauded desserts.
One thing that struck me about our conversation was that he began by interviewing me! Chef Tavel really wanted to understand the mission behind my blog. As he told me, “There’s a wave right now. People are talking about ‘how does it feel to be a Black chef.’ I want you to come for the food, find out why I do what I do. Not just because I am a Black chef. I want to lend my voice to things that are going to last a long time.”
I respect his statement. My goal for The Diasporic Dish is that it be an enduring platform that celebrates Black culture, food, and culinary figures. We are not a trend.
Chef Tavel Bristol-Joseph on his journey to becoming a Food & Wine “Best New Chef“
You are an incredibly accomplished pastry chef, having been recently recognized as a 2020 Food & Wine “Best New Chef” . What does that mean to you?
I would like to give a shout out to Khushbu Shah [the author of the 2020 Food & Wine Best New Chef list] for breaking the mold. This is the first year that you see pastry chefs being recognized, as usually it is just savory [chefs]. Now there are three of us [pastry chefs]. All of us are part of food culture but for some reason that’s not what we see. I am glad to see that showcased.
How did you get involved with pastry, and what made you fall in love with it?
I got into pastry because honestly there weren’t too many things I felt like I was good at. I wanted to offer something to make someone smile. If I can cook for you, I’m in the the room with you. Feeling like I’m at the table, like I belong, like I’m part of something.
I have a sweet tooth, that’s my addiction. I don’t do anything outside of that. The sugar has always called me. Since I got introduced to candy, I actually truly love desserts. In my heart I know this is the best thing I’m good at. I can do this every day.
The Early Years
Was your family supportive of your decision to become a pastry chef?
Absolutely. I actually remember the moment when I decided to pursue this professionally. It was a hot summer day in Brooklyn. I was 17 and had just come to the U.S. [from Guyana]. I still had dreams of playing basketball.
That day, my mom took me to the park and I had a bad game. I was nervous because she was watching me. After the ball game, I sat down on the bench next to her and she turned to me. She asked me, “Are you better than all the other kids [playing basketball] in this park? If not, you need to do something else. Maybe culinary school.”
My mom has always let me make my own decisions, but she asks the hard questions you don’t ask yourself. If you are honest with yourself, you start to think.
What a critical moment! Did you end up going to pastry school?
Yes. I signed up for New York Restaurant school at 17 and got a two year degree in pastry. Then I went to work at The River Cafe [now a 1 Michelin star establishment], which was a three star restaurant under the Brooklyn Bridge with a city view. Everyone from Patti LaBelle to executives would come in and dine.
What was it like working at such an establishment?
When I applied there, I did not know how respected it was. I just wanted a job. It was a culture shock. Fine dining. White tablecloths. Learning how to behave. It can break you down. It was not just about Black or white, it was about status. Racism is the basic issue. Status takes it to a different level.
Chef Tavel on being a restauranteur
We are a restaurant group. Many times the customers don’t believe I’m the pastry chef, let alone one of the owners.
Part of it is due to my stature—I’m 6’5, 300lbs. Also, when I speak, people hear my accent and ask where I’m from. It is a constant reminder that you are not from here. A tool to let you know the difference between you and them. Then there are the jokes, the “you’re the bouncer that’ll throw me out of the restaurant if I don’t behave.”
People do and say things subconsciously, it is their training and programming. A guy had an issue with dish, I came out to talk to him. He asked, “Who’s the owner?” When I say I am, it is met with “No, really.” They laugh, that is unreal to them. Talking to me, seeing me, and the food we make doesn’t all go together. I am a tall Black male making desserts. If it was a Southern or Caribbean restaurant, it would be easier to understand.
Speaking of making desserts, how do you create distinct dessert menus for each of your restaurants?
Creation and inspiration go hand in hand. You’re inspired and it goes away, it is based on emotion. You have to decide to create.
I look at a menu. 1 or 2 ingredients from each dish stand out. It is like having someone describe their favorite dish. I would listen and hone in on the words crispy and creamy. Taste is about memory. There is something about how they make me feel. I can make that dish.
What has been your favorite creation?
My favorite dessert is a dessert I haven’t come up with. You make food that speaks to life in that time period. I love that Einstein moment of inspiration.
Some of the desserts I am really proud of have stories. I did a chocolate and cheese inspired by Columbian farmers who would dip cheese in hot chocolate at night. The umami captivated me. Also a bread pudding. I aerated it to get a light, fluffy foam. I paired it with brownie bits and ice cream.
That sounds divine. How have the restaurants adjusted to the COVID-19 pandemic?
I am blessed to have a group of great business partners. We moved overnight to pick up and delivery. We also made sure we took care of our employees first, and raised $17K for our employee relief fund through a subscription service. My award as a Food & Wine Best New Chef also gave us a boost.
Another change we made was consolidating our restaurants into the same spaces. We put Hestia and Kalimoxto together, paired TLV Israeli street food with Emmer & Rye. We really came together to think of ways to sustain the business.
Even if we only made $500 a day, that money is still keeping someone’s lights on. We know it is hard for everyone. We want to be part of the change as opposed to just adapting.
What legacy do you hope to leave on the culinary industry?
I want to give kids a face, someone to look up to. So that they understand that they can make it out. The chefs I seen didn’t look like me. Marcus Samuelsson is there, but a kid at Austin Community College not able to touch Marcus.
That is why I partnered with the Greater Austin Black Chamber of Commerce to create the Bristol-Joseph Culinary Arts Scholarship. Starting in 2021, we will be sponsoring two kids each semester. We will pay for school. I will also meet with them weekly or biweekly and help them secure internships at my restaurant or with my contacts. It will be 50 percent mentorship and 50 percent paying for school. Having a mentor is worth more than how much money you can give. I needed a mentor and I want to be that for the kids.
Follow Food & Wine Best New Chef Tavel Bristol-Joseph @tavel19 for snapshots of some of his enticing dishes!