(This article appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
By Shawn Wenner
Having recently been named one of Food & Wine’s ‘Best New Chefs of 2020’, Pastry Chef and restaurateur Tavel Bristol-Joseph is officially on a roll. He is known for his exciting, globally inspired desserts that are served nightly at the five Austin, Texas restaurants he co-owns with business partner Kevin Fink (Emmer & Rye, Hestia, Kalimotxo, Henbit, and TLV). Despite his accomplishments, the road to success has not been without bumps for Bristol-Joseph, but that just makes this kind of public recognition all the more sweet. In a recent interview, he reflects on his rocky career start, the mentors who inspired him, the tribulations of COVID-19, and his ultimate goal: to help young black chefs succeed, just as he did.
I grew up in Guyana, in a poor, rough environment – it was a terrible country. I was not great academically, so when it came to making a decision for my future, I knew I wanted to use my hands. I was good at sports, but I also spent time baking in the kitchen with my aunt. I didn’t realize [baking] was my talent at the time, but anything to do with making stuff I was excited about. I think subconsciously, I knew it was something I was good at, and I made a decision based on what I knew because I was never going to be a doctor or lawyer, so that was the other part of it.
What adversity did you overcome to get to where you are today?
First, in Guyana, there aren’t any colleges, so the last two years of high school, you’re put into classes that help prepare you for the workforce, and I went into home economics. In high school, that was frowned upon because being a big basketball player; I was not supposed to be crocheting, cooking and cleaning. Even to this day, no one looks at a 6’ 5” tall, black male and says, ‘he’s a pastry chef.’ I’ve never fit into what a pastry chef looks like.
The other challenge is that pastry chefs really don’t get the respect they deserve. The pastry chef is never looked at as an equal or just as good as any other chef. You’re the first one to be cut, and you’re the first one to hear, ‘Let’s do garde manger and pastry together.’ You’re the first one to be told, ‘Hey, I need a cake in 10 minutes.’ You’re looked at as the person who makes the ‘amenities.’ Well, there are a lot of things that go into [making desserts]. That’s why I chose to make the moves I made in my career and work for the few companies I worked for. I always tried to be in a place where I’m respected, not where I’m viewed as an ‘amenity.’
I’ve had mentors and I’ve had role models. They’re different for me. My role models are my mother, Deborah Bristol, and my uncle, Sean Bristol. On a personal level, they are people that I look up to who helped mold me into the man I am today.
My first mentor was Rick Fink, a restauranteur who passed away. Rick was that guy everybody loved. He knew how to communicate to make you feel comfortable, and you felt like you were the most important person in that room. When I first got into this career, I was having trouble, and he came to my aid. He showed me how to communicate, how to show hospitality, how to conduct myself in meetings, how to be a better businessman, and not to just rely on my skill and talent, but actually use my brain to navigate through this industry. The other mentor is one of my investors, named David Lapa – a heart surgeon. He showed me what it means to actually be successful and how to become strong, positive and confident in my role. We still talk about everything, every aspect of life.
I look for mentors outside of my industry because I think life is about formulas. Just like baking and cooking, it’s about formulas. You can apply those to every aspect of your life, as long as it’s coming from a place of good. I listen to people that are successful in different areas, and I apply that in my day to day operations.
I listen to people that are successful in different areas, and I apply that in my day to day operations.
When you decided to become your own boss, what were the motivating factors behind this decision?
Honestly, when you come from a place of struggle, from not having much, you never think you can own anything. You always think that you’ll work for someone else. There are few people with a dream, passion, and drive that in the lowest of times, they figure out how to be successful. I was one of those people that knew I was better than the situation I was in. I had a gut feeling that I was going to be something. After I met my business partner, that’s when I wanted to influence people on a bigger scale – not just be a pastry chef. For me to do that, I had to create a platform in which I can speak and people will listen. Part of creating that platform was owning a restaurant. That’s when more people are going to listen to you.
Ultimately, the goal is not about making the coolest desserts; it’s to serve as a beacon of hope and to help people be better. Because I know what it feels like to struggle, to think you’re not good enough, to be discriminated against – I know all of those feelings. That’s why I’m in the hospitality business because I want to create an environment that makes you feel accepted, welcome and safe. That has always been the push. When I got to a point in my career, in this industry, where I saw all the different classes, the different kinds of racism and prejudices, I wanted to create a space where I can break those boundaries down.
What were some logistical challenges you encountered when you opened your own place?
Moving to Austin, Texas, I didn’t realize how many challenges we would face – financial, time, deadlines, etc. When we first opened, we had to work for Uber [to make ends meet]. We would be planning the restaurant from 8 am to 10 pm – going through colors, budgets, everything – then I would hit the streets and work Uber until 3 am. And then we were back at it again in the morning. Every single penny we had went into the business.
We had different issues come up; for example, they had to put down a drainage system that, for some reason, the contractor forgot, so they needed to break the concrete, and that was going to cost us 40,000 dollars. We rented a jackhammer, me and my business partner, and did it ourselves. I never used a jackhammer in my life. But those are the things you have to do to save money when you get to a certain point.
Then, when we opened the restaurant, we did not open up to huge success. For the first three months, it was really slow. We would see maybe 10, 16 people a night. Those were some of the hardest times. We were waking up in the middle of the night and wondering if this was the right decision. Then we slowly began to have some success. We got some recognition, whether we won an award or got recognized in a magazine, and that’s when things started to flow. Even for myself, in that beginning stage, the first eight months to a year were difficult times, mentally and financially.
Ultimately, the goal is not about making the coolest desserts; it’s to serve as a beacon of hope and to help people be better.
At that time, myself, Kevin Fink and our chef de cuisine, used to send everybody home early. We used to open up the restaurant, clean it from floor to ceiling, and then shut it down. We did this every day because we wanted to create a standard. You bust your ass all day long, and then you spend all night cleaning, dishwashing, fixing, plumbing – anything that would come up, because we couldn’t afford to hire or bring anybody on.
The other thing is a piece of advice a couple gave me years ago. They were celebrating their anniversary, and I asked them what the secret was to their 20 years of being together. They said there were times in their relationship where it was hard, and somebody wanted out, but there was no time where both of them wanted to be out at the same time. I think that was one of the things that kept us going. There were hard times, but when someone was down, the other person would lift them up by showing them what we were working for and how precious it was – this restaurant community that we had. It was something valuable, and we just had to continue to play with that formula to make it work. We knew we had something special. We were just trying to find the right avenue, and do the things the right way, and stay committed to it, and hope that one day we’d be recognized for it. No one wanted to give up at the same time because we had so much invested in this restaurant.
Have you had a moment where you just sat back and said, ‘Wow, I’m here now, and this is where I’ve wanted to be for a long time, but I’m here now’?
I’ve had a lot of those moments because I’m a person that believes in celebrating short wins along the way. I don’t take any win for granted. I don’t take any award or recognition for granted, because I never thought I would be there. No award that I’ve ever won, when I first got it, I felt like I deserved. I still feel like there’s more to be done, and I still feel like there’s something bigger that I’m supposed to be a part of that I haven’t reached yet.
There are a couple of really powerful moments in my life, like when I won the StarChefs Rising Chef award. I was like, ‘Wow. Finally, I’m being recognized for what I am doing on this national stage.’ Or when a food critic came in and spoke about the desserts in the review, every single one of them. Those are big moments. Just for someone to recognize that you are there and you’re valuable, that was a big moment. The latest, the biggest one, was Food and Wine’s ‘Best New Chef,’ when they were not even giving these awards to pastry chefs before. Those to me, being the first and being able to show my other pastry chef colleagues that these things are possible, that’s another big moment in my life because I want to influence people in the right way, in a positive way. I’m not perfect, but I want to be the best that I can be.
How has COVID-19 impacted your restaurant, and what changes have you made as a result?
When we had to close our doors, the biggest hit was financial. We built our restaurants on being able to do large numbers, to turn covers, to have people confined in this gathering space. Then, the second hit was mental. There’s a lot of stress that came with this, and there’s going to be a lot of after-effects. This is not going away after COVID. This is something that will continue to plague us, and we’re going to use it as an example in the future. We’re also going to learn a lot from this process and design our business a little bit better, I would say, to withstand situations like this, if situations like this ever happen again.
I want to influence people in the right way, in a positive way. I’m not perfect, but I want to be the best that I can be.
Before COVID, we’ve always been financially savvy. We put our money into the business and kept a certain level in our bank accounts. We did this because I never wanted to go into business with an investor. I wanted to go into business with a business partner – we treat our investors like business partners. We are doing this together, so it’s easier for us to have conversations with our investors and our landlords to ease some of that pressure as this thing continues to evolve.
The next thing is that we realized we’re not going to make as much money as another restaurant owner with five restaurants on their belt. Because we’re going to put the money back into the business. We’re going to pay off our investors faster, and we’re going to be able to save a little bit more money, just in case anything happens. We either take a small piece of the pie now or greater rewards later. We’ve always been in that frame of mind.
Then, last but not least, I have a very strong group of people. I cannot do this by myself. We were able to sit down and come up with strategies and implement those fast. As soon as this thing hit, we turned our models. Whether it was our delivery platform, our take-out, curbside pick-up, grocery store, feeding the schools, hospital and the frontline, we made those turns as fast as we could. Every single person that works in our organization that’s part of the management team has a voice in every single decision we make. That was one of the reasons why we were able to have different ideas, opinions, and perspective, and put it all together to come up with a good plan. We’re still not out of it. We’re still going through it. If this thing goes on for a long time, there are going to be some hard decisions that we’re probably going to make, but I’m blessed that we were able to sustain to this point.
What is your best advice for pastry chefs who are working long hours in restaurants day-in and day-out who need some inspiration?
First, you have to start believing in yourself and continue doing what you do best. I think too many times we compare ourselves to others, and we try to mimic our lives and do things because we believe what the social construct is, and we need to think outside of those boxes and continue on our way. You’re not in competition with anyone else but yourself. No one else. You are the only one of you in the world. If that’s not good enough, then something is wrong, because whatever you do, that’s the way you do it, and that’s the best that you can do.
If you give 100 percent of you, then you are your only competition. I’ve never compared myself to anyone in my career because there are things that I can do well, and there are things that I’m okay at, and there are things that I’ve only done once in my life. I’m okay with that. I’ve never said, ‘Oh, I need to master this or master that.’ If I’m passionate about it and push myself, that’s what I’m going to do. I put my head down, work and focus on the things that I need to. Were there times in my career where I was jealous that I didn’t get something? Absolutely, I have felt that way. That’s just the competitive side of me. That is not me thinking that I deserve anything. That’s just me wanting to be better and feeling that I can be better.
More than expanding and creating good food, I’m excited about how we can make our industry employees have a better quality of life because we know how hard it is.
What’s next on your horizon?
Hopefully, we’ll make it through this COVID time, with God’s sparing. We have plans to expand our business into different markets and different areas. We can’t only dwell on the struggle; we also have to dream, because that’s what will keep us motivated to get past all of this. That’s what I try to tell all my friends: ‘I understand things are hard right now. I understand that it’s frustrating, but we cannot stop dreaming because that’s the only thing that keeps us going.’
On a personal level, I’m focusing on our team and their mental health after they come back to work. Our being able to create systems and structures that help people helps our industry to feel a little bit more relaxed and comfortable, whether it’s through paid time off or working a shorter amount of hours. We are looking at our policies and procedures for hourly employees and management team to help them have a better quality of life. More than expanding and creating good food, I’m excited about how we can make our industry employees have a better quality of life because we know how hard it is. We know how many hours everyone works. We don’t want to be adapting to the change; we want to be a part of the change. I want to always be thinking about innovating and what we do to make it better, versus adapting to what someone else is doing.
Photo credits: Julie M. Neis, Emmer & Rye, Julia Keim, Jessica Attie, Christian Remde