Some pastry chefs talk a big game about never over-indulging in sugar. Tavel Bristol-Joseph isn’t one of them. “Candy is my jam!” proclaims the head pastry chef and co-partner at Rainey Street’s wunderkind, Emmer & Rye.
The restaurant is closed today, so it’s just him, a few guests, Brooklyn the dog and a box of Wackym’s Kitchen Strawberry Shortcake cookies. “Try these!” he says with a gush before showing off multiple flavors of belVita Breakfast Biscuits in his cabinets. “When I want to be healthy, I go this way.”
For a guy who talks at length about the many subtle ways to texture mousse, co-runs a restaurant that mills its own heritage grains and makes a tres leches cake that merited a magazine spread, 37-year-old Bristol-Joseph is a lot less pretentious than you’d expect. He has an elegant philosophy of how “every dessert we make has a story behind it; it’s never just something you create,” but he gets even more animated extolling the virtues of the Twix candy bar and the latest offerings from Ben & Jerry’s. Like the restaurant he started with co-owner and head chef Kevin Fink, Bristol-Joseph hasn’t lost the common touch.
Bristol-Joseph grew up with little money in Guyana, and wound up stuck there as the rest of his family moved to New York. He had his deceased father’s last name, not his mother’s, which left immigration agents too confused to let him join her in America. Waiting for the red tape to clear, Bristol-Joseph moved in with his aunt, who made him bake with her as a “punishment” if he came home late. “After a while, I was like: ‘I kinda like this punishment,’” he recalls. All that experience whipping up cookies and cakes gave him such a leg up in home economics class that he didn’t take his final cooking project seriously until the night before. He partnered with a friend—hemming and hawing for hours about how to prepare a fish—when the friend’s exasperated brother-in-law finally grumbled, “Just put it with cheese or something!” To the desperate kids, it sounded just crazy enough to work. They aced the final with a salmon layered with cheese, breadcrumbs, tomatoes, onions and spices.
Today, Bristol-Joseph is making the very same dish, with spicy vegetable rice on the side. It’s been his go-to meal for years—reminding him of the Caribbean home he finally left behind just after graduation. (He appeased immigration authorities by hyphenating his name.) He arrived in Brooklyn, convinced he could play pro basketball, until his mother took him to a nearby basketball court and pointed to players with a lot more experience. “Are you better than those guys?” she asked. “Better?” he asked, incredulous. “Then you need to find another direction,” she said.
Bristol-Joseph enrolled in New York Restaurant School and landed a pastry-cook job at Brooklyn’s impressively starred The River Café before he even finished his pastry-arts degree. (His boss-to-be didn’t realize he’d only shown up to interview for an internship.) Eventually, he moved on to become pastry sous-chef at Blue Fin at the W Hotel before moving to Tucson, Arizona, to follow a girlfriend. Though Bristol-Joseph and the girlfriend eventually broke up, he found a business partner in Fink when they met at Tucson’s Hacienda Del Sol. Together, they hatched an improbable plan to bring farm-to-table fare to Austin with a dim-sum cart thrown in for good measure. Emmer & Rye launched on Rainey Street in 2015, and the rest is whole-grain history.
In October, the partners will expand the business with two new ventures for the ELM Restaurant Group’s Fareground downtown food hall. Honeybit, a dessert-themed food trailer, will serve ice cream sandwiches, ginger-beer floats, chicken-and-waffle ice cream cones and raspados (snow cones). Henbit, a casual breakfast, lunch and dinner place, will debut with a New York deli attitude (“There’s gonna be laughing, loud music, screaming and good energy in a fast-food atmosphere,” he says). Bristol-Joseph will oversee both businesses while still heading the pastry operation back at the mothership. It’s a challenge that doesn’t worry him too much. “It’ll be fine…it’s not just savory, it’s not just sweet,” he says. “I love them both equally.”
By Steve Wilson • Photography by Melanie Grizzel