Just a little over a month ago, while the five Austin restaurants he co-owns were offering curbside pickups and just beginning to solidify their reopening plans, Tavel Bristol-Joseph found out he made Food & Wine’s prestigious Best New Chefs list. Never mind that he’s not quite a newcomer: the 39-year-old Guyana native has been the pastry chef and a co-owner of Austin’s critically acclaimed Emmer & Rye from its start in November of 2015. He’s grateful, though, for the recognition, and calls it a “symbol of hope,” not just because he overcame a difficult childhood, but because he believes the culinary world affords too few opportunities for aspiring Black chefs and restaurateurs. And then there’s what he sees as a broader, sometimes even unintentional, form of baked-in racism: not long before Hestia, another restaurant he co-owns, closed for the pandemic, a diner asked to talk to an owner and laughed disbelievingly when Bristol-Joseph told him he was already speaking to an owner.
“Being an African-American man, you’re aware of the prejudice and racism that you’re going to face,” says Bristol-Joseph, who co-owns, along with Emmer & Rye and Hestia, Austin’s Kalimotxo, TLV, and Henbit. “And being in the hospitality industry, you become numb to it. It is what it is. You smile and you brush it off and you continue to move forward. Some people fight and argue. I choose not to, because at the end of the day, my mind-set is that I need to survive. When the cops pull me over and I say, ‘Yes, sir. No, sir,’ I’m being respectful because I’m trying to survive and get out of that situation because I know what the possibilities are. I don’t want to die. I’m just going to continue to move forward. Cause I’m not going to let that stop me from the goal, which is taking care of the better people and not being focused on all these negativities. And my fight is not necessarily with the people. My fight has always been against the systems.”
With the systemic nature of racism in mind, Bristol-Joseph says the events of the last few weeks have awakened him to the opportunity his platform as a high-profile chef allows for him to highlight the systemic inequities of the restaurant business. To that end, earlier this month, to celebrate the Food & Wine list, Bristol-Joseph threw an ice cream social at Emmer & Rye that benefited the Greater Austin Black Chamber of Commerce, with whom he’s working on setting up a Bristol-Joseph Culinary Arts Scholarship at Austin Community College. He says the high cost of culinary school is prohibitive for a lot of minorities who might otherwise be interested and that, even then, there’s a representation issue—he believes there are too few high-profile Black chefs they’d want to follow into the career.
“No matter how talented you are, these are racism and representation issues that have been overlooked way too long,” says Bristol-Joseph. “So now, I’m happy that we’re having these conversations and I’m happy that we’re looking at the systems because I think it’s the systems, not the people, that are at fault. The people are protected by the system. The people follow the systems because it’s proven that the system works for them, so they believe in it. And not too many people want to challenge that. And opening and owning a restaurant is a part of changing the system because I’ve realized I cannot change the system from the outside—being an owner gives me that ability to change the system.”
On The National Podcast of Texas, recorded by phone Monday afternoon, Bristol-Joseph also discusses the other big conversation within the restaurant industry right now: the existential survival threat that the COVID-19 pandemic presents for a business built on notoriously tight margins.
Three takeaways from our conversation:
Bristol-Joseph appreciates the recent run of Black-owned restaurant lists that have been generated by the food press and daily newspapers, but he also wishes they were more than just lists.
“So now you know a restaurant is Black-owned. But who are these people? Why are they here? Because the key thing in the hospitality industry that I know for sure is that people don’t buy what you have. They buy why you have it. People come to your restaurant and they will try something because they saw it on Instagram. And they will never go back, because maybe the product wasn’t great, right? They based their decision solely on the product. But if I know who you are, I know what you’re about, I know your passion, I know what you want to achieve and I know your struggles, I will come back to your restaurant every single day. Even if the food is not that great, because I believe in you. So I wish the food press would tell these people’s stories and get to know them. Don’t just call them and say, ‘Hey, I’m trying to write a story. Tell me a story.’ Go to the restaurant, try the food, ask them why they came up with a dish. Have a conversation with the owner and get to know these people, so then when you bring them out and you show them to the world, people can believe in them instead of just buying one of their dishes and then never go in and visit them again because they have moved on in their lives. Let’s give these people a little bit more respect and have a conversation with them and have them share their story.”
As badly as Bristol-Joseph wanted to have diners back in his restaurants, the experience of reopening has been more uncomfortable for him than he expected it to be.
“I want to hug people and show them how much I love them and how much I miss them. And now we’re all nervous and uncomfortable. It’s like a first date again. We can’t even shake hands. So I miss being comfortable with people. I can’t truly connect with people if I can’t feel comfortable around them. It doesn’t matter how great the conversation is. If we’re both uncomfortable, there’s something else that’s just making it not go to the next level. On a professional level, we just miss the energy and the smell and the pace of what a busy restaurant looks and feel like. When the house was packed, you’d hear the spoons and the conversations and see people smiling and swirling their glasses around. And you’d see the interaction with the guests, the server, and the food. Now it’s a little slower, it’s a little bit more reserved, so it’s a bit of a different thing. I miss a busy, bustling restaurant.”
Bristol-Joseph says that while his restaurants have chosen to reopen and he believes they’re doing it safely, he’s not in the business of trying to convince anyone who’s reluctant that it’s time to dine in restaurants again.
“You see the numbers rising. And I’m aware of it too. As a business, we are going to do everything in our power to protect you and keep everyone safe. We’re going to do the hundred percent utmost best job we know how to do. Are there things outside our control? Sure. And we’re all still trying to understand and learn more about this disease. But the idea of trying to convince someone to do something that they don’t necessarily want to do? That means that you’re negating who they are, their comfort zone, and are trying to benefit or profit off of that. And I have no interest in that. Our relationship is way more valuable than you just coming into my restaurant to have dinner. I’m excited about the food that I’m preparing. I want you to come try it out. I want you to enjoy it. But our relationship is not going anywhere. I’m not planning on going anywhere. You’re not planning on going anywhere. When you feel comfortable, come by. I’ll be right here waiting. That’s hospitality to me. It’s about letting people be who they are and accommodating to their needs.”
(Excerpts have been condensed and edited for clarity.)