Dining at East Austin Caribbean restaurant Canje is just like hanging out with head chef Tavel Bristol-Joseph. Both experiences are welcoming, warm hugs full of buzzing energy. The restaurant will entice you with its joyful vibes, diverse crowd, and delectable takes on homey Caribbean food unlike any other in the city (never forget the roti order), and Bristol-Joseph himself will woo you with his charm and zest for culture, connection, and making damn good food.
It’s been just over a year since Canje opened under its quickly growing parent company Emmer & Rye Hospitality Group. In that time, co-owner, director of hospitality, and executive pastry chef Bristol-Joseph and his team, including chef de cuisine Harvard Aninye and assistant general manager Becca Johnson, have been racking up national accolades, all while growing in popularity at home in Austin. The restaurant stays true to its mission of highlighting and exploring the breadth of Caribbean food in a fun, delicious, and upscale way.
Canje is truly the restaurant embodiment of Bristol-Joseph — and not just because he tends to wear loud colors like the restaurant’s wallpaper. The energy is bright and bustling as people chat excitedly while digging into delectable dishes. Even after the wild ride of a year, the chef remains humble as well as ambitious about his business and his food skills (a new project is already in the works).
Born and raised in Guyana, on the Caribbean coast of South America, Bristol-Joseph seeks out Caribbean restaurants whenever he visits a new city. That’s exactly what he did when he moved to Austin from Tucson in 2015 ahead of opening Emmer & Rye. Back then, the only business he could find that fit the bill was a single food truck, Tony’s Jamaican Food. “It just says in a sense that there’s no home,” he says. “For a chef, food is home, and where your culture lies is where you feel more at home.” The experience sparked a slow-burning interest in opening a Caribbean restaurant that Austin could be proud of.
That vision materialized in 2021 as Canje. “It’s [for] the person that’s going to move here now and say, ‘Where’s the Caribbean restaurant in town?’ and they’re going to find Canje and now they’re going to feel at home.”
While Canje explores the whole of the Caribbean, Guyana — Bristol-Joseph’s home country — is always at the heart of the menu. “The beauty of Guyana is there’s this perfect balance between all cultures,” he says. “You just consider it Guyanese food. But when you break it down, it’s definitely a blend.”
The Caribbean region spans islands and other countries like Guyana around the Caribbean Sea, including portions of North, Central, and South America. Starting in the 15th century, the area was colonized by Europeans, starting with the Spanish, and then the British and French in the 17th century. Because of the area’s climate and growing conditions, the British used Guyanese land for sugar and rum production. Colonizing nations forced enslaved people from Africa to work these crops; when slavery was outlawed in the 1830s and 1840s, they brought indentured servants from China and South Asia. While the country gained its independence in 1966, the forced meshing of cultures left a strong imprint on Caribbean life and cuisine. The restaurant’s name, Canje, is a reference to the national bird of Guyana, the canje pheasant.
For Bristol-Joseph, it became a question of how to showcase Afro-Caribbean food in a modern way through his restaurant. For him, Guyanese culture is all about sharing, and ultimately the food stems from a blend of several identities and traditions that comprise the Caribbean area — especially African, South Asian, and Chinese.
Given his training as a pastry chef, creating a savory menu was something different for Bristol-Joseph. He relied on his team for help. He cooked his familiar dishes the way he does and then asked his restaurant partners for support in translating them for a large-scale audience. “Everyone tapped into what their imagination or emotional connection to the Caribbean is,” Bristol-Joseph says, while still keeping in mind that he’s the one steering the direction of the menu. “When it comes down to every single day, what flavor [and] texture is, and what it represents, I’m making that call before we send it out.”
Pepperpot, a traditional Guyanese dish often eaten for Christmas, is made with cassareep, which lends a dark color and thickness to the stew. Canje’s iteration is made with Texas wild boar. “It’s about slow, low cooking and total reduction,” he says. “Everything just gets caramelized and gets beautiful.”
Blends of curry spices are prominent in the Caribbean, courtesy of Indian spices that entered the region by way of European colonization and slavery. Bristol-Joseph created his own Canje curry-spice blend based on various curries throughout the region. His take consists of 15 ingredients including fermented tomato powder, turmeric, cilantro, garlic, fresh chiles, dehydrated chiles, salt, curry leaves, and parsley. It’s used in Canje’s curry wagyu beef dish, lending it a depth and richness of flavor.
Bristol-Joseph’s specialty is desserts, which provide a punch of brightness at the end of the meal. Take the tres leches, one of his favorites. “This is one of those desserts that I always go back to,” he says. At his first Austin restaurant Emmer & Rye, where he was pastry chef, he concocted a magnificent tres leches cheesecake. At Canje, he blends Puerto Rican and Guyanese approaches by adding coconut milk and topping the cake with a pear jam.
Sorbets are another one of Bristol-Joseph’s specialties. “I love fruit and I love the expression of fruit ... bold, flavorful, just like I grew up eating it.” His method is uncomplicated: just juices and simple syrup. To make it more interesting, he adds a shot of Guyanese rum — hence the name of rum punch sorbet, with scoops of seasonal flavors such as sorrel, tamarind, or coconut-lime. Since the restaurant opened, its menu has changed as the team learned what works and what doesn’t, refining certain dishes.
Bristol-Joseph is looking forward to exploring even more Caribbean regions that are fascinating to him, including playing around with foods from the Bahamas and Cuba, as well as mofongo, fufu, and marinated pork from Dominica.
By opening Canje, Bristol-Joseph hopes he can inspire other chefs to open up their own restaurants that are true to themselves, rather than just cooking new American food. “That’s the thing that a lot of us minority and ethnic chefs feel,” he says, noting that this often suppresses creativity and flavor. He believes in creating dishes that he’s most proud of because that’s what he wants to express through his restaurant.
And luckily for Austin, there are even more Bristol-Joseph-backed restaurants to look forward to: He shared with Eater that he’s working on his own dessert shop for 2023.