Austin Caribbean Restaurant Canje showcases the flavors of Guyana
Dining at East Austin Caribbean’s Canje Restaurant is like spending time with Executive Chef Tavel Bristol-Joseph. Both experiences are welcoming, warm hugs full of buzzing energy. The restaurant will win you over with its happy vibes, diverse crowd and delicious Caribbean dishes like no other in the city (never forget the roti order), and Bristol-Joseph itself will win you over with its charm and zest for culture, connection and making some damn good food.
It’s been just over a year since Canje opened its doors under its growing parent company Emmer & Rye Hospitality Group. During that time, co-owner, hospitality manager and executive pastry chef Bristol-Joseph and his team, including Harvard Head Chef Aninye and Assistant General Manager Becca Johnson, have racked up national accolades, while winning in popularity at home. in Austin. The restaurant remains true to its mission to showcase and explore the breadth of Caribbean cuisine in a fun, delicious and upscale way.
Canje is truly the epitome of the Bristol-Joseph restaurant – and not just because he tends to wear bright colors like the restaurant’s wallpaper. The energy is bright and lively as people enthusiastically chat while enjoying delicious food. Even after the mad ride of a year, the chef remains humble as well as ambitious about his profession and his culinary skills (a new project is already in the works).
Born and raised in Guyana, on the Caribbean coast of South America, Bristol-Joseph searches for Caribbean restaurants whenever he visits a new city. He did just that when he moved from Tucson to Austin in 2015 before opening Emmer & Rye. At the time, the only company he could find that fit the bill was a single food truck, Tony’s Jamaican Food. “It just says in a sense that there is no home,” he says. “For a chef, food is home, and where your culture is, that’s where you feel most at home.” The experience sparked slow interest in opening a Caribbean restaurant that Austin could be proud of.
This vision came to fruition in 2021 as Canje. “His [for] the person who’s going to move in here now and say, ‘Where’s the Caribbean restaurant in town?’ and they will find Canje and now they will feel at home.
As Canje explores the wider Caribbean, Guyana, Bristol-Joseph’s home country, is always at the heart of the menu. “The beauty of Guyana is that there is this perfect balance between all the cultures,” he says. “You just consider it Guyanese food. But when you break it down, it’s definitely a mix.
The Caribbean region spans islands and other countries like Guyana around the Caribbean Sea, including parts of North, Central and South America. From the 15th century, the region was colonized by Europeans, first the Spaniards, then the British and the French in the 17th century. Due to the region’s climate and growing conditions, the British used the lands of Guyana for the production of sugar and rum. Colonizing nations forced slaves from Africa to work these crops; When slavery was outlawed in the 1830s and 1840s, they brought in indentured servants from China and South Asia. As the country gained independence in 1966, the forced interweaving of cultures left a strong imprint on Caribbean life and cuisine. The restaurant’s name, Canje, refers to Guyana’s national bird, the canje pheasant.
For Bristol-Joseph, it was about showcasing Afro-Caribbean cuisine in a modern way through its restaurant. For him, Guyanese culture is all about sharing, and ultimately the food stems from a blend of several identities and traditions that make up the Caribbean region – particularly African, South Asian and Chinese.
Given his background as a pastry chef, creating a savory menu was something different for Bristol-Joseph. He relied on his team to help him. He cooked his familiar dishes the way he does and then asked his catering partners to help translate them for a wide audience. “Everyone tapped into their imagination or their emotional connection to the Caribbean,” Bristol-Joseph says, keeping in mind that he’s the one running the menu. “When it comes to every day, what a flavor [and] the texture is, and what it represents, I make that call before sending it.
Pepper pot, a traditional Guyanese dish often eaten at Christmas, is made with cassareep, which gives a dark color and thickness to the stew. Canje’s iteration is made with Texas boar. “It’s all about slow, gentle cooking and total reduction,” he says. “Everything caramelizes and becomes beautiful.”
Curry spice blends are important in the Caribbean, thanks to Indian spices that entered the region through European colonization and slavery. Bristol-Joseph has created its own Canje curry spice blend based on various curries from the region. His take consists of 15 ingredients, including fermented tomato powder, turmeric, coriander, garlic, fresh chilies, dehydrated chilies, salt, curry leaves, and parsley. It is used in Canje curry wagyu beef dish, giving it depth and richness of flavor.
The specialty of the Bristol-Joseph is the desserts, which bring a touch of cheerfulness at the end of the meal. Take the tres leches, one of his favorites. “It’s one of those desserts that I always come back to,” he says. In his first restaurant in Austin 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 pear jam.
Sorbets are another Bristol-Joseph specialty. “I love fruit and I love the expression of fruit…bold, flavorful, just like I grew up eating it.” His method is simple: just juice and simple syrup. To make it more interesting, he adds a shot of Guyanese rum – hence the name 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 has learned what works and what doesn’t, refining some dishes.
Bristol-Joseph is looking forward to exploring even more parts of the Caribbean that fascinate him, including playing around with dishes from the Bahamas and Cuba, as well as mofongo, fufu and pickled pork from Dominica.
By opening Canje, Bristol-Joseph hopes to inspire other chefs to open their own restaurants that are true to themselves, rather than just cooking new American dishes. “That’s what a lot of us minority and ethnic chefs feel like,” he says, noting that it often suppresses creativity and flavor. He believes in creating dishes that he is most proud of because that is 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.