"What's the best dessert you've ever had?"
It's a question that Tavel Bristol-Joseph has found always gets people talking.
And it's a conversation close to his heart.
The 29-year-old is Hacienda del Sol's executive pastry chef and corporate pastry chef for the Market Restaurant Group, which also includes Harvest and the two Zona 78s.
Since starting nine months ago, he has re-created the dessert menus at each at least once. On Monday, he will introduce his third at the seasonally inspired Harvest. His newest creations include a Kahlua pound cake with a cayenne caramel ice cream and orange star anise caramel. There's also a bacon jalapeño cheesecake, with vanilla whipped cream on top and a salty caramel sauce.
"It's going to be to die for," he promises.
Bristol-Joseph started cooking in his native Guyana, where students start preparing for careers in their last two years of high school.
He came to Tucson in 2006 by way of New York City, where his résumé includes an education at the New York Restaurant School and two years at W. Hotel in Times Square as a pastry sous chef.
He joined Fox Restaurant Concepts and worked at Wildflower, winning the 2007 Pastry Chef of the Year competition held at Pima Community College's Desert Vista Campus. He moved to Bistro Zin and eventually to North before he returned to New York to work in the newly opened Braeburn Restaurant in the West Village.
Family and the opportunity to do what he does now brought him back to Tucson.
Bristol-Joseph is perhaps best known for his cheesecake, which also happens to be his favorite.
He recently created an über-Italian spumoni cheesecake for Zona 78. It's layered with the pastel flavors of chocolate hazelnut, pistachio and cherry, then topped with rich whipped cream and spiced cherries. It has no crust and is gluten-free, he says, describing it as very Italian and "kind of fun and modern."
We recently took him out of the kitchen to ask him a few questions.
Why pastry? "I'm very artistic. And in a sense, pastry is like therapy for me. It helps me put my best foot forward and also it gives me a lot of options to play with."
The first thing he remembers cooking: "A cheesecake. I was 16 years old."
His greatest mistake in the kitchen: It came two years later in New York. "We had this big party. We were making this chocolate mousse. I overwhipped my cream and the chef went off on me. That was when I first started. What it taught me was that anytime I'm making mousse I always whip it to a soft peak. ... And it taught me not to scream at 18-year-old kids. It can really discourage a kid who is already insecure."
The next big dessert trend: "From what I'm seeing, a lot of people are going towards basic chocolate cakes. They are also doing a lot of brulees."
People would be surprised to know: "That I am the father of twins (now 14 months old). They have so much personality."
What's in his refrigerator: "Häagen-Dazs. I have some vegetables I picked from River Roads Gardens. And I have a lot of baby food."
He doesn't Twitter. "I just got on Facebook. I was trying to stay away from it for a long time." Now it's an easy way to share baby photos with his family back in New York.
His favorite ingredient: "Has to be ginger. Second to that would be cayenne pepper. I love cayenne pepper."
With dessert he prefers: "Jasmine tea. It's an enhancer. It goes pretty well with any type of dessert."
His most memorable meal: "My mother's cooking is amazing. She makes some of the best jerk chicken I've ever had."
Last thing he cooked for himself: "I'm kind of embarrassed because I'm a one-pot kind of guy. Eggs, rice, bacon, onions, garlic and butter - and I just fried it all up in one pot. ... I did a big meal, actually, a couple of days ago. I made a stuffed salmon with cheddar cheese, tomatoes and onions."
Working in his kitchen is: "Very intense. I strive for consistency. I don't mind someone not being perfect, but they need to be consistent. I'm always vigilant. I'm always looking at what everybody is doing. I'm aware of their weaknesses and their strengths. ... I have high expectations."
He listens to reggae music on the drive to and from work: "Buju Banton is my favorite reggae artist. I saw him in Phoenix. I love reggae music. That is my heartbeat - reggae and dance hall."
If you go
• Hacienda del Sol Resort, 5601 N. Hacienda del Sol Road.
• Harvest Restaurant, 10355 North La Canada Dr. in Oro Valley.
• Zona 78, 78 W. River Road and 7301 E. Tanque Verde Road.