A Matter of Taste: Vegan Chef Jay Astafa Raises the (Ethical & Edible) Bar—By Nell Alk
April showers brought more than May flowers this season in NYC. Indeed, last month brought remarkable vegan fine dining to Manhattan’s Lower East Side, two nights that this month attendees still can’t stop talking—and writing—about.
The Old Bowery Station, on April 25 and April 26, played host to 20-year-old plant-based chef Jay Astafa’s restaurant concept, Jay Kitchen. The transient but transformative pop-up wowed crowds of roughly 80 – 90 people each evening, which translated to about 1,360 plates total, as the sit-down dinner consisted of eight carefully curated courses.
Photo by Hulya Provenzano
The menu featured several palate pleasing dishes, but perhaps most memorable, at least to my mind, were the nut cheeses. From a cashew chévre crostini topped with ramps to a homemade cheese plate (featuring aged cashew cheese and brie with strawberry-rhubarb compote, orange infused bee-free honey and rosemary-almond crackers), there was much to indulge in, not to mention rave about on Instagram.
Beyond blowing folks’ minds with rich and creamy cruelty-free cheese, kitsch also made a cameo, in the form of caramel popcorn treated to liquid nitrogen. Entitled dragon’s breath, the salty-but-mostly-sweet morsels titillated the tongue and made for some entertaining exhales.
“This menu was inspired by fun,” Astafa told me. “I wanted to do something fun.”
Photo by Erin “Red” Grayson
Born, raised and based in Long Island, Astafa said farewell to flesh six years ago, at age 14. He explains, “After watching a PETA video, I made the connection that meat comes from animals. I couldn’t eat meat anymore after that.” Following this realization, he had another, maybe more profound, awakening: “I remember, it was Halloween. I was trick-or-treating at that time and eating candy with milk in it. Every time I consumed dairy, as well as eggs, I felt guilty. So I became vegan.”
Astafa grew up in a foodie household, however, as his family owned and operated an Italian restaurant, called Three Brothers Pizza Café. Instead of being discouraged by their conventional cuisine, four years ago he asked if he might supplement the menu a bit. As the cliché saying goes, the rest is history.
Astafa continues to craft compassionate meals at the casual suburban spot, but has in the past year developed a desire (in addition to a business plan) to open a gourmet establishment in New York City proper. Presently studying restaurant management at The International Culinary Center (formerly The French Culinary Institute), Astafa has high hopes of garnering savvy investors’ support and competing with some of NYC’s finest, from Candle 79 to Blossom, Pure Food and Wine to Dirt Candy.
I recently sat down with Astafa to discuss this achievable dream, one for which many a local conscientious consumer is waiting anxiously to come true. We also talked about his trajectory, techniques and a whole lot more.
When did you realize you aspired to be a chef?
As soon as I became vegan. It opened a whole culinary world for me. I discovered so many different ingredients. I would watch Food Network all the time, to teach myself how to cook. I even had a food blog when I was 15. If I weren’t vegan, I don’t think I would be a chef. I was aspiring to be an actor, actually.
When did your diet and lifestyle shift infiltrate the family restaurant menu?
In 2009. By then I had been teaching myself how to cook vegan for about a year-and-a-half. To my dismay, there weren’t any vegan dining options on Long Island. Then I discovered Daiya. I was like, Why not just add vegan cheese to the pizzas? I created a modest vegan menu, and at first traffic was slow. No one knew about us, because we didn’t advertise. I was so happy when even just a few people each day ordered from my menu. A few months later, I created a full vegan menu, and it was written about in The New York Times. That’s how it started. It was all word of mouth.
From how far do people travel to dine at Three Brothers?
It’s not just Long Island. It’s Manhattan, it’s Brooklyn, it’s all over. Three Brothers is definitely a destination restaurant.
Are there non-vegan skeptics that try the vegan dishes?
We get people who aren’t vegan who order vegan food and are so surprised. Now, I want to open a restaurant that’s entirely vegan!
Tell me more about that.
I want to open Jay Kitchen, a vegan fine dining restaurant. I want to do something that hasn’t been done in New York City yet. NYC’s foodie scene focuses so much on meat. That’s the trend. I think meat is passé. It’s time for something new. I want to show people that you can enjoy innovative food that doesn’t involve harming animals. That’s my mission.
Which was presented at your pop-up. How did that materialize?
Originally, I had hoped to open my own brick-and-mortar restaurant by early 2013, but my concept changed, evolving for the better. In the meantime, I was looking for a fun way to share what I was working on. So, I decided to do a pop-up. Spring is my favorite time of year; there are so many awesome vegetables in season, which I saw as the centerpiece of my menu. Most people think vegetables are side dishes, but they can easily take center stage. I also wanted to emphasize foods people don’t typically think can be vegan, like cheese.
Oh, for sure. From where did you draw inspiration?
For a couple of the cheeses, like the Brie, I was inspired by Miyoko Schinner’s Artisan Vegan Cheese. She’s created recipes for so many different kinds of plant-based cheeses. It’s one of my favorite cookbooks. Spring was also an inspiration, as mentioned. Another inspiration was fun. I wanted guests to have a fun gourmet dining experience. Lastly, and tied to fun, but also innovation, I incorporated modern molecular gastronomy techniques, something you don’t often encounter in NYC’s vegan scene.
Can you speak to a couple of these techniques? I know there was the liquid nitrogen caramel popcorn…
There was a technique for the caviar called spherification. The soup had a foam made from chive oil. I also used a lot of neat equipment, such as a PolyScience Smoking Gun. It’s a really cool tool—you can cold smoke anything! I used it on the cauliflower. For dessert we used caramel powder, made from tapioca maltodextrin. The tapioca absorbs the fat, and turns the caramel into powder. When you eat the caramel powder, it melts into caramel. This was dusted on top of the chocolate tart.
Yum! What was a fan favorite across the board?
Guests really loved the ravioli. People can get vegan ravioli in NYC, but not like you find in Italian restaurants like, for instance, at Babbo. Mine was inspired by Mario Batali. I wanted to make a vegan version. I make my own cashew cream butter and my own cashew Parmesan. The pasta is homemade, too. Instead of eggs, I use silken tofu. That’s an excellent egg replacement for pasta. Eggs make the pasta soft, and silken tofu provides the same effect.
I remember it melted in my mouth. So dope. What did guests think of the cheese plate?
People loved the cheese plate. There was a woman there, not a vegan, who is a big Brie lover. She raved, This tastes just like Brie! That was a rewarding compliment. People imagine vegans can’t eat cheese, but that’s not true: there’s a whole world of plant-based cheeses out there.
Vegan cheese is having a major moment right now.
Six years ago, there weren’t any vegan cheeses that tasted good. Now, so many are coming out, including some that melt. It’s really changing our world. There’s no longer an excuse not to be vegan. And it’s definitely growing more popular. When I first became vegan, many people didn’t know what it was. Now, everyone recognizes the term.
Absolutely. Who in the vegan community do you look up to?
Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero. Their book, Veganomicon, was one of the first books I bought when I became vegan. They inspired me to learn how to cook. Before that, I didn’t know anything about vegan cooking.
What’s so special about your edible offerings? What do you bring to the table, so-to-speak?
A lot of the stuff on my menu I can’t just go get from the store the same day. I have to pre-plan. I make a lot of ingredients from scratch, like the butter and cheese. Beyond this and the modern methods I mentioned earlier, in general I simply like creating a one-of-a-kind dining experience.
Your future looks bright. What are you most looking forward to post-pop-up?
I can’t wait ’til I actually do that every day. I was sad it was over after two nights. I’ve been dreaming of opening a vegan restaurant in NYC for so long! Right now I am working on finding a location and a backer. 2013 has been wonderful so far, and I’m excited about what’s to come.
Interested in investing or know someone else who would be down to discuss backing this talented and ambitious vegan chef? Have access to a viable venue in NYC, or have other ideas to help him make this fine dining dream a reality? Reach Jay Astafa at email@example.com.
Unless otherwise specified, photos courtesy of Rachel Durga Page.