Jay Astafa, Vegan Chef

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jay-astafaJay Astafa stumbled upon veganism as a teen, after witnessing the horrors of factory farming conveyed via an undercover investigation conducted by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). It was after this that Jay began fooling around with food. Immersed in the restaurant business since he was wee, his father’s pizza joint provided the testing ground he needed to develop his kitchen skills. When 3 Brothers Pizza Café expanded its offerings to include Jay’s vegan creations, The New York Times showed up. Thereafter it became a destination for animal lovers and lactose intolerants alike. Due to demand, the vegan options multiplied and, at 20, Jay hosted his first pop-up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. A runaway success, that’s when the catering calls started flooding in. Since May 2013 he’s been helming Jay Astafa Catering, which services clients from New York to Miami, baby showers to Bar Mitzvahs, weddings to movie sets, nonprofits to music moguls. Somewhere in there he managed also to attend both the Natural Gourmet Institute and the International Culinary Center. In April 2015 Jay executed his second pop-up dinner series, set at a Brooklyn townhouse, which garnered high praise and ample press exposure. And, this summer, Jay launched his latest pop-up series — PLANT by jay astafa — at a Chelsea art gallery. To top it all off, he likewise opened a 100% vegan eatery, 3 Brothers Vegan Café, the first of its kind on Long Island. At 23, it’s a wonder how much Jay’s accomplished. And this doesn’t even touch on his several T.V. appearances, a number that will grow by one quite soon. So stay tuned…

TRANSCRIPTION:

Caryn Hartglass: Hi everybody! I’m Caryn Hartglass and you’re listening to It’s All About Food. Thank you so much for joining me today. As I’ve been saying for the last few weeks this is a time to tune in love and I thank you for joining me to do that. Tune in love. I used to say tune in live and then by accident I once typed tune in love. I thought that’s not by accident, that’s the universe telling me that we all need to tune in love. It was an especially hard week. We all know about the attacks on Paris. There is so much violence in the world today. For me, it was difficult because I lived in France for four years; I studied music with a voice teacher in Paris. I did a lot of things there and had my own heartfelt connection to friends and experiences there. There’s so much violence all over the planet. It’s not just the Daesh. We know there’s so much going on and the problem is it’s also in our own country. We have a lot of violence here to humans and to non-human animals. So, what I want to encourage everyone to do is not go the easy route and start hating. That’s not going to bring us any solution. It’s not going to bring us where we need to be. We need to tune in love. One way we can do that – the easiest way to do that – is to stop eating animals; to stop the exploitation and violence going on in our own communities by killing and slaughtering non-human animals. We can do it so deliciously and that’s why I am so excited to speak to my first guest, Jay Astafa. He’s a wonderful vegan chef and we are going to find out a lot more about him right now. Welcome Jay, to It’s All About Food!

Jay Astafa: Hi Caryn! Thank you so much for having me on your show.

Caryn Hartglass: You’re welcome. Now, you won’t remember this, but I met you when I visited the Rockville Center Three Brothers Restaurant, which has now moved to Farmingdale and you were a younger Jay Astafa at that time.

Jay Astafa: I actually do remember. You came in during brunch on a Sunday right?

Caryn Hartglass: Right! I brought my very non-vegan family and we all enjoyed all kinds of wonderful dishes. It was so much fun for a vegan to be able to have a brunch. There are not a lot of brunch places for vegans. Although, there are many restaurants today that accommodate vegans, brunch I think is the least served of all vegan menu items.

Jay Astafa: Brunch, I think the only place you can get that in New York City is probably Champs restaurant. There are not a lot of places to get vegan brunch.

Caryn Hartglass: Right, so that was really fun. Also, on Long Island, there have been a number of vegan restaurants that have come and, unfortunately, that have gone. I don’t think the climate was ready, but we’re ready now and we’re ready for Three Brothers. We are going to hear more about that and how you got started. So, let’s start with that. How did the young Jay Astafa, you’re still young, but the younger Jay Astafa, get started with veganism?

Jay Astafa: So, I went vegan in 2007 when I was 15. Prior to that I was vegetarian for 5 months. For me, I went vegan because I saw a PETA video I think it was called Meet Your Meat and after that I just couldn’t eat meat anymore. I went vegan because milk and eggs made me feel guilty. Then, I just started to teach myself how to cook because when you first go vegan you don’t really have too many options, so you have to learn how to cook for yourself. Then in 2009, my dad had opened a restaurant in 2007, so I would work there occasionally. So, in 2009, it was the summer when I was 16. I was looking for something to do that summer and I found out about Daiya mozzarella cheese, so I decided to add that to my dad’s restaurant. So we started a small menu with vegan pizza and the gyro’s and stuff, so we made a small menu. At first it was really slow with the vegan options. Not too many people caught on. A few months later, I decided I was going to a whole vegan menu. So, we did appetizers, pastas, entrées and then we did vegan desserts. So everything we had on our regular menu, I created a vegan version on the menu. Then the New York Times heard about us in 2009 and that’s when people started talking about us more.

Caryn Hartglass: That doesn’t hurt having the New York Times talk about you. Great press.

Jay Astafa: One of the reasons I did the vegan menu there was because I noticed there was no vegan options on Long Island – very few at that time.

Caryn Hartglass: Well, it was great. A lot of fun. I’m not sure why we don’t have more of that. I think Italian food lends itself so nicely to be veganized.

Jay Astafa: Yes, definitely. Our menu, we just use traditional Italian technique, but we use our own cheese. I make my own cashew milk mozzarella. We make our own ingredients, in house. We did that in 2009. We had a full vegan menu for Three Brothers vegan cafe. We did that for a while until 2012. In 2013 we moved to a new location in Farmingdale, so that’s where the current Three Brothers is. Just this past summer we decided to open an all vegan restaurant on Long Island, so now it’s the only all vegan restaurant on long island.

Caryn Hartglass: I know! We certainly need more, but I’m glad you’re there. It’s a little hard to get to for us in New York City, but it’s not impossible and definitely worth a trip. I hope it does very, very well.

Jay Astafa: I am hoping to open, probably next year, a version of that restaurant in New York City, so the New York City can enjoy it to.

Caryn Hartglass: Well, you have to have a lot of support. Manhattan is a pricey place.

Jay Astafa: Yeah.

Caryn Hartglass: Those rents are tough. Well, this is great. I’m just curious. It’s hard running a restaurant. How did your father deal with this when his son was saying to add these foods to the menu?

Jay Astafa: Well, my dad didn’t really know much about vegan cuisine or the vegan lifestyle. So, he just pretty much let me do whatever I wanted at that time. He would order the ingredients for me and I just created the menu for him. So, at that time I would have to work at the restaurant every day because I would have to educate people about how to make the vegan food. Now, I don’t really have to do it that often because everyone knows. My dad knows how to cook vegan and my mom knows how to cook vegan so I don’t really have to teach them that much.

Caryn Hartglass: Excellent. I didn’t realize that the Three Brothers in Rockville Center opened in 2007. It seemed when I went there that it had been there forever. It seemed very well established. Was your dad always into cooking? Were you raised to know how to cook?

Jay Astafa: My dad was always working restaurants. Then he opened his first restaurant in 2007. At home my family would always cook.

Caryn Hartglass: One thing I am always telling people is to get back into the kitchen and learn how to cook. We don’t all need to be chefs, but I think it would be better for us, for the planet, for our health, for so many reasons and you just learn to appreciate food a lot more when you know what goes in it. Most people have no idea what’s in their food.

Jay Astafa: Definitely. It’s so easy to teach yourself. When I became vegan I knew nothing about cooking. I would read cookbooks and I taught myself how to cook. Then in 2011 I decided to go to culinary school. I went to the natural gourmet institute.

Caryn Hartglass: How is it there for someone who wants to cook vegan?

Jay Astafa: They are very accommodating. For a vegan, you don’t have to handle any chicken, or meat or eggs. Then you don’t even have to answer any test questions. Prior to that I went to a regular culinary school at a local community college and I just stayed there for two months. They wanted me to handle chicken and I just couldn’t do it. After they asked me to handle chicken I didn’t want to do that, so I dropped out of that program.

Caryn Hartglass: Good, smart move. Interesting. I had no idea that even as far as test questions are concerned, so that’s nice that the natural gourmet institute doesn’t require you to answer those questions. Good. I plead the fifth. So, you’ve got a few wonderful projects. You already mentioned your new restaurant – it’s in Copiague right?

Jay Astafa: Yes, Right. My dad just randomly found that location. It was totally his idea to do a restaurant there and then I just signed on to the project for it. It’s been pretty successful.

Caryn Hartglass: Well, the one in Farmingdale, the few times I’ve been there has been packed, so you need more space.

Jay Astafa: Definitely. I think vegan definitely need and like to dine at an all vegan establishment. That’s why it’s better. We can make our own cheese at the restaurant and have more room.

Caryn Hartglass: Very good. You’ve done a number of other projects. Let’s talk about those. You had a pop up series?

Jay Astafa: I started my pop up series and I had a few different ones. I had a Jay kitchen. That was in 2013. That started as a two day pop up and that actually made me want to branch out into a catering company. So, that’s where my current catering company Jay Astafa Catering was born out of, that two-day pop up restaurant. After that people started asking me for events, so I have that catering company. Just recently I did a new pop up series called Plant by Jay Astafa, which I am hoping to open into a fine dining restaurant, probably by next year.

Caryn Hartglass: So, in your restaurant, in your dad’s restaurant and in those new vegan restaurants, you have classic Italian cuisine.

Jay Astafa: Yes, I’d describe it as classic comfort Italian cuisine and we have a few new American dishes too.

Caryn Hartglass: But your catering and your pop up restaurants are a little different aren’t they?

Jay Astafa: Yes, I like to describe myself as having two distinct creating styles. I am known for my comfort Italian food and also my high-end vegetable focus cuisine.

Caryn Hartglass: I was at the Veg-News Comfort Food Shindig Extravaganza and got to sample some adorable little bites that you were preparing. There was the grilled cheese with tomato soup.

Jay Astafa: Those are really popular. In the grilled cheese we make our own cheese from cashew milk.

Caryn Hartglass: It was awesome.

Jay Astafa: Thank you.

Caryn Hartglass: Who doesn’t love grilled cheese? The grilled cheese tomato combo, from my early background, was just growing up lovely staple that I just stopped eating, period.

Jay Astafa: You can take those comfort foods and once you make them miniature they automatically become a whole different thing – like a high end experience.

Caryn Hartglass: Yeah. Of course you had the burgers, fries and shakes, all in miniature, which were so adorable. What else did you have?

Jay Astafa: We did the mini pizzas in customized boxes. My clients always request those.

Caryn Hartglass: Everybody loves pizza. That’s great. So, you’ve accomplished so much and where are you going from here? What can you do?

Jay Astafa: Once of my longest goals has been to open a restaurant in New York City, so I definitely want to focus on that. I also just like growing my catering company and I also am planning to write a cookbook soon. A lot of people are asking me to start a cheese line, so I have to figure out how to do that too.

Caryn Hartglass: That’s definitely the next level and a lot of people and companies have started going there. Just like cheeses made from animal milk, there are so many different kinds and flavors from regions all around the world, we can have as many, if not more, plant based cheeses made from different regions all around the world.

Jay Astafa: Definitely. On twitter they told me one time that I can’t call my mozzarella, mozzarella because it’s not made with cows milk. If you look at the cheese there are so many different types of milk that are used for cheese. I think one day there will be a day when cashew milk is the norm for cheese and it’s going to be kind of like the standard.

Caryn Hartglass: Yes, absolutely. Maybe we should start getting creative with our cheese names. I love that many artisan products in France, for example, are named after the regions that they come from. So, I don’t know, maybe we can have a Copiague Cheddar or something like that. Well, we also have to get to FDA on board because they define foods and what’s in them in order for them to be named mayonnaise, or milk, or cheese.

Jay Astafa: Yeah, I just read something that happened to Hampton Creek of Beyond Mayo, which is Just Mayo.

Caryn Hartglass: That story is on going. We have a little news report on our website, Responsible Eating and Living, about a number of things that have happened in the mayo wars. It’s quite fascinating. There’s a lot of corruption coming from the egg board, governmental organizations that support the egg industry and we need to have change happen. It’s going to happen. It’s happening right now. It’s just kind of exciting to see it happening.

Jay Astafa: I agree. I think the egg industry is just getting scared that there’s competition.

Caryn Hartglass: It’s all about money. I like to say it’s all about food, but it really is all about money. It’s important that our vegan businesses succeed, so I’m glad to see you’re doing well. So, what are some of the favorites in your new restaurant in Copiague?

Jay Astafa: Well, one of my favorites is the pizza that we make with the cashew milk mozzarella. I like the Margherita pizza, which is a standard pizza with standard sauce and cashew milk mozzarella. Another is our pizza Bianca that we do with garlic; mozzarella and we also make our own homemade ricotta cheese. We also have pasta dishes like Fettuccine Alfredo – that’s one of my favorites. We also do dishes like seitan piccata.

Caryn Hartglass: It’s all good.

Jay Astafa: Cauliflower, that’s one of our top appetizers.

Caryn Hartglass: I’ve had that. That’s really decedent. Now, I’m really glad that they came on the scene with their mozzarella. I have to admit that I was a never a big fan of it, taste wise and texture wise, but I am just glad it was there.

Jay Astafa: The Daiya mozzarella just inspired me. When I first found out about it that’s what inspired me and made it acceptable to do the vegan options at the restaurant. Before that I didn’t really know how to make my own cheese.

Caryn Hartglass: I think it was groundbreaking, using tapioca starch in their recipe. We all learned a great deal. It raised the bar. It moved us all onward and upward and we’re all benefiting for it, even now and you’ve got some great products. But I want to say I like your cashew cheese better than the Daiya cheese.

Jay Astafa: At the restaurant, half of the people are not vegan and when they try the cheese they’re always impressed how it’s similar to dairy mozzarella.

Caryn Hartglass: Now, what about desserts? I know you brought in Vegan Treats desserts. Are you making your own desserts at the restaurants?

Jay Astafa: Well, we still use vegan treats. I like the stuff that Danielle Konya makes.

Caryn Hartglass: Yes, they’re really good and really sweet. Good. I always say that the best way to get people eating plants, getting people to go vegan, is to put delicious tasting food in their mouths. We need access to these delicious foods. You’re doing an amazing job providing access and delicious foods.

Jay Astafa: That’s one of my forms is activism through foods. When I first went vegan I was looking for a way to become an animal activist. I found food and that’s how I do my activism.

Caryn Hartglass: I was talking about tune in love before and this is the best way to do it. People need to know that they will not be deprived. How many times have you heard people say, “I can’t give up cheese!”?

Jay Astafa: Also, telling people that sometimes people have the stereotype that you have to be vegan to eat vegan foods. We like to tell them that you don’t have to go vegan right away to enjoy vegan food.

Caryn Hartglass: Yes, that’s like cracking the door open. Although, I want to say that I have difficulty with what the ideal way is to spread the word about vegan food. I know there are the abolitionists that say vegan all the way. There is no other than being vegan. In my heart, I really believe that. On the other hand, I don’t know if it is the most effective way with the current culture. Some people really need to be treated gently as they make their transition and I know that they would back away if they were told they needed to go all the way.

Jay Astafa: Yes, I definitely agree with that. I think that you just have to be a good example and people will catch on.

Caryn Hartglass: Be a good example. Look really hot, which you do! Make great tasting food. For you, it was the animals, right?

Jay Astafa: Definitely. I became vegan because I remember growing up I was always curious how meat came to the table. I just researched one day and I was very shocked and could not eat meat anymore after that.

Caryn Hartglass: Now, your family is supporting all of this, but has anyone in your family gone vegan?

Jay Astafa: Not fully vegan. My mom is mostly vegetarian; she still eats fish, so she is a pescatarian. No one in my family has gone fully vegan, yet.

Caryn Hartglass: It’s touch when it’s related to your business. It takes a lot of extra courage to do that. Well, you’re the next generation and we just improve as it goes on. Really, really good. Well, Jay, what else do you want to tell me before I let you go? Any big events coming up that you think we should know about?

Jay Astafa: I am actually going tomorrow and flying out to Miami for the Seafood and Wine battle. I’m doing a burger battle on Thursday. It’s a competition between 12 other chefs, so I’m representing New York. Then on Saturday I’m doing a demo there, so I’m really excited.

Caryn Hartglass: That’s in Miami?

Jay Astafa: Yes. Just on Sunday I did Thanksliving for the Woodstock Animal Sanctuary. That was a really fun and awesome experience.

Caryn Hartglass: How many people were there?

Jay Astafa: There were about 250 people. The day before, or on Friday, I actually did a tasting menu, so it was a pretty busy week for catering.

Caryn Hartglass: What did you make for the Thanksliving dinner? Just to give people an idea of what they can have besides the dead bird.

Jay Astafa: For the first course we did a sweet potato butternut squash soup. I always like featuring a butternut squash type of soup. Then for our main dish we had two options. One was for gluten free we did a pecan crusted rosemary tempeh. Then for the regular we did seitan turkey roast. I really like making my turkey roast. I used Yuba skin for that nice crispy skin.

Caryn Hartglass: Love that!

Jay Astafa: We just did all the traditional thanksgiving sides. We did truffle mashed potatoes, cornbread stuffing, cranberry sauce. We did haricots verts. People actually really liked the green beans. They actually questioned me how I did the green beans. I think the French green beans are the perfect green beans.

Caryn Hartglass: J’adore les haricots verts!

Jay Astafa: Then we also did Brussels sprouts. Then we topped the roast with mushroom gravy.

Caryn Hartglass: Sounds pretty good. Yum, why not?

Jay Astafa: You don’t even have to go all the way. The roast takes a little while, but I think Thanksgiving is all about the side dishes.

Caryn Hartglass: Yes, absolutely. Even back in the day when it was hard to find vegan substitutes for milk, butter and eggs. We were, 20 or 30 years ago, figuring our way. It really wasn’t hard with mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie, cranberry sauce and stuffing. Those were easy vegan foods.

Jay Astafa: On my family Thanksgivings, we actually make all the sides all vegan. Pretty much, if you have family that doesn’t eat all vegan, you can make all the side dishes vegan and no one will notice.

Caryn Hartglass: Beautiful! Who’s hungry? Raise your hand! My mouth is watering. Thank you so much for joining me on It’s All About Food; it’s really been a pleasure.

Jay Astafa: Thank you so much for having me.
Caryn Hartglass: I look forward to tasting more of your art at any event where you’re at soon that I happen to be at as well.

Jay Astafa: Thank you so much.

Caryn Hartglass: Take care!

Jay Astafa: Bye!

Caryn Hartglass: Bye! That was Chef Jay Astafa. You can find out more about Jay Astafa at www.jayastafa.com. That’s J-A-Y-A-S-T-A-F-A .com. That was a delicious story, wasn’t it? I love when young people get it – get the message about the importance of delicious plant foods. Then do something wonderful. Do something delicious!

I just want to bring up a number of things before we move on to the second part of the program. Tonight, I don’t know if there’s still time left to get it together in your schedule, but for those of you who can get to Brooklyn there’s an event tonight. I thought it sounded pretty interesting. It’s sponsored by Lantern Books. We’ve had many Lantern Books authors here on It’s All About Food. And Brighter Green, we had Mia McDonald on several years ago; she has a wonderful non-profit. They are doing an in-depth discussion on the state of conservation, development and protection and local communities in central and eastern Africa with three experts in the field: Jean Kim Chaix, that’s C-H-A-I-X, I don’t know if I’m pronouncing that right, Josphat Ngonyo, and Ambassador Nehemiah Rotich. Those two are visiting from Kenya. There’s a documentary that you can watch, that’s on Netflix, to learn more about the struggle to protect the Virunga National Park in Congo and that is called Virunga. If you’re interested in attending it is tonight from 6-8pm in Brooklyn. You can e-mail info@brightergreen.org.

The other thing I wanted to bring to your attention, also for those in the New York City area, there is the Anti-Fur Society Vegan Conference and Cruelty Free Fashion Show this Saturday, Landmark on the Park at 160 Central Park West, in the heart of Manhattan. The website is A like apple, F like fashion, S like show conference .org – afsconference.org. There will be speakers and fabulous food and a fashion show. My partner Gary and I will actually be there. We will be filming some of the fashion show and presenting some of the wonderful things that we see at a later time. Head over there on Saturday and say hi. I would love to meet you!

Transcribed by Jolene Gervais and Zia Kara, August 17, 2016

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