Food

This Self-Taught Culinary Artist Lets His Food Do The Talking

by Leah Kirts

August 10, 2016

The newest wave of vegan activism is in full swing, but you won’t see any picket signs or crowds chanting here. Forget about blood-chilling undercover footage and “cute animal” porn; this chef is all about changing hearts and minds with stretchy mozzarella, fresh crudo, crispy bacon, tangy brie, luscious creme fraiche, rich golden yolks, and fluffy chocolate mousse.

The catch, of course, is that they’re all made entirely with plants; there’s no animal products in sight. For Chef Jay Astafa, using his culinary skills to advocate for a vegan lifestyle has given him not only a purpose, but a thriving business.

This chef is all about changing hearts and minds with stretchy mozzarella, fresh crudo, crispy bacon, tangy brie, luscious creme fraiche, rich golden yolks, and fluffy chocolate mousse.

“We just let the food speak for itself,” says Astafa, a 23-year-old vegan chef and restaurant owner from Long Island whose new catering business attracts clients like HBO, BET, Mercy for Animals, Lush Cosmetics, and Farm Sanctuary.

“For a lot of the events that I cater, the people who attend aren’t vegan, so this is one of their first experiences with vegan food,” he says. “When people try the food, they’re amazed that it’s all vegan. That’s the impact we create.”

First impressions are certainly important, and sometimes it’s difficult to assuage a meat-eating, cheese-loving crowd that’s used to the stigma and stereotyping of vegan food as bland and, well, not delicious.

When people try the food, they’re amazed that it’s all vegan. That’s the impact we create.

But if you’re lucky enough to nab a seat at one of Astafa’s pop-up events or catered dinners, you’ll see (and taste) what he’s preaching: black truffle ravioli, sous vide lobster mushrooms, watermelon “tuna” nigiri, caprese salad, and a host of homemade cashew cheeses so melty and creamy, you’ll forget all about their dairy counterparts.

The trick to Astafa’s success? Let the food, not the chef, do the talking.

“We don’t push it down their throats that they have to go vegan,” Astafa says. “And so they leave really open-minded, because they would never thought that they could enjoy a vegan meal.”

In just eight years, Astafa has transformed from an aspiring actor who didn’t have the first clue how to feed himself (let alone anyone else) into a vegan chef who owns his own successful restaurant and catering company, with his own cashew cheese line in the works. How?

The trick to Astafa’s success? Let the food, not the chef, do the talking.

By following his curiosity. Interested in learning more about factory farming, he found a PETA documentary called Meet Your Meat narrated by Alec Baldwin. After watching it, the then-fifteen-year-old decided to go vegetarian, and shortly after, became vegan.

“Before that, I didn’t know anything about cooking,” he recalls. “I started out self-taught, just looking through cookbooks and teaching myself how to cook.”

In his case, desperation bred creativity. Working in his father’s Long Island pizzeria gave Astafa a place to experiment with food, and he began to veganize some of his old favorites like chicken parmesan and lasagna.

“At first, no one around me knew what vegan food was, and that’s probably one of the reasons that I became a chef: there weren’t any restaurants to eat at on Long Island where I could get vegan food, so I would just create what I wanted to eat at my dad’s restaurant,” he says.

Word of Astafa’s veganized menu leaked, and his father’s customers started requesting his creations. A few years later, and fresh out of high school, Astafa went to train at the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York, where he was by far one of the youngest students. Ever wondered what it’s like to start planning your business and attend culinary school all by age 18? Astafa lived through it.

“It’s mostly been a positive to be so young,” he admits, “but I have had to kind of prove to people that I have experience and skills.”

After opening his all-vegan Long Island pizzeria Three Brothers Vegan Cafe (where you can sample his love for Italian comfort food), Astafa set his sights on Manhattan. But along the way, he unexpectedly fell into the professional catering scene, which offered him opportunities to push his culinary skills farther, with far less risk and overhead cost than a brick-and-mortar New York City restaurant.

These days, he splits his work between catering high-end clients and keeping the cheesy goodness flowing out of his Long Island cafe.

“I started out doing home-style comfort food, and now I really enjoy the high-end, avant-garde style of cuisine,” he says. “I think having that balance keeps things really interesting.”

One peek at his Instagram (that draws nearly 19,000 followers) is all you need to understand the talent and artistry he brings to plant-based food. He also loves sharing his experiments with flavor, texture, color—even physics. Take, for example, his ‘beef’ tartare dish, where he makes a golden beet yolk using a molecular gastronomy technique called reverse spherification. He creates a mold and then dips the beet into a sodium alginate bath, a trick he learned a few years ago.

I like to pull a few techniques that a lot of people don’t know about. It makes it really interesting.

“I like to pull a few techniques that a lot of people don’t know about,” he says excitedly. “It makes it really interesting for guests.”

His passion for experimentation shines when it comes to perfecting vegan cheese. He started working on a cashew “mozzarella” in 2011. After two years of failed batches, he finally achieved the desired balance of consistency and flavor that comes eerily close to dairy cheese, and began serving it at public catering events in 2013. But, just like the rest of his food, it’s constantly evolving.

“I’m always updating it, changing it, and making it better,” he says.

Thanks to Astafa and a growing community of vegan cheesemongers, you can have your cheese and be vegan, too.

Header photo via Flickr

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