Thursday, May 2, 2013

IN THE KITCHEN WITH: JAY ASTAFA

NEW YORK CITY’S CULINARY SCENE got a jolt of refreshing creativity last week. It came in the form of a two day preview of jay kitchen— the much-anticipated vegan fine dining restaurant concept from Chef Jay Astafa. Over the length of the sold-out popup, eight courses consisting of 650 platings of intricately-prepared dishes emerged from the kitchen of The Old Bowery Station on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Highlights included the King Oyster Mushroom Scallop, which left diners awestruck; the Spring Crostini Duo— bursting with delicate flavors and textures; the Smoked Cauliflower Steak, which flawlessly united seven unexpected ingredients; the creamy House-Made Cheese Plate, with its precise balance of  sweet and savory; the Grand Marnier Infused Chocolate Tart— practically a work of art. At the conclusion of the popup, Jay affably greeted each table of diners. The ability to remain cool and collected under tremendous pressure is challenging for even the most seasoned of chefs. It comes as a big surprise, then, that not only was this Jay’s first foray into an event of this scale, but that he is only 20 years old. “I’ve never done an eight course menu, so I really didn’t know what to expect,” he told us when we spoke to him recently. “That was more plates than I have ever plated and cooked during a dinner service.” The kitchen team consisted of just a handful of people— including Jay’s mother, and the popup’s talented pastry chef Dani McGrath, who has been collaborating with Jay since 2011.

Jay first burst on the scene four years ago when he created the vegan menu at his father’s Long Island-based pizzeria, 3 Brothers Cafe . Its unparalleled authentic vegan offerings quickly made it a destination restaurant for diners from the city. Now a graduate of the Natural Gourmet Institute, Jay has taken a brave step forward away from the familiar. With his jay kitchen restaurant concept, he is helping to usher in a new era of haute cuisine— one that reinvents the format altogether, putting “vegetables center stage,” as Jay explains it. The young chef is planning on opening his restaurant by the end of 2013. To get to know him better, we decided to ask him 8 questions— one for each course of his popup…

What sprung forth your vision for jay kitchen?
I started developing a NYC vegan restaurant concept about a year and a half ago. For the past year I’ve been looking for locations but didn’t really have an exact detailed concept until now. My concept changed so much over the past year. Now jay kitchen is a chef driven vegan fine dining restaurant that focuses on modern technique and local and seasonal ingredients. I want a restaurant that can compete with the local foodie restaurants. I decided to do the popup version first, because I wanted to see if my concept would work in the fierce NYC dining scene.

Everything went so smoothly during the popup, but was there anything crazy going on behind the scenes?
The craziest and scariest thing was the ravioli course! Cooking over 250 raviolis a night on an electric hot plate was a difficult task. The water took forever to boil! The kitchen was all electric and didn’t have a professional gas stove. We cooked everything on induction hot plates. With a limited kitchen, my amazing kitchen team and I somehow managed to do it successfully. The ravioli course turned out to be everyone’s favorite.

Putting the pea in the spotlight— a deliberate homage to those underrated, flavorful little gems?
Vegetables are just so fun to work with. Most chefs just disregard vegetables and focus on meat, meat, and more meat. How boring and uninspired! It’s 2013, and vegetables are the new meat! When I was coming up with the menu for the popup, I wanted to give vegetables a chance to shine, something they don’t often do at restaurants. I used peas a lot, because they scream Spring! My favorite dish with them is the Crostini with Sorrel-Mint Pesto, Green Peas, and Cashew Parmesan— Spring in a few bites.

And what was the development behind the Dragon’s Breath Popcorn— lengthy scientific trial and error, or a magical accident?
I had seen the technique in a video of a trendy modern restaurant, where guests would eat the popcorn dipped in liquid nitrogen and smoke would come out of their mouths. I just had to do this too, it worked perfectly with my (overall) concept. I also really wanted to work with liquid nitrogen! I like to make dining fun and an experience for people. It’s actually really simple to make, it’s all about the liquid nitrogen. You “fry” the popcorn in the liquid nitrogen and it gets frozen. You have to eat it really fast to get that fun smokey dragon breath!

Tell us a bit about your creative process.
It really varies. I typically think of ingredients I want to focus on, and build a dish from there. I am always challenging myself to do things that I haven’t done before. I love cooking in season, because everything is so fresh and delicious. I strive to create flavors that people don’t usually expect can be vegan. For the pop up menu, I made a lot of homemade vegan cheeses. I did it on purpose to show people that, yes, vegans can eat cheese too, and there is no excuse for dairy cheese. Also I really like taking vegetables and using them in a different way. An example are king oyster mushrooms, I transformed them into scallops and topped them with balsamic caviar. I’m inspired by modern techniques too, it’s something you don’t see at a lot at vegan restaurants.

Michelin-starred chef you’d like to challenge to a vegan cook-off and why?
I would say Gordon Ramsey! I watch all his shows, even though he doesn’t always say the nicest things about vegetarians. I would love to see what he comes up with. I don’t know if he has a Michelin star but I would really like to challenge Anthony Bourdain too. I want to show him what vegan fine dining is all about, and maybe he’ll change his view towards vegans!

What inspires you?
My inspiration is being vegan. I went vegan when I was 15, and it’s the best thing I ever did for myself, the animals, and the world. Going vegan inspired me to become a chef, and show people you don’t need to harm animals to create amazing food! I’m a voice for all those animals who can’t talk, no animal wants to be turned into your dinner. I’m so tired of seeing and hearing about restaurants that focus on animals products. It’s time for a change in the world!

And finally, in honor of your age- 20, and your speed in the kitchen- tell us your food philosophy in 20 words or less!
To create a fun gourmet dining experience that doesn’t harm animals and doesn’t sacrifice on flavor!

Learn more about jay kitchen and Jay Astafa on:
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Photographs by Hannah Kaminsky for Laika Magazine

Written by Julie Gueraseva

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

SNEAK PEEK: FROM A ROGUE KITCHEN

A MORE APT TITLE for Chef Mérida Anderson could be “food artist.” The founder of the perpetually-booked dining club Vegan Secret Supper, she is also a musician, ceramist and fashion designer. It’s no wonder that she has been applying similar creativity in the kitchen, re-imagining vegan cuisine with unexpected ingredients and flavors in a visually stunning presentation. And soon, you’ll be able to recreate Mérida’s unique blend of hip and playful haute cuisine right at home— thanks to her new cookbook Vegan Secret Supper: Bold & Elegant Menus from a Rogue Kitchen (Arsenal Pulp Press). Out on April 1st, it includes 150 sumptuous recipes, as well as plating and pantry tips, flavor-pairing suggestions and a focus on simple, seasonal ingredients.

We covered VSS in a feature in our Premier Issue, and now Mérida shares an exclusive recipe with us from her upcoming book— a colorful and delicious dish that we had the good fortune to experience at one of her suppers. Enjoy!

Watermelon Red Pepper Gazpacho

Ingredients
1 red bell pepper, roughly chopped
2 tsp lime juice
½ red jalapeño, seeded and chopped
8 cups (2 L) cubed watermelon
In a blender, purée all ingredients. Chill thoroughly.

For garnish
ground black pepper
about ½ cup (125 mL) micro basil sprouts
about ½ cup (125 mL) micro cilantro sprouts

To plate:
Ladle a serving of soup into a bowl. Garnish with ground
pepper and 1 tsp each fresh basil and cilantro sprouts.

Tip: It’s great with yellow peppers and yellow watermelons, too!

• Makes 6–8 servings.

Photographs courtesy of Danny Rico

MEN’S FOOTWEAR TOOK A STEP IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION during Fashion Week, thanks to the outstanding footwear collection from Brave GentleMan. Worn by the models during VAUTE’s Autumn/Winter ‘13 Presentation, the shoes were immediately eye-catching, tying each look together crisply. There was an impressive range of boots, oxfords and saddle shoes in sophisticated hues, each offering a new take on classic silhouettes. Demonstrating a high degree of craftsmanship, design and versatility, the line of footwear also gave men of style something to feel good about: the collection was entirely vegan, sustainable and made under fair labor conditions. If shoes make the man, these undoubtedly would make you an even better one. “Ecologically, they are far superior to traditional leather in that they were not tanned in a chemical bath, they are naturally water-resistant, and they are not products of the livestock industry which has a staggering effect on water resources, topsoil erosion, GHG emissions, and grain and petrol consumption,” Joshua Katcher, the designer behind the line, explained to us when we visited him in his studio last week.

Brave GentleMan during the VAUTE NYFW presentation

The line is a collaboration with another vegan brand of footwear, Novacas, and is constructed in Portugal from Italian textiles. One of our favorite styles from Fashion Week was the Defender (seen above)— a twelve-eyelet bulcher-style boot. The bulcher were introduced by the Prussian General von Blücher, Joshua explained to us, and are “known for having side pieces that lap over the front and vamp,” he added. The upper is a biodegradable PU microfiber. It is remarkably indistinguishable from leather in look and feel. And this is where the Italian craftsmanship element comes into play. The material is made up of “millions of tiny fibers that, like an animal’s skin, feel supple and can handle wear and tear very well,” Joshua told us. This level of detail results in shoes that are breathable, that break-in naturally, that don’t crack, and are resilient. Seeing the gorgeous line within the context of a vegan fashion show was undoubtedly one of the week’s highlights for us.

Joshua makes some final adjustments on set (left); the Covert in Navy (right)

A man with great taste in shoes obviously needs a great suit. Recognizing the need, Joshua recently created his very first line of Brave GentleMan custom men’s suits and tuxedos. We got to take a look at the impeccably-constructed line at Joshua’s studio during Fashion Week and discovered fabrics that are truly pushing the boundaries of innovation, and are evocative of the thrilling developments happening in veganism today. The Covert, for example- the line’s most popular style- is a three-piece, notch lapel, single button suit. “This means that there is a waistcoat with an adjustable button belt, a single button jacket with a single rear vent, functional and flat-front slacks, that the lapel features a notch,” Joshua explained to us. Designed in New York City, they are made in Italy by a small family-owned factory. To source sustainable textiles, Joshua partnered with the Italian organization CLASS. “I use their own collaborative line of textiles made from recycled-PET, mostly from post-consumer water and soda bottles. These materials are used by many high-end European mills to create very luxe and sustainable, recycled materials,” he told us. Impressing us further, he told us that the buttons are Tagua Nut (or “Corozo”), which fall from trees, and are gathered. They are known as “vegetable ivory” because of their luxurious feel, color and strength. The collar backing, shoulder pads, lining, full-canvass sew-in interfacing and sleeve headers are all made from recycled poly from Japan in closed-loop factories. As Joshua explained, “The factory does not allow any emissions or contaminants to leave the facility-they are cycled back in to the production process or they are treated and neutralized.”

Joshua— a long-time vegan— has been utilizing fashion as a vital extension of his work as an activist for a number of years. “The fashion industrial complex not only affects millions of people’s livelihoods globally and is tied to some of the worst environmental problems like livestock (sheep, cows, pigs), but it is one of the most powerful forms of creating values and meaning based on aesthetics and expressing personal identity,” he told us. “Fashion is so culturally relevant and has global implications on issues of humans rights, animal rights, and the environment,” he added. With wool production being just one example of an environmentally detrimental practice, not to mention cruel— companies like Brave GentleMan are leading the way towards making these practices obsolete. Joshua is currently designing his Fall ‘13 and Spring ‘14 collections, and we have a hopeful hunch that a Fashion Week presentation is in his very near future.

photo by Joel Barhamand for Laika

We also got to check out Charlotte Ronson’s Autumn/Winter 2013 Collection. Showing 60’s Mod influences, the collection boldly integrated spring-time floral patterns into a fall wardrobe. There were flirty halter dresses and A-line minis in lively emerald greens, punctuated by blacks; touches of peek-a-boo mesh panels; eclectic color-blocking and unexpected cutouts.

While we must make clear that Charlotte’s collection is not all vegan, we are reporting on it here because she has publicly asserted herself as a fur-free designer. During a time when some designers have taken to accepting bribes veiled as sponsorships from a fur industry desperate for market share, Charlotte has remained steadfast in rejecting the usage of fur in any of her garments. Indeed, even just by virtue of excluding fur, she is setting a heart-felt example for her peers. “It’s something I can do, and it’s something that could make a difference,” she told us, when we spoke to her after the show.

Charlotte during and after the show. Photos by Joel Barhamand

She recalled being invited to the offices of the Humane Society a few years ago, where during a meeting she saw videos about the harsh realities of the fur trade. She was deeply affected. “You just can’t go back,” she said. She further explained that fur as a fabric simply doesn’t appeal to her, and is not only “not my style,” as she put it— but that she doesn’t wear it or use it in her collections for compassionate reasons. “I’m against any kind of animal cruelty, and I love my little dog,” she told us.

photos by Joel Barhamand

Another highlight during Fashion Week was seeing cruelty-free and vegan cosmetics being used. Simcha Whitehill, aka Miss Pop (a nail artist with a cruelty-free kit, and a contributor at Laika), created several stunning nail designs for the runways, partnering exclusively with the outspokenly cruelty-free and vegan Color Club nail lacquer. For Charlotte Ronson, she created the “Picture Frame” look (seen above). “To match all the hues in the collection we did five permutations of the look: lipstick red and eggplant, hunter green and a bright purple, two shades of grey, sand and a deep ocean blue, and black and white,” Simcha told us. The look above can be easily recreated at home, using Color Club’s Where’s the Soiree and French Tip shades. Start by applying one coat of the darker shade of polish, and then imagine your nail is just a teensy bit smaller and polish your nail using the lighter color. “This should leave a thin U shape of the darker color framing your nail,” Simcha explained. Brush on a thin French tip with the lighter shade to complete the nail frame.

photo by Joel Barhamand

Another design from Simcha was this nature-inspired look, which used a custom color she created with Color Club called Raw Amber. The look integrated the natural nail peeking through as part of the design. And the purpose of the geometric shape was to evoke “an element of mystery- the openness of the natural nail shrouded in amber and black,” Simcha explained.

 

photo by Julie Gueraseva

That week, we also made a trip to mid-town Manhattan to check out the footwear industry’s version of Fashion Week— the New York Shoe Expo, a major trade show from the Fashion Footwear Association of New York (FFaNY). There, we discovered an exciting new vegan collection from Krže Studio. The collection was in large part inspired by founder and designer Leila Kerze’s home base of Los Angeles. “There is a play between art and industry, motorcycle culture and the canyons and beaches it races through. Though the collection exudes an aggressive and rugged strength, it finishes in elegance,” Leila explained to us. Many of the designs have aerodynamic silhouettes, with lacing and chain detailing. The collection shown in NYC is expected to hit retail outlets in July or August of 2013.

photo by Julie Gueraseva

While compassion was Leila’s primary motivation for starting Krže Studio (“I do not believe it is possible to create something truly beautiful if its origins are from suffering, cruelty, and victimization,” she told us), she quickly discovered that many of the vegan materials on the market not only rivaled the look of leather, but were actually superior in performance and function. The lining of her shoes, for example, utilizes a breathable, anti-bacterial and porous material that is approved by the American Podiatry Association. “This means that both a tall winter boot and a strappy spring sandal can be worn without becoming uncomfortable because of bacteria,” Leila explained. With many vegan leathers being plastic-based and recyclable, designers now have an opportunity “to adhere to a cradle to cradle philosophy and make a renewable and sustainable luxury product,” she added.

Indeed, what we saw during Fashion Week is that not only is it possible to create cohesive and imaginative clothing and footwear without the use of animal fibers— but one can create a collection that in fact surpasses conventional materials in style and function. So perhaps today’s designers should ask themselves the question, Am I moving forward with the currents of change and progress, or swimming against them, regressing further into stagnant practices? If fashion is about innovation and rebellion, it seems evident that humankind has in fact fully exhausted all the possible ways to use animal skins. It is time we give some serious thought to the price animals pay for our vanity, and carefully examine other viable solutions. For a designer like Joshua Katcher— who is already successfully implementing these solutions, you can’t put a price on compassion. “No one complains that furs or leathers are “too expensive”, but most designers are desperate to use that visual currency. But if you asked them to pay workers fairly or invest in new textile technologies that remove animals from the production model, suddenly it’s “too expensive.” Deciding to work towards an ethical fashion system doesn’t have to be an aesthetic choice. If you’re a good designer, you should be able to make brilliant work with whatever materials and production methodologies are available,” he says. We look forward to the day when being a good designer becomes universally synonymous with being an ethical and compassionate one. And we feel confident that this day will come.

Written by Julie Gueraseva

Brave GentleMan photographs courtesy of Joshua Katcher, Gregory Vaughan and Anthony Two Moons (respectively).