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

Monday, April 22, 2013

DO-GOODERS: BE GOOD TO YOU

WE’RE ALL WORKING HARD on a regular basis. Many of us are focusing on ways to make the world a juicier and all around better place to live in, which is a commendable quest. Go ahead and take a moment to give yourself a mental high-five. Did that feel good? (We thought so). Sometimes, us self proclaimed do-gooders spend so much time focusing on outside situations, we forget to be compassionate to ourselves along the way. And neglecting ourselves for too long can lead to a pesky little thing called burnout. “Burnout is a well-recognized psychological state in which exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation occurs, usually as a result of prolonged stress,” Stacy De-Lin, MD— a Family Medicine Physician in NYC, and a vegan and animal rights activist— recently told us. “Activists can be particularly prone to burnout,” she added. Thankfully, according to Dr. De-Lin, there is an amazingly simple strategy to avoid this not-so-fun state: give yourself ample time to rest. Do-gooders of the world, you have our permission to play hookey from work for a few hours and experience the beautiful sights and scents of the Season! It’s Cherry Blossom Season at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens! Go!

There’s actually some serious science behind smelling nice things, it turns out. “Interpretation of scent in your environment is processed by the brain’s limbic system, the part of the brain that is responsible for memory, emotion, behavior, and motivation. No other sensory system has this type of link with the neural areas of emotion and associative learning,” Dr. De-Lin explained. Whoa, mind blown. If you can’t get to a park or a Botanical Gardens fast enough, we recommend visiting your local (preferably organic) florist and treating yourself to a fragrant bouquet of Spring blooms. Some of our faves in the NYC area are Gardenia Organics and 2H Flowers in Manhattan, and GRDN BKYLN in Brooklyn.

Jenny Brown, co-founder of Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary, knows a thing or two about working a lot (14 hour days, to be exact!). In addition to running the sanctuary, she is also a published author, and regularly speaks around the country. Her tip for staying jovial and energetic? “I try to get to yoga classes and meditate when I’m able to. I try to take a few extra days off to visit friends when I’m traveling for speaking engagements. Also having days where I just spend time with the animals at the sanctuary reminds me why I do what I do everyday,” she told us during a recent conversation. As activists, being regularly exposed to the harsh realities of the animal exploitation industries can wear heavy on our hearts. Interacting with animals in a place where they are safe becomes essential. While the positive effects of being around animals are well-documented (reduced stress and anxiety, and reduced blood pressure are just some of the benefits), visits to sanctuaries are particularly relevant to animal advocates. “Many tell us that a visit here renews their activism and dedication to justice for farmed animals. Sanctuaries have a unique opportunity to bring people together with the animals they are fighting for,” Jenny explained. She also added that many have described visits as helpful in combating feelings of alienation. “The comfort of community can be the best medicine,” she said. So, once again, do-gooders: you have our permission to take the day off and hurry on over to your nearest animal haven. Spring is here, and sanctuaries are officially open to visitors!

And speaking of community, “Maintaining a healthy social life and circle of friends is important,” activist John Oberg recently told us. John is an outreach coordinator for Vegan Outreach, and has distributed over 340,000 pamphlets at over 200 universities in the past 3 and a half years— a testament to his tireless work ethic. As someone who has dedicated his life to advocating for animals, he emphasizes that “understanding that this is long-term work is essential.” And we cannot create lasting change without preserving ourselves in the process. “Sleeping, eating right, and exercise are important for both your ability to continue this work long-term and remaining a good example of a healthy vegan. We should try our best to be happy, healthy, and normal to create optimal influence,” John explained. Finding the balance in how much violent imagery you expose yourself to in order to educate others is another thing to be mindful of. “Watching every latest animal abuse investigation can throw you into a state of deep depression that no amount of So Delicious ice cream can dig you out of,” he cautioned. John underscored that “a sustainable pace is key.” These sentiments are also echoed by Dr. Stacy De-Lin, who recommends “setting short-term goals” when challenges may feel seem overwhelming.

Another strategy Dr. De-Lin recommends? Laughter. “Laughter is not only universal in that it is found across all human languages, but we know many animals engage in a form of laughter too, from gorillas to rats,” she said. Dr. Stacy dropping science once again: “Laughter is linked most strongly with the part of the brain that produces endorphins, the prefrontal cortex. And it decreases levels of the hormones responsible for activation of the “fight or flight” nervous system.” Ok, do-gooder, the experts have spoken: being social, eating good food, and laughing— are key. A way to combine all three? Glad you asked! If you’re a New Yorker, check out the free comedy night at Brooklyn’s Latin vegan joint The V-Spot, held on the first Thursday night of every month. Hilarious comedians entertain, while you nosh on a big plate of kale tostadas— perfect. The next show is on May 2nd at 9pm. (kitchen closes at 9.30, so be sure to get there early!)

If The V-Spot is not in your vicinity, check out listings for comedy shows at other fun venues in your city (like the legendary Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, that has several locations in NYC and LA). You can also score major laughs at home, listening to vegan comedian extraordinairre Myq Kaplan’s rad podcast Hang Out With Me, while making yourself a nourishing meal with ingredients that do wonders for that priceless brain of yours. “Omega-3 fatty acids, found in flax seed oil, sea vegetables and algae, have been shown in multiple studies to help protect against depression,” Dr. De-Lin explained. According to Dr. De-Lin, foods like tofu and tempeh have been shown to improve cognitive function, and sufficient carb intake improves mood. Sources of healthy carbohydrates include whole grains, vegetables, fruits and beans.

Although we have a lot on our plates, we can make simple, achievable improvements in our lives. Even something as basic as deep breathing exercises during a busy day can help drive out the threat of burnout. “Avoiding burnout in a world rampant with animal suffering is absolutely vital,” John Oberg reminded us. “Animal Liberation isn’t coming overnight, so we need to keep the pressure building and ball moving forward.”

And for this, we need to keep our strength and resilience intact. Remembering to be good to ourselves unlocks our potential to do as much good as possible for animals, our friends, and our Planet. And that’s a whole world of good.

Postscript: This story became personal for me, when I had to recognize the fact that I myself was nearing burnout, realizing it was imperative that I had to take the very advice we are offering to our readers here. Last Friday, I made
the decision to spend the day at Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary, leaving an office full of urgent work behind. The experience provided indispensable rest and renewal. Being kind to ourselves sometimes requires courage, and maybe even a little calculated risk. But the payoff is always worth it.  — Julie Gueraseva

Writing for this story also contributed by Zoe Eisenberg. Read more of her work on her blog Sexy Tofu, as well as xoJane and I Eat Grass.

Brooklyn Botanical Gardens photo courtesy of Shi Xuan Huang. Sanctuary photos courtesy of Jenny Brown/WFAS. Tostadas photo courtesy of The V-Spot.
Photo research assistance by Crystal Pang.

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