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!

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Photographs by Hannah Kaminsky for Laika Magazine

Written by Julie Gueraseva