The Reinvention of Jay Astafa

I was in the middle of eating my seitan burrito from Cinnamon Snail when Dusty asked if we were still OK for time. Neither one of us had eaten breakfast yet, and we had planned to catch the 12:21 pm train to Copiague that Saturday afternoon. It was 12 pm.

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As we were finishing eating, it dawned on me that we still had to get train tickets and then find out which track our train will be leaving from Penn Station, which was packed more than usual that day. By 12:15, I was frantically trying to find a ticket kiosk, while Dusty tried to figure out which track we needed to go. By 12:20, a minute before our train was scheduled to leave, we ran down the stairs on Track 7 only to see an empty platform, with the exception of two other passengers who looked equally disappointed as we were.

I sent Jay Astafa, the famed plant-based chef who uses they/them pronouns, a text message saying that we were going to be a little late for our interview. Within seconds, Jay graciously replied, “No problem. See you then.'“ They could not have been more understanding.

This will be our first time meeting Jay, who asked us if we wanted to meet them in their restaurant, 3 Brothers Vegan Café, out in Long Island. We have been there once before and the place looked exactly as it did two years ago. Even though Jay’s family is of Albanian descent, the restaurant feels decidedly more like a traditional family-style Italian restaurant: it was warm, low-key, and unassuming, with the exception of the sign outside that proclaimed, “Eat More Plants.” It also helped that the restaurant’s main offerings included vegan versions of Italian classics such as pasta, lasagna, and pizza, as well as Jay’s very own cashew-milk mozzarella, which has become almost synonymous with their name.

“My dream is to have a vegan world, but we also live in a non-vegan world.” 

Although the restaurant experienced minor changes since we last went, Jay, on the other hand, has had a very tumultuous year, having taken a quick hiatus with cooking after being shunned by the vegan community here in New York.

“I have a love/hate relationship with my chef career at times,” Jay said, smiling. “When I turned 25, it was very difficult and I experienced what I would say a quarter-life crisis. I knew what I wanted to do ever since I was 17, and then just last year, [I just thought] maybe this wasn’t on my path of what I should do.”

“But somehow you found your way back?”

“I found me again.”

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Since turning vegan after watching a PETA video called “Meet Your Meat” when they were about 15, Jay quickly saw the need for more vegan options in Long Island. Their passion for animal rights activism and a quick brush with law enforcement led Jay to channel their energy into food and cooking instead. Jay helped develop the vegan menu at 3 Brothers, which wasn’t originally a vegan restaurant. But soon after seeing the success of the menu and the growing demand for more vegan food options in Long Island, the restaurant made the switch to an entirely plant-based menu. Since then, Jay quickly gained a relative amount of fame in the New York vegan community with their own catering business, a YouTube vlog, as well as having the distinct honor of preparing the first ever vegan dinner for the James Beard House, along with other prominent vegan chefs Chloé Coscarelli, Daphne Cheng, and Adam Sobel.

“Even though I was still promoting vegan food at the time, just because I didn’t identify with how they wanted me to identify, they still chose to unfollow me. I was definitely hurt by that.”

“How did achieving that amount of fame at such a young age impact your life?”

“It was difficult being branded as just a vegan chef,” Jay said. “For instance, on Instagram, I would typically be posting just food photos, which would get a ton of likes, but I find that when I post photos of myself, the vegan community isn’t very accepting. I find that vegans aren’t as accepting of people as people, rather it’s only the food that they create. I just feel that it’s looked down upon to post photos of yourself, which is what I’ve noticed.”

“Really? What was your experience like?”

“I think the community is all about the animals, which I understand. But I think right now, there isn’t a balance. I wanted to be able to post photos of myself and of my food all in one page. I started posting photos of myself from photoshoots that I had done the last year and a lot of people didn’t really understand the new transition that I was going through to find the real me.”

“Were you able to find anything about yourself during that time?”

“The more I dug in, the more I found the real me and the real me didn’t want to be just defined by my mozzarella, because that’s what it has been for so long. Right now, I’m trying to figure out how I can identify as a chef, but also incorporate everything else that I like to do.” 

The Verdure Pizza - grilled zucchini, grilled eggplant, spinach, olives, roasted peppers, basil pesto, and Jay’s own cashew milk mozzarella

The Verdure Pizza - grilled zucchini, grilled eggplant, spinach, olives, roasted peppers, basil pesto, and Jay’s own cashew milk mozzarella

When we met Jay, they reminded us more of an avant-garde model for Rick Owens rather than what you would typically picture a chef from Long Island would look like. At 6’ 2”, Jay, their slender frame draped in black cotton jersey and skinny jeans, looked to us unflinchingly while they talked about their love of high-heeled shoes, their newfound appreciation for tarot cards and crystals, as well as identifying as a self-proclaimed “plant rebel.”

“What does it mean to be a ‘plant rebel’?”

“I started identifying as a plant rebel because I don’t identify with how other chefs identify as just a chef. Being a plant rebel is being able to do whatever it is that is true to you as well as promoting high-vibrational plant cuisine, which is vegan food that is meant to make you feel really good and really happy. It’s also good for the world and good for your body.”

“Humans aren’t perfect and vegans paint this picture that you have to be perfect all the time.”

“Let’s talk about how you fell off social media late last year because of a controversial post that you had put up. Can you tell us more about what happened?”

“That happened last year because I was tired of being defined as vegan. I felt that there was so much more about me than just the label, so I rebelled. The post itself was about not labeling yourself as vegan, but plant-based. Being vegan, we’ve all had those moments where you crave cheese, want to wear leather, and other things like that. It was about just doing it, but also realizing that it’s not the right thing to do, and going back to the right path, which [I believe] is the vegan path.”

“You received a lot of criticism for that post. Would you say the reaction was appropriate?”

“I think people didn’t actually read the post and they probably just read the image that said ‘I’m not vegan.’ But it was more about not labeling myself as vegan. Since July, I’ve been going back in forth with how I’m labeling myself.”

“And you felt that labeling yourself was limiting or constraining you in a way?”

“Yeah, it was limiting myself. I was on a spiritual path and went out of this dimension. Where I was, I felt like I was everything and labels didn’t seem to encompass everything that I am because I felt like the labels were limiting. But when you come back down to Earth, you realize why there’s a need for labels. And it’s the same with gender for me. I don’t identify with gender, I identify as non-binary.”

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“You mentioned the issue of gender and I think at this day and age, a lot more people see gender as a spectrum, whereas veganism is seen more as black and white. Would you agree with that?”

“Yeah and that’s why I removed the post about calling myself as ‘vegan-fluid.’ People didn’t really understand where I was coming from with that so I took it down.”

“And do you still consider yourself as a fluid vegan?”

“I consider myself as vegan. I did have backyard chicken eggs when I went to Montenegro for the summer. My body was really craving them and I haven’t had eggs in 10 years. The whole point of that post was to tell people you can eat vegan food but if you have a craving you can go off the vegan path and know that you can always come back to that path. Life is very fluid, in general, and there are so many ups and downs. I think it’s hard for some people to be vegan all the time and I think [the movement] would be more relatable if we tell people you don’t have to eat vegan all the time, then more people would eat vegan and it would be a more vegan-friendly world. My dream is to have a vegan world, but we also live in a non-vegan world.”

“Do you think that that kind of thinking hurts the movement in a way, if what you’re saying is that being vegan means it’s ok to allow your inner desires to overrule your ethics? How do you reconcile that when you’re saying that it’s OK to eat eggs or cheese every once in a while when that directly competes with the vegan ethos?”

“When I ate cheese and eggs it was an internal battle. I knew it wasn’t the right thing to do and I’ve been vegan since 2007. But then I just kind of let that moment happen and reflect from it. Humans aren’t perfect and vegans paint this picture that you have to be perfect all the time.”

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“Do you think the label vegan has a bad connotation?” 

“Yeah I think some people even see veganism as a cult. With veganism, it’s very much like all or nothing. If you eat something non-vegan once, all of a sudden 10 years of being vegan is suddenly wiped away and you’re not vegan anymore. I don’t really understand that.”

“When you reflected on your non-vegan moment, what came about from that experience?”

“I definitely lost a lot of followers from admitting that. I think around 3,000 followers, along with some people that I really respected unfollowed me. Even though I was still promoting vegan food at the time, just because I didn’t identify with how they wanted me to identify at that time, even if I was still doing the same work, they still chose to unfollow me. I was definitely hurt by that.”

“What was your take-away from eating eggs and cheese?”

“My body doesn’t like them. What happened was once I had them, my body doesn’t have the egg craving anymore.”

“I’m a natural vegan. It’s just ingrained in my blood since I’ve been doing it since 2007. It’s just the most natural way for me.”

“From my understanding, a lot of people still grapple with the idea of essentially giving someone the license to go off the vegan train, so to speak, whenever they please to, and then just jump back in. I think a lot of people have a hard time accepting that because not only does it dilutes the label itself, but also, with that definition, anyone can just be labeled vegan, whether you eat vegan food every day or just once a year. How do you respond to that?” 

“From my travels from being around the world, being vegan is not easily accessible to just everyone like it is here in New York. I was in this vegan bubble where I thought everyone could just eat vegan all the time but when you travel, you see that other cultures don’t have the same access as everyone else.” 

“So do you feel ostracized by the vegan community and why do you think it’s so hard for you to be accepted again?”

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“Yes I do. I feel like the black sheep. I actually relate to Azealia Banks. I consider myself the Azealia Banks of the vegan community (laughs) I’m trying to figure out whether the same people who’s supported me before, will support me again. I feel like most people just read a program, whatever’s acceptable, and they won’t think for themselves. I just want to urge people to look within, rather than what they just read. When people were writing those mean comments, they also weren’t thinking that there was a person behind that account. Most vegans don’t understand someone who’s struggling with gender identity and how they want to express themselves, as well as being diagnosed bipolar. Most people don’t understand how to deal with that on top of everything else. And I don’t know about the eggs, why I was craving them. Maybe it was a bipolar thing. But for me, I’m a natural vegan. It’s just ingrained in my blood since I’ve been doing it since 2007. It’s just the most natural way for me.”

“How do you want others to perceive you now?”

“I would say that I’m more than just a chef, and I just want people to accept me not just for my food but with everything, including what I have to say. Most chefs are just in their cooking bubbles and they’re OK with that, but I wasn’t. I kind of destroyed the chef career for a time, almost in a subconscious self-sabotaging way, just to start again. Most people on social media aren’t really real. They only post these really filtered, curated things; they don’t really post their up and downs. And I was OK with posting my downs.”