Jay Astafa, one of the few vegan chefs on Long Island, glides around the kitchen at 3 Brothers Pizza Café in Farmingdale on a snowy afternoon, exuding a demeanor that suggests decades of experience.
He shifts from the ingredient station to the grill, carefully scrutinizing his work, always mindful of his role in serving plant-based options to his growing customer base at the restaurant, which his father owns.
Many of those patrons come as far away as Manhattan and Brooklyn, eager to pay the pricey Long Island Rail Road fare to visit the Farmingdale pizzeria, because Astafa, a lanky 20-year-old with a head of hair as unique as his culinary vision, belongs to a rare breed of chefs on LI.
“More and more people are catching on,” Astafa says of the incredible following 3 Brothers has garnered since 2007 (he and his father launched the Farmingdale location last month after selling the original 3 Brothers, which is still in operation under new owners, in Rockville Centre) and the dramatic rise in popularity over the past five years of vegan food, the only cuisine Astafa deals in after eschewing meat and dairy products five years ago. Sixty-percent of 3 Brother’s customers are vegan.
“When I became vegan, I became inspired to become a vegan chef,” he says, the aroma of freshly made pizzas wafting through the air. “I would go to my dad’s pizzeria to work there, and they didn’t have any vegan options, and I’m like, ‘Why don’t I just create it myself?’”
Astafa became vegetarian at 14, turned vegan five months later, then quickly created a small vegan-only menu, a humble carte du jour compared to his current menu, which carries more than 50 vegan options—from eggplant rollatini and buffalo drumsticks to baked ziti and sausage and pepper heroes.
Vegans, unlike vegetarians, abstain from any products originating from animals. So when Astafa cooks pizza or his popular mozzarella sticks, he uses tapioca mozzarella cheese by Daiya, a company that produces dozens of dairy-free products.
“Most people have this conception that vegan food is bland, it’s tasteless, it’s boring,” he says. “But what I’m doing, it’s nothing like that.”
Now he’s taking five years of on-the-job training and his four-month education at the National Gourmet Institute in Manhattan to The Old Bowery Station in New York City on April 25 and 26, where he will be headlining a pop-up event for 150 people. Astafa, whose aspirations know no bounds, is confident he’ll be serving a packed room each day. As if that wasn’t enough, he’s also currently looking to open up his own restaurant—Jay’s Kitchen—at the end of the year.
Astafa, who is intent on doing “something cutting-edge that people haven’t done before,” shows no sign of anxiety or trepidation, despite dreaming up such an ambitious venture at such a young age.
“The idea just came to me,” he adds. “I didn’t really want to hold onto it.”
Jennifer Greene, a loyal 3 Brothers patron and the organizer of Vegan Long Island, a meet-up group boasting more than 800 members, is confident that Astafa has the chops to make a name for himself specializing in a cuisine still foreign to many foodies.
“I was always so excited to introduce other people to Jay’s cooking,” says the 45-year-old Bellport resident. “I knew it would turn on people to vegan cuisine.”
Greene made the change to vegan a decade ago and has no regrets.
“I used to think nothing of eating meat and animal products,” she says, “but when I learned more about the reality of where our food comes from, I started making choices and I’m glad to have kinder options.”
“I’ve never been healthier,” she adds, “or happier.”
John Cunningham, consumer research manager for The Vegetarian Resource Group, a nonprofit that educates the public on vegetarian and vegan issues, can also attest to a sea change in the way people consume food during the past decade.
“I would say that the number of people that are explicitly vegan has definitely increased,” he says. “If you lump vegans and vegetarians together, the number has grown…from 1 percent to the neighborhood of 5 percent now.
“The number of vegans as a portion of that is growing much faster,” he adds.
People who exclusively eat vegan do so for many reasons, though their diet change is mostly due to their concern for animals and for personal health. But concern for the environment is quickly climbing up the list.
In 2010, a United Nations report released by the International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management found that agricultural production accounts for 70 percent of global freshwater consumption and 38 percent of total land use. Also, food production is to blame for 19 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, 60 percent of phosphorus and nitrogen pollution and 30 percent of toxic pollution in Europe.
The report suggests that a shift away from animal-based proteins can have a positive impact on the planet.
“In the case of food, rising affluence is triggering a shift in diets toward meat and dairy products—livestock now consumes much of the world’s crops and by inference a great deal of freshwater, fertilizers and pesticides linked with that crop production,” Ernst von Weizsaecker, co-chair of the panel, said in the report.
Astafa went vegan for many of those reasons and admits there is some activism in the way he cooks. But vegan cuisine also allows him to think outside the box and create something that’s never been tried before.
“If I can really give them a gourmet vegan meal, then my mission is done,” he says.
[The print version of this story states 3 Brothers had "moved" from Rockville Centre on March 8; this version reflects the Astafa's launch of the Farmingdale location last month following their sale of the original Rockville Centre shop to new owners. The Rockville Centre location is currently open for business under different management.]