Vegan chef Joey Astorga
He’s cutting mangoes when I arrive. The mango flesh, deeply orange, slips from palm to tray like a fillet of fish.
Joey Astorga wipes his hands on his apron and strides out of the tiny kitchen. He wears shorts, and possibly watermelon-patterned socks in rubber shoes. We shake hands, he flips over upturned chairs, and he makes me a short black.
His restaurant, Paperbark, has been open nearly a year. At the weekend, it was fully booked with waiting lists on Friday and Saturday. It has become the most lauded vegan restaurant in Sydney.
As we sit down, there remains in Astorga the suggestion of the teenager who turned to restaurants when he was kicked out of school. The late nights, he says, fitted his lifestyle better than other trades, and he fell in love with the hospitality industry. He apprenticed and worked in fine-dining restaurants around Sydney, captivated. But there was a slow-moving disenchantment with the reliance on animal products as the cornerstone of those menus – the blood, the sinew, the waste. He ran side projects that gained a loyal following among the city’s vegan diners.
smoked celeriac, potato crisp, capers
The menu at Paperbark reads without fuss. It gives away as little as is polite. As with Astorga, it does not feel obliged to explain itself or charm those who dine there. Behind both is a hand working to reshape what is seen as good cooking.
Astorga would rather not be called a head chef. Sure, if I have to write something down, write that. Like, if I need an official title. But it’s not how it works here. He doesn’t like to think of it that way: someone being the head chef and someone the sous chef. He and four female chefs work together in the Paperbark kitchen. They make changes to the menu along the way. Everyone has input. Everyone’s quite young and Astorga is young too. He’s 28, but nearly 29. I can put down 29.
iggy’s bread, alto olive oil
strawberry gum mole, tomato, tofu
Astorga has been vegan for about three years now. Maybe longer. Yeah, maybe longer. He was just really thinking about ingredients, thinking about where food came from. Trying to justify eating dairy and meat didn’t sit well with him. Veganism has been good for his own body, for his mental health. It might not be good for everyone, but it is a nice way to eat.
He was pretty vegan while cooking for chefs who were cooking other kinds of cuisine. He knew what everything should taste like – the meat and all that. No, no, he wouldn’t eat anything. He would taste everything. It wasn’t an issue.
avocado, tahini, cauliflower
Astorga says he had nothing to prove when he opened Paperbark. Yeah, look, he was pretty confident. He and his partners didn’t approach it as though they were opening a vegan restaurant. They just approached it as though they were opening any restaurant. To do that you have to be pretty confident – and also slightly insane. But it’s fun.
Definitely, though, when he was opening the restaurant, people in the industry doubted the idea. Lots of people still find it really challenging. He gets that. It’s so easy to use ingredients that come from animals – they give you fat, flavour, texture. Without them you have to think a little bit harder, and you can make something really beautiful. It is difficult sometimes, to replicate certain textures, but he likes the challenge.
potato, macadamia, miso, puffed rice
leek, davidson’s plum, oyster mushroom
Cheese. There’s no way you can replicate cheese. Some cheeses have got the best textures there are. There’s no doubt about that. It’s fucking delicious. The texture’s amazing.
But sometimes you can’t justify how evil the dairy industry is in order to use those ingredients. But, yeah. No. Vegan cheeses are not his thing. Sure, there are some good products out there. Why try to replicate cheese, though? You can’t. Just use vegetables.
mango, nectarine, lemon myrtle, meringue
Lemon myrtle is his favourite ingredient. He loves it. It’s just so beautiful. Aromatic.
pumpkin tostada, carrot, wattleseed
Paperbark mushrooms, macadamia, finger lime
Yes, that’s a paperbark tree folded into origami along the back wall. Astorga’s kitchen changes the tasting menu, but the skewered mushrooms cooked in paperbark are a constant. They get really smoky. It’s just a nice way to tie it in.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 6, 2019 as "Bark and bite". Subscribe here.