With a life story as colourful as her personality (professional skateboarder and musician to name but a few incarnations), Australian Shannon Martinez has been changing the way people think about vegan cooking.
The inspiration for Smith & Daughters came from the desire to create a welcoming, casual spot for people to eat in. “The way people are eating at the moment is so different, they don’t cook much” Martinez explains. The idea was for the restaurant to be an extension of people’s kitchens and their homes.
Martinez was particularly keen to move away from the idea of event or formal dining. “I think, while formal dining does have its place, the future of food in terms of how we eat out is far more relaxed. I’m getting customers coming in three times a week instead of once a year for an anniversary. That’s why the deli has done so well too. There’s a massive ready-made meal section. We make everything in the deli and people come and stock up for the week; that’s the way people are dining now.”
The overlooked vegan
While she may be renowned for creating great vegan dishes, Martinez is not vegan herself - but she saw there was a whole section of diners that wasn't being catered to properly. “I realised there is this market of people weren’t getting looking after and were almost being treated like second class citizens in terms of dining. Vegan food has always been an afterthought - chefs never dedicated time and effort to creating beautiful vegan meals."
She felt that vegan dishes were always average, and there was a ‘whatever we can give them, they’ll take’ attitude to serving people who wanted vegan dishes. “These people are making amazing ethical decisions and their money is as good as everyone else’s money," she points out. "The vegan dollar is a great dollar, there is a huge market that no one is catering for. So I took on the challenge of that.”
A new way of working
Challenge, it turned out, was the right word, as she found it hard to find chefs to get on board with the idea. “I find it really hard to get chefs to work for me,” she says. “In my whole time, I only had three qualified chefs in five years actually apply for the job. Most of my chefs are my dishwashers that I put through school because it takes a special type of person - especially men - to work in A) a female-run kitchen and B) in a vegan one. And I get it in a way; you know you’ve trained your whole life to learn a craft and then you come into my kitchen and I say to you, ‘We are going to do everything differently’ and not everyone thinks that a great challenge.”
The key to success was to look at it as a creative process, or a ’free reign’ situation. Martinez is up on all the tricks now including using seitan, a wheat gluten free product, to create vegan pastrami and salami. As a meat-eating vegan cook she brings a particular perspective. “I can make the real version [of a dish] then I make the vegan version and I can compare the two. And I’ll work on the vegan version until I can eat one and eat the other and really not be able to tell the difference."
An ethical future
With two books under their belts; Smith & Deli-cious: Food From Our Deli (That Happens to be Vegan ) and Smith & Daughters: A Cookbook (That Happens To Be Vegan), future plans for Martinez involved a TV show. "I'm trying to get a show together, there are not enough women on tv, and there is no plant based cooking show. I want people to know that people can cook this at home. That’s what the second book is about: how to cook at home and that it's easy and that we don’t have to eat the way we're eating."
As the Melbourne premises continue to grow, Martinez is hoping to manufacture vegan cheese in the deli and ultimately make everything in-house themselves. "Obviously, as much as I know that veganism and doing it for the animals is important, for me, the environmental impact of animal consumption is huge. If you were to look a pie chart of where my food is coming from we are global, so just because there are no animal products in my dish, doesn’t make it ethical. Our next move is to get rid of all the imported stuff and make it ourselves. And be a fully ethical restaurant."
Three to Try
Check out this trio of tasty vegan recipes from Smith & Deli-cious Food From Our Deli (That Happens to be Vegan) by Shannon Martinez and Mo Wyse (Hardie Grant). Photography © Bonnie Savage.