Deep Cuts with Shannon Martinez

Editors note: this article was written late last year before the bush fires and before the COVID-19 pandemic. It often felt like there was no 'right' time to publish this article but with our hospitality industry copping the brunt of the economic damage, we decided to champion a Chef who has been able to pivot under these compounding factors and stay open. Watching Shannon Martinez continue in this unique worldwide environment has been incredible and inspiring. It has reinforced our admiration for her. To that end you can support her work by ordering her cookbooks directly here

Or if you are in Fitzroy you can shop from either Smith and Daughters at

175 Brunswick St, Fitzroy

or

Smith and Deli

111 Moor St, Fitzroy

words by Rebecca Mackinnon

Photographs from Shannon Martinez's Instagram

“There’s still this attitude that veganism makes you a fancy boy"

Shannon Martinez likes to do ‘cool shit'. To us, this is the reason why she is one of the most creative, rule-breaking, expectation-confounding chefs around. She cooks vegan food because it’s a challenge, because no one gets taught how to do it, and because making a realistic, runny fried egg yolk out of all vegan ingredients is nothing short of genius (my words, not hers). Her cooking oozes playfulness, and it’s this joyful creativity which characterises her restaurant and deli for her adherents.

And she’s rightly proud of her work. Last year, she catered Laneway’s first all-vegan event, and her collaborations with Marley Spoon and Bells Hot Chicken are taking veganism mainstream.

Although she runs one of Melbourne’s most well-known and successful vegan restaurants, Smith & Daughters and sister enterprise Smith & Deli, Chef Shannon Martinez is not herself a vegan. This can come as a surprise to some, and results in death threats from both militant vegans and meat eaters alike.

“My narrative is completely fucked because of what I do,” she says. “A lot of vegans hate meat eaters and a lot of meat eaters hate vegans, and here I am, right in the middle. I can do both and mix some cool shit in between.”

The hate baffles her, not least because of the politics – and indeed identity politics – that are often inserted into the mix. There are accusations that Martinez is profiting from Australian farmers doing it tough right now; there are those who say that veganism is the reason why farmers are doing it tough in the first place. And there are the blokes who have tried to physically fight her (yes, really), for serving them vegan food. “There’s still this attitude that veganism makes you a fancy boy,” she says. “It’s dying out slowly, but it still makes some people so mad.”

“I collaborate with generally quite heavy meat-based restaurants to open their eyes a bit to the market that’s out there, maybe a market they’re missing out on. I want to show them that this is viable thing to do even if they don’t give a fuck environmentally or for the animals or whatever. There are a whole bunch of people out there you could be serving and making money from. If that’s the only reason you want to do it, fine.”

Martinez wears her views on her sleeve, using her online platforms to talk about the state of world politics, as well as often taboo subjects such as fertility and ectopic pregnancies.

She also has some strong opinions about the future of Australian agriculture: the world is changing, and people will have to change their eating habits too. Alternative meats are part of the answer, as is advocacy for the diversity and deliciousness of vegan food – but Martinez is adamant that the political and journalistic climate needs to play catch up. Taxing meat and dairy would be a start, she posits, and governments around Australia need to develop a more nuanced, open-minded approach to an evolving food culture. The millions poured into drought relief year on year is just a band aid to Martinez.

“They just keep pumping millions into drought relief so the farmers can get through one more year, but it’ll be exactly the same next year because this country is not designed to rear cattle the way we do. Veganism is not the reason farmers are struggling – it’s happening because we’ve fucked them over. Water is more expensive than milk! We’re so far down on the list of reasons why farming is difficult but taking us on is a cheap and easy fix.”

“So, something can literally only have the name ‘meat’ if it’s died?”

This lack of nuance is apparent too in our food terminology. Not long ago, food standards reps told her that she would have to change the way she labels her food: legislation to limit the word ‘cheese’ to animal protein products is on its way. This is unsurprisingly infuriating for someone who has made a career out of pushing boundaries.

“So, something can literally only have the name ‘meat’ if it’s died?” she says. “[Fish Chef] Josh Nyland makes ‘bacon’ out of fish products. Are they going to make him stop doing that? Every kitchen calls something by another name. It’s stifling creativity – molecular gastronomy would have to be banned!”

Martinez has taken the fight back to authorities – she’s got PR firms involved, as well as lawyers, and with experience in agriculture, vegan and non-vegan food and formidable intellect, I’d say it’s going to be an interesting contest.

"Alton Brown is the basic bitch version of Kenji Lopez Alt."

The only question is as to how Martinez will squeeze this in amongst her many other projects. Her newest cookbook with Mo Wyse releases later in 2020 and like her other looks to a runaway success, and she’s a regular fixture of the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival (sadly postponed this year due to a certain pandemic).

Excitingly, she’s got a TV show in the works – one which marries her twin passions of food and music. Each episode features a different vegan musician or band member (there are many); they talk music and being vegan on the road, and seem generally to have a ball. It’s part of Martinez’s mission to shake up food TV – “anything but being stuck behind a fucking kitchen counter” – in the mould of Keith Floyd and Anthony Bourdain, both of whom she adores.

What about Alton Brown, I ask?

"I loved Good Eats when it first came out, and well, he used to do some cool stuff – food science and things... the book and the cds it was fucking awesome."

and Kenji Lopez Alt?

"He is the real scientist now, the one who appeals to the real food nerds. Alton Brown is the basic bitch version of Lopez Alt."

Can we please just agree that she needs to be our next Prime Minister?