One of Australia’s great chefs of vegan cuisine is an avowed meat-eater.
On this week’s episode of The Trip: Drinking with Exceptional People Around the World, host Nathan Thornburgh pounds hotel Bloody Marys as he talks with Shannon Martinez, the outspoken Australian chef who loves meat and cooks vegan. Thornburgh and Martinez discuss what inspired her to open the vegan restaurant Smith & Daughters, how punk and vegan culture overlap, and the horrors of vegan cooking gone wrong.
Here is a condensed transcript of the conversation:
Nathan Thornburgh: So, tell me about this drink setup we have.
Shannon Martinez: Okay, well we have an exclusive local vodka called Huzzar.
Thornburgh: That is with an ‘R’ at the end of that.
Thornburgh: That would be great if it was just called Huzzah!
Martinez: That would be amazing. Imported by the 15th-century legendary calvary soldiers. Really? Triple distilled vodka with the finest grain and purest water.
Thornburgh: So many lies in one blurb.
Martinez: So many lies! Wow. I actually didn’t know that Ireland made vodka so there we go, we’ve learned something today.
Thornburgh: It’s not just the Huzzah vodka but we went and hacked the breakfast bar for cocktail supplies, and we’ve literally recreated an airplane Bloody Mary.
Martinez: I think we’ve done good. Cheers.
Martinez: Yeah, that vodka sucks. Oh, it’s hot on the chest!
Thornburgh: See now, none of this is stuff that they’ve mentioned on the back of the bottle. This vodka sucks and is hot on the chest.
Thornburgh: Huzzah! So, let’s talk about you. You’re Australian.
Thornburgh: What do you do down there?
Martinez: I have two vegan food businesses. One is a restaurant and one is a deli. Smith & Daughters and Smith & Deli, both in Melbourne.
Thornburgh: What’s the vegan culture there like?
Martinez: It’s definitely changed quite a lot. I started cooking vegan food quite a while ago. I was cooking in a pub that was sort of a punk live music venue. The crowd was pretty young and the vegan food scene was a lot smaller then.
Thornburgh: Were you just trying to serve them sausages in the beginning?
Martinez: No, the one dish they had on before I took over the kitchen was a piece of tofu the chef would throw in the deep fryer. Nothing on it either.
Martinez: It’s not like a tofu as a sponge or anything. So, it would just go straight into a deep fryer that was just used to cook all this meat.
Thornburgh: Boy, the bathroom in that place must have been amazing.
Martinez: Oh shit, I know. A soaked piece of tofu just lubes everything up. So, yeah they would just chuck a piece of toast in the fryer. I wasn’t going to do that, so I just took it off the menu and didn’t have a vegan dish. But then people kept coming in and asking me for vegan food all the time. It started becoming annoying, which is why I ended up starting putting vegan dishes on the menu. It started with a vegan parma on Mondays. We ended up doing about 300 vegan parmas on a Monday and about 50 non-vegan parmas. So, that was sort of the light going on for me. I was like, shit there are a whole lot of people eating like this and no one is actually catering for them.
Thornburgh: What was the cutlet? Was it like a seitan?
Martinez: Yeah it was terrible.
Thornburgh: Some self-criticism here.
Martinez: Oh, I’m all for self-deprecation. I get asked to make it all the time and I refuse.
Thornburgh: That’s from my past.
Martinez: Yeah exactly. It was before I knew how to cook vegan food properly. But you know it was … that shows you the poor state of vegan food.
Thornburgh: That people were buying this shit from you.
Martinez: They were loving it. And people still talk about it like it’s good. I keep telling customers, you’ve only got fond memories because it was 12 years ago.
Thornburgh: Yeah, you don’t want to go back.
Martinez: You don’t want that nightmare back in your life.
I think humans are intrinsically selfish and they don’t like to go without what they like.
Thornburgh: That’s amazing. How did you take that and move forward from your crimes against parm?
Martinez: So, I wasn’t thinking veggie stacks and buffalo cauliflower wings. I was just literally thinking I’ve got to make the same menu vegan because why would they want to not eat the same thing that everyone else eats. Because that’s what I want to eat. Socially, that’s what they want to eat. You’re in a pub, you want to eat pub food like fish and chips.
So I just had identical meat and vegan menus. The problem was that sometimes the vegans got the meat versions by mistake because they looked exactly the same. So I had a lot of people throwing up in bathrooms or coming into the kitchen and crying because the waitresses would accidentally give them the meat version. We had to start using little flags to note the difference.
Thornburgh: One is the kind of like re-creations of an omnivore menu and the other is the standard vegetable-based based vegan fare. Is that still a conversation that’s going on or has one side of the battle won?
Martinez: I think there’s a place for both for sure. I never opened my business to target vegans. My whole idea was to help people that are wanting to reduce intake, not people who were specifically becoming vegan. I think humans are intrinsically selfish and they don’t like to go without what they like. You look at the oceans and what we’re doing to it. We know for a fact that it’s literally going to be a desert in but we still continue to be like, fuck it. Let’s just wait and see. Maybe if we’re lucky we don’t have to go without that fish. So I’m creating this food for people that I don’t want to go without, but want to try and make a difference. The sort of people that like to be able to pat themselves on the back and feel good about themselves.
Thornburgh: So your customers are self-righteous and slightly obnoxious.
Martinez: I think humans are self-righteous, so I’m not going to point out mine particularly.
Thornburgh: Your customers are humans like the rest of us.
Martinez: Yeah, they’re humans. But my favorite sort of vegan food is that vegan without trying. So it’s incredible dishes like the Thai dishes and the Indian dishes that are just vegan. They’re not replicating things. I don’t like mock meats at all, which is kind of a bit strange because that is what I do. But it’s not the vegan food that I like to eat personally. The food that we were trying to do at the restaurant it’s kind of sitting in the middle. I think if I had opened Smith and Daughters doing purely veg-based dishes, it wouldn’t be the business it was today. And 75% of those customers are meat eaters.
At my restaurant, every meal starts off not vegan; which some vegans think that makes my business not vegan. Some people think my business isn’t vegan because I’m not vegan. Which means that the wage that I take from my restaurant is being spent on things that aren’t vegan, which therefore makes my business not vegan.
Thornburgh: Dude, I saw you had some salami on the breakfast plate this morning.
Martinez: I definitely did.
Thornburgh: This thing about you eating meat and not being the hero that some people are looking for in the vegan community is interesting. Do you feel caught up in those politics sometimes?
Martinez: I get it from meat eaters and I get it from vegans. It’s like I’ve become this poster girl for veganism and I’m not even vegan. So I’ve managed to become someone of notoriety within a scene that I’ve kind of managed to infiltrate, and yet not have to actually be in it. So, I think people get a bit pissy about that. I’ve been called everything from a bitch to a traitor. I’ve been called a sellout and accused of profiting off of veganism.
Thornburgh: You had said something that I thought was pretty fascinating, and you were kind of mocking people’s responses to this, and yet acknowledging them too. You something like because you eat meat, you’ve got more cred to talk about veganism.
Martinez: People think I can cook better because I have a better palate. I’m gonna have to say, I do have a better palate because I’m not vegan. Being vegan changes your palate massively. We got a new vegan cheddar in the deli, and my business partner, who’s been vegan for nearly 20 years, she’ll eat it and say, “Shan taste this. It’s just like how I remember cheddar tasting.” I was like, “Fuck girl. When was the last time you ate cheddar? Because this is foul.”
It tastes nothing like cheddar, but it does to her because it’s been so long since she’s eaten it. Vegans forget things like texture and mouthfeel. Their palate changes so dramatically that the food that a vegan produces is so different from the food that’s produced by someone who eats meat and dairy. I would definitely recommend ordering the vegan options off the meat chef.
It’s like I’ve become this poster girl for veganism and I’m not even vegan.
Thornburgh: Order vegan from the meat chef. So let’s talk about the politics of it. You run a completely vegan restaurant. You said it was a proper vegan spot, where you don’t even use honey. Why is that? Why go so far?
Martinez: You have to. When I first was thinking about my restaurant, I opened a food truck first to sort of test run it ’cause I wasn’t sure whether a purely vegan business would be sustainable. But I kept thinking how annoying it must be as a vegan to have to go grocery shopping or to go to a restaurant. We can go in, and unless you’re allergic to something, don’t even have to read a label. Unless you’re trying to be organic or some shit, you can literally, walk in and just buy anything off the shelf.
Thornburgh: That doesn’t work for vegans.
Martinez: And you’re always that guy in a restaurant. You’re with a bunch of mates—everyone’s ordered the steak and the fish and chips—and you’re like, “Just wanted to check, is there any dairy in the …” You’re that guy and everyone’s like, “Fuck, again?!” And the meal will come out and it’ll have cheese on it, then you gotta send it back.
I thought, imagine how amazing it would be if you go into a restaurant and not ask one question. And not have to make one alteration. Come into our deli and it’s a grocery store where you don’t have to look at one label. And you know that everything in that shop you can buy and it’s 100% safe for the sort of diet that you want to have. That’s why I decided to do it.
Vegan restaurants generally don’t have a good booze background either. And I come from a bar background as well, and it was really important to me to have a strong alcohol component to the restaurant because what makes a good restaurant is beautiful wines and great cocktails. That’s what vegans are missing out on because it was like a mango lassi with vegan coconut yogurt, or like a green smoothie. I’m sure vegans want to get hammered just the same as everyone else wants to get hammered. Like why are people not giving these people some booze?
Thornburgh: Get drunk and screw like the rest of us.
Martinez: Exactly! But no one was giving it to ’em, so I wanted to give it to them.
Thornburgh: Vegans just want somebody to give it to them. Man, there’s a bumper sticker… So what’s gonna happen now? You were talking about this pending ecological apocalypse that we all are kind of aware of and are kind of like pretending is not on the menu. Are we going to see a lot more of your kind of restaurant?
Martinez: Yeah, it is going to change, and it will be chefs like myself and other non-vegan chefs that I think are going to start changing people’s thoughts on vegan food. I do a lot of collabs in Australia and I’ve never done a collab with a vegan restaurant. I refuse. It’s always with super meat-heavy restaurants.
I do it with meat-heavy restaurants because I want these guys to see that there is this giant vegan market. They’re all great chefs and they can do it.
Thornburgh: If someday I ever cross that impossibly large ocean between you and me, what’s the one thing that I would have to get from your menu?
Martinez: Probably the braised beef, which is like an oxtail dish.
Thornburgh: Oh, man.
Martinez: Yeah, with polenta. I promise you, you’ll like it.