Image: Shannon Martinez and Mo Wyse – supplied.
Author: Melody Menu
It all started with a vegan parma. An off-menu dish that chef Shannon Martinez made for vegan punters in a punk rock venue and pub in East Brunswick in the early 2000s, the parma ignited a passion for creating left-of-centre vegan meals and would eventually put her in touch with Mo Wyse, her now-business partner at rock n roll vegan establishment, Smith & Daughters. With Mo working the logistics side of a local market and Shannon operating a vegan food stall there, opening a restaurant was the logical next step for the pair.
A prolific chef and musician, Shannon recounts with a laugh how her previous life as a bassist on tour inadvertently connected her back with her love of food. ‘My band were touring America and would only play for 45 minutes in the day, and there would be all of that time left over, so it got quite boring. I ended up working for free in the catering kitchen just so I could get back into cooking because I was missing it, and just sort of then realised that cooking was what I should be focusing on. It was really divided for me between music and food for a really long time, I couldn’t figure out what to do with myself.’
Now, Shannon is famed for her vegan meals which are at once exquisitely fresh and reliably punk-rock – and her kitchens have surround sound speakers on at full blast around the clock. ‘Chefs come into my restaurant for the first time and it takes them a little while to adjust, because the majority of restaurants don’t have music playing during service. Whereas I get quite anxious without music on; it’s just constant, 24-7 music.’ While blaring anything from Slayer and Cradle Of Filth, to Wanda Jackson and The Cramps, Shannon and her team are known for pumping out an incredible array of completely unique, completely vegan dishes. From a Breakfast Pizza slathered with creamy ‘mozzarella’, crispy-fried capers and gelatinous ‘prosciutto’, to pillowy donuts piped with a hit of marsala custard, Smith & Daughters are out to do food differently and dare other establishments to up their vegan game.
However, you won’t find these involved, Italian-themed recipes in S&D’s latest cookbook, Smith & Deli-cious which, as the title suggests, explores more accessible and DIY vegan fare through the team’s deli offering. The aptly-named Smith & Deli, Shannon explains, is all about creating a new convenience for vegans in Australia. ‘You know, vegans are just as lazy as non-vegans, and they can’t be bothered with cooking dinner just as much as everyone else can’t be bothered with cooking dinner. They haven’t really had the chance to go to the supermarket and buy a ready-meal. It’s something that as non-vegans, you can take for granted.’
The associated cookbook is what Shannon laughingly refers to as a ‘best of Women’s Weekly’ cookbook for vegans. Think recipes that your grandma used to make – veganised. ‘It’s all of those dishes that people would have grown up with, but just worked out differently so they can actually have them now as vegans. And just something approachable and easy. You know, you look at old-school vegan books and they’re so tricky and so time-consuming. Who can be fucking bothered soaking nuts for 24 hours before you make something, or dehydrating something for three days? If I want to eat, I want to eat now, not tomorrow or the next day, and a lot of these things are about pre-planning.’ The result is realistic, time-efficient, and overall delicious vegan food.
Aside from being a creator of vivid and mouth-watering creations, Shannon is an agitator for change, both inside and outside of the kitchen. On the subject of gender parity in hospitality, she emphasises that it is not as simple as hiring more women, but about creating better working environments for all. ‘I think what I’m finding more influential and better for future generations in this industry, is to work with the men that are in my kitchens, [so that] when it’s their turn to open a restaurant, they haven’t grown up with that jock mentality, and develop an environment that’s a safe space. Obviously it’s very important for me to bring out women and strengthen them and make them confident, but I think that part of the job is already changing.’ She notes that the public is already aware of bad behaviour in kitchens, and that it is now time to move past the name-and-shame to promote real change. ‘It’s figuring out ways for the next generation to come up and improve.’
Shannon is similarly passionate about food sustainability, a topic has taken her around the world to speak at various events. At her next talk at a ‘Future of Food’ symposium in Ireland, Shannon’s topic is ‘the vegan elephant in the room’, and how chefs must continue to cook and grow with the way future generations are eating. While Shannon isn’t vegan herself, she is a vocal advocate for a low-meat, low-waste diet that is easy on the environment and sustainable for future generations. ‘I never opened the restaurant to target vegans as such, I opened the restaurant to target people like myself – who wanted to alter the way they ate and reduce consumption.’
She goes on to say that current consumption habits simply aren’t sustainable – which is directly in line with recent findings that show a drastic reduction in meat eating and farming will be necessary in order to prevent dangerous climate change – and also to continue to feed future generations, as reported in The Guardian. Therefore, by serving killer vegan food, and challenging perceptions of what vegan food looks and tastes like, Shannon hopes to promote an inclusive and sustainable diet by demonstrating that you can eat less meat and still have an incredible meal. ‘I knew that there needed to be an angle where I could satisfy someone who was really dubious about the vegan diet, so that I could give it to them and it would shut them up almost, and give them a reason to want to eat less. You just keep pushing forward until it becomes normal for everyone.’
Shannon will be bringing her unique brand of innovative and experiential food to Sydney for one night only for a Good Food Month special. As for what diners can expect? ‘Ooh, it’s going to be loud. Everyone’s going to be sharing tables with people they don’t know, so they’re going to be forced to talk to random people and share food. We’re going to play loud Italian music and it’s going to be fun, not cliquey, just a big party. There’s going to be a big dessert table like you’re at a wedding but no-one knows who’s actually getting married!’