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Future Shapers Food and drink Shannon Martinez
Photograph: Benn Wood

Future Shapers: Shannon Martinez, the chef who will convince you to go vegan

The chef behind the most famous vegan restaurant in Australia is winning converts with taste, not moralising

Cassidy Knowlton
Written by
Cassidy Knowlton
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Time Out is profiling the incredible people who are shaping the future of Melbourne in this Future Shaper series. We have asked a panel of esteemed judges comprising Pat Nourse (artistic director, Melbourne Food and Wine Festival), Senator Lidia Thorpe (Greens Senator for Victoria), Simon Abrahams (creative director and CEO of Melbourne Fringe), Peter Tullin (co-founder and CEO of Remix Summits), Kate Vinot (chair of Zoos Victoria) and Claire Ferres Miles (CEO of Sustainability Victoria) to help us identify the people changing the future of Melbourne in the areas of food and drink; arts; community and culture; civics; and sustainability. In food and drink, one such person is Shannon Martinez, chef and owner of Melbourne vegan institution Smith and Daughters. 

Do you love beef bourguignon? Blood sausage? A juicy, perfect steak? Then you are Shannon Martinez's ideal customer.

The chef and owner of the entirely vegan Smith and Daughters and Smith and Deli isn't trying to convince vegans to change their diets. It's you meat eaters she's after.

"My target audience has never been vegans because they're already vegan, right? So I'm already preaching to the choir," Martinez says. "My target is to try and convince people who are either considering or starting to be a little bit curious about vegan food. If I can get meat eaters to eat meat a couple of times less a week, the impact on the planet would be absolutely massive. And that is a possible outcome, rather than expect everyone to go vegan, because that ain't going to happen unless we are forced to do that. It's just a fact. Humans are very selfish and very unlikely to give up the things we love."

But Martinez proves that it's possible to have food you love and save the planet at the same time. You won't find raw kale or unprocessed chia seeds on her menus. Instead they are chock-full of cheese, prosciutto, sausage, mutton and eggs - every single one of them completely vegan and virtually indistinguishable from their animal-based counterparts.

"I used to get people who would get very mad about it," Martinez laughs. "Mostly macho dude types, pissed off and saying that we lied and we tricked them. We do have a giant cross in our restaurant that says, 'Eat Vegan', but whatever. It's also on the menu that everything is plant based. But I find that a huge compliment. If someone is so pissed off with me that they are literally pointing in my face, screaming at me and telling me that I tricked them, my job here is done."

But Martinez isn't out to trick anyone, as hilarious a side effect as it sometimes is of a diner becoming angry that an animal did not die for a dinner they enjoyed. She cooks the way she does because she doesn't think flavour has to be sacrificed in the name of sustainability. "If you're trying to convert someone who's been raised on meat and three veg to start eating vegetables, and they're not really all that into the idea, the best way to do that is to give them something that they're familiar with... If I give them something like a beef bourguignon or a chicken kebab or whatever it is, and they can eat that and think, 'shit, I can't even tell the difference, I could definitely eat this all the time,' that's what is going to get them."

Although she is not a vegan, she is living proof that caring for the Earth and animal welfare does not mean going without the flavours you love. "I don't eat much meat myself, like so many people, and I still want to eat the things that I love. I'm a chef, so I love everything about it, the textures and the flavours and the smell, I love all these things and I didn't want to give them up. I love cooking these things as much as I love eating them."

Martinez has forged her own path in the world of sustainable cooking with the novel concept that sustainable food really can be sustainable. A few years ago she gave a talk at a two-day conference in Galway, Ireland, called Food on the Edge, which is devoted to the future of food and sustainable eating. Some of the best chefs in the world, many with Michelin stars, were at the conference, providing their suggestions on how to eat for a better world. "They were all preaching sustainability and they were all saying things like, 'fish A is about to become extinct, so we should all stop cooking fish A and start cooking fish B for a while'," Martinez recalls. "Is that really the solution to the problem here?"  

But she is definitely not one to let the perfect get in the way of the good. While she isn't sure if she would make the whole world vegan if she could wave a magic wand and make it so - "Yes. Wait. Maybe. That's such a hard question, because I love the idea of people having chickens in their backyards and eating the eggs from those chickens." - she sees the future of food as sustainable and plant-based.

She knows rusted-on carnivores are unlikely to go completely vegan, but if everyone could have 'meat Mondays' instead of 'meat-free Mondays', it would be a huge start. And she isn't about to shame brands that have only recently jumped on the sustainability bandwagon. "It's really cool seeing big brands come to me and ask me to be a brand ambassador for them, even if they are brands that have not done anything to help the vegan or vegetarian movement. There are a lot of people who would say, 'fuck that company forever', but I'm all for letting companies turn back on that and come to the party." She points to supermarket giant Coles, which paid her to create videos of vegan recipes during lockdown and now stocks a growing range of meat-free alternatives. 

Martinez has now teamed up with Ovolo Hotels to launch Lona Misa, an entirely plant-based diner attached to Ovolo's latest hotel venture, in South Yarra. She says big brands like supermarkets and hotels are bringing plant-based eating to millions of Australians, and the more people who try eating that way and like it, the better. "We've just got to make it normal, not different. Because vegan food is fucking normal. It's just food." 

As to the city itself, Martinez wants Melbourne's vibrant dining scene to return to where it was before the nightmare of last year. "I just want to see us back to the way we were. I'm so sad for this fucking city that I love so much, and I hate watching my friends scrambling to try to keep their businesses open. We are hurting badly... What makes Melbourne Melbourne is the majority of our restaurants are independent, and that's what I love about Melbourne. I want to see Melbourne get back to a place where we can keep our independence and not get taken over by the big guns."

Read about more of our Future Shapers

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