Few people can carry off the “rock star chef” label but Shannon Martinez passes that test with flying colours. It’s not just her excellent sense of style, raucous sense of humour wrapped around a sharp wit, or the frank way she expresses herself to signal a low tolerance for bullshit. Above all this, it’s that she’s managed to nail a manoeuvre that has a dizzying degree of difficulty: creating food loved by vegans and non-vegans alike.
Martinez has been instrumental in popularising plant-based eating in Australia. This year, ever the pioneer, she combined her two businesses – Smith & Daughters and Smith & Deli – under one roof in the fashionable inner Melbourne suburb Collingwood, making it the biggest, best-looking vegan hub in the country. It overhauled perceptions of what a vegan restaurant can be with a sharp, dark and handsome aesthetic and a menu that offers plant-based versions of everything from spaghetti carbonara and chicken schnitzel to deli meats, cheese and doughnuts. She’s also the executive chef (with chef Ian Curley) at Lona Misa, the signature restaurant at Ovolo South Yarra that offers vegan and vegetarian dishes, has written three mega-selling vegan cookbooks (with a fourth on the way) and is a constant at food festivals, music festivals, conferences and charity events and makes regular appearances on television and in print. Just reading her CV can be a little exhausting.
Perhaps the best way that Martinez has been able to bridge the vegan-omnivore divide is that she is not a vegan herself. Though she eats very little meat – her plant-based eating passion is fuelled by the damage untrammelled meat-consumption can cause the environment – she hasn’t ditched it altogether because it helps her create vegan versions of meaty dishes. Her method when creating a new recipe is to first cook the traditional version and then adjust and tweak flavours until the vegan recipe is as close as it can possibly be to the original. As the surprised look on many a hard-core carnivore’s faces when they taste Martinez’s plant-based meatballs or calamari or risotto alla Milanese attests, her palate is one of the finest around.
Shannon Martinez’s talents as a chef would always have allowed her to go a long way in her chosen profession but her skills as a fine and effective communicator, skills that have allowed her to overhaul attitudes to veganism and create a little harmony in the often-fraught relationship between vegans and non-vegans, are what make her truly remarkable.