I’m standing in a restaurant kitchen, chewing on a glistening red chunk of raw tuna. It’s briny and slick with saltwater. After I swallow, there’s a sticky-sweetness. But it’s not tuna. It’s not even ocean- dwelling. It’s a cut of watermelon (the next step is top secret), then marinated in seaweed and a splash of soy sauce.
It’s a good trick – it’s nearly a really good trick. In April, when we speak with her, Shannon Martinez isn't far off. She’ll have it ready before her new venue, Smith & Deli, opens in June. It’s another venture with her business partner, Mo Wyse.
It might surprise you that the chef behind the most innovative vegan cooking in the country right now is a carnivore. For her, cooking meat just isn’t challenging enough.“To make smoked salmon with salmon is really easy,” Martinez says. “Trying to figure out how to make smoked salmon without being able to use salmon takes a whole new level of creativity. There’s no book that teaches you how to make that stuff.”
Since opening more than a year ago, Smith & Daughters has been packed, doing an average of 200 to 300 covers a night. The forthcoming deli is pushing the boundaries even further. It promises a vegan destination that does the almost impossible: pastrami, buffalo mozzarella, croissants. If Martinez can pull it off, she’ll be a hero.
Although they seem to like being the poster girls for a new dawn of meat-free dining in Melbourne, the shift is bigger than what just Martinez and Wyse are doing. Less than a kilometre further down Brunswick Street, you’ll find Transformer – a buzzing new restaurant serving a refined offering behind the owners’ original, Vegie Bar. Transformer isn’t just serving a menu that’s good for vegetarian food – it’s just good. Seriously good.
Melbourne has more vegetarian restaurants than it’s ever had; still mostly in the inner north, but steadily trickling into other suburbs including St Kilda, South Melbourne, Footscray, Malvern and Werribee. Many mainstream restaurants have evolved, emerging from the dark ages of mushroom risotto to flex some creative muscles when it comes to their vegetarian offering.
A handful of high-profile venues, including Maha and Attica, have designed vegetarian or vegan menus. And considering the rise of niche diets – gluten free, dairy free, fructose free (limitations all notoriously despised by most chefs who are being honest with you) – perhaps chefs are realising that cooking sans meat isn’t that crazy – not in comparison, anyway.
Shane Delia, chef and restaurateur of Middle-Eastern restaurant in the CBD, Maha, believes a significantly large portion of his customers are vegetarian or vegan and offers a considered meat-free set menu alongside the regular one.
“I’m a chef, but I’m a businessman. If 10 per cent of my market is vegetarian, I’m going to cater to that 10 per cent and hope to grow it to 20 per cent.” He estimates that five years ago, perhaps three per cent of his customers were vegetarian. “You’re a fool to think that vegetarianism is a dying phase – it’s growing.”
But considering the pool of chef talent in this city, and Melburnians’ appetite for novelty and variety, why has it taken until 2015 for meat-free dining to show some actual teeth? Wyse suggests meat-free dining – particularly veganism – still has bad connotations for a lot of people. “There’s something in their head, whether they had a negative experience with a protestor and got paint on their fur coat, or they really think vegans only eat wheatgrass and dirt and straw. We see it all the time.”
If you walk into Smith & Daughters with that idea, you’ll be rudely awoken. The bluestone restaurant is washed in neon, the music is loud and the vibe is rollicking. Dishes are boisterous and indulgent – fried, saucy, stodgy. You might also be surprised at the abundance of faux meats, from crab cakes to Spanish prawns and big hunks of chorizo.
Some vegetarians love it, some find it offensive. Most interestingly, the majority of diners aren’t vegetarian at all – Wyse and Martinez estimate around 80 per cent.
The idea behind the food is the opposite of controversial. It’s about being inclusive by offering something comforting and familiar that everyone can enjoy.
In answer to critics who think fake meat is hypocritical, Martinez says, “Just because you care about the welfare of animals, doesn’t mean you don’t like the taste of the favourite foods you ate growing up. Replicating it for people, without the cruelty factor, is so important.”
Laki Papadopoulos, who co-founded Vegie Bar and the new Transformer, has very different thoughts. He sells fake meat in a couple of dishes at Vegie Bar due to demand, but says, “To me, mock food isn’t healthy food.” Transformer isn’t about trying to conjure a meat-like experience – it’s about forging a new way forward with vegetables as the hero. It’s just good food, and it happens to be vegetarian. “It’s just simple, clean.”
Like Martinez, Papadopoulos isn’t vegetarian either. “I think a lot of people also aren’t strictly vegetarian, but like to eat a vegetarian diet.” he says.
The vast space on Rose Street has been in his hands for a long time, and it narrowly avoided being a raw-food restaurant two years ago. “I think it was a phase. I just found it [raw food] boring, one-dimensional. The desserts all taste the same. There is no different levels of flavour, it’s all [imitates a flat-line with his hand] ‘errrrrr’ – no heartbeat, no life. I personally don’t think there’s a business model there.”
Papadopoulos opened his second vegetarian restaurant 27 years after his first – and the generation gap between the two is evident. While Transformer is clean, restrained and sophisticated – its older sister is loud, cheap and cheerful. The generous servings still spill over the plate, and it’s almost always chaos. It never really grew up – and no one wants it to.
Papadopoulos laughs when he remembers the Brunswick Street of 1988 when he opened Vegie Bar. “There were no lattes then. Mario’s had just opened up two years before us. They really helped the coffee scene.”
Laki wasn’t vegetarian then either, but had just fallen in love with tempeh after trying it for the first time. “I was like, ‘Wow, this is unreal!’ A tempeh burger with satay – only it wasn’t called satay then, it was called “peanut sauce”. That blew me away in 1987, because as a good Greek boy from the suburbs, you don’t see that kind of thing.”
Vegie Bar was next to The Punters Club, a live music venue. “We worked together really well, because they had no food. We’d be selling these angry rockers tofu burgers and spring rolls. They loved that.”
Over the years he’s gone head-to-head with plenty of militant vegetarians. He says he still gets complaint emails at Vegie Bar about the way they should be doing things. “They’re quite fanatical, vegos. It never seems to be good enough.”
He explains that at Transformer he’s confident about doing things his way – including serving cheese and eggs, which he expects to cop an earful for from some. “At the end of the day, it’s my interpretation of it.”
So why open a second vegetarian restaurant, and why now?
“It’s the first time I felt confident enough – that it was the right time. I haven’t seen anything like this in Australia. They’re [other restaurateurs] all scared to do it. Matt Wilkinson [who owns Pope Joan cafe in East Brunswick] wrote the book on it [Mr Wilkinson’s Favourite Vegetables], but he didn’t want to do a restaurant of it.”
“I believe someone else is going to do this,” he continues. “I think that they’ll wake up to it and realise that there’s a market for it.”
Dave Verheul of Carlton’s The Town Mouse has built a small cult following around his knack with vegetables; particularly the slow-roast red cabbage – a luscious, textured dish with prune, parmesan and red apple – which no one will let him take off the menu.
“It makes me gag. I can’t do it anymore,” he says. “We’ve had it on [the menu] since the start.”
Verheul isn’t revolutionary – he simply approaches all of his ingredients, from an Angus steak to a brassica, with the same level of consideration and imagination.
“There’s so much scope [with vegetables],”he says. “Nature’s bounty is huge.”
Verhuel explains that, when it comes to making a great vegetable dish, it’s about, “Building layers of flavour” through techniques such as roasting, fermenting and pickling – not just by omitting elements.
At Maha, Shane Delia has written a vegan menu that he adapts for vegetarians, explaining it’s easier to start vegan and add ingredients than the other way around. Delia loves meat, but has recently adopted a mostly vegetarian diet, for health reasons among others. “The way we eat meat isn’t sustainable, so we need to look at other avenues, we need to look at plant-based diets,” he says.
He suggests the reason some chefs might be hesitant to accept the growing demand could be “ignorance” or “arrogance”.
“It’s easy to make a steak taste good,” he says. “You need to be a bit smarter when you’re cooking with vegetables.”
Martinez of Smith & Daughters thinks many chefs feel daunted by vegetarian cooking.
“Chefs – especially those who have been cooking for a really long time – some of them are too egotistical and don’t like not knowing what they’re doing,” she says. “It takes the right person, who enjoys that challenge. You have to pull down the ego and say, ‘I don’t know, but let’s give it a go’.”
Martinez first knew she’d hit on something more than 10 years ago, when she was head chef at The East Brunswick Club. It all started with one dish she happened to trial. “The vegan parma. That just went fucking crazy. That was the start of everything.” Before she knew it, she was cooking down-the-line 50- 50 vegan and meat versions of the menu, just based on requests.
“When I realised the demand was there, then the vegan menu started outweighing the meat menu. I really loved that people could come and everyone was eating what they wanted.”
From there she met Wyse, who invited her to head a vegan soul-food stall at the Peoples’ Market in Collingwood in 2012.
“It was a line out the door, out of the gates,” Wyse says. “No other vendor had that, ever. People came from all over town just to eat her food.”
Agreeing with Delia and Papadopoulos, Martinez thinks the demand for ambitious, high-quality vegetarian cuisine is glaring.
“As a restaurant owner, if you decide not to make vegan food, you’re an idiot. You’re cutting off a market that’s growing so fast. You’re basically saying: ‘I don’t want your money’.”
Martinez and Wyse have learned plenty since their first venture together. But the biggest lesson has been realising the pitifully low expectations surrounding vegetarian food in the first place.
“That’s the problem,” Martinez says. “It’s always been ‘good enough’. Good enough is not good enough. Not when people go out to eat.”
She picks out Lentil as Anything as an example. While acknowledging that it’s a charity and it’s “great”, she says you’d never go there for a mind-blowing dining experience. You go to fill up on good food, but that’s the extent of it.
“That’s what we found: everything was good enough for vegetarians and vegans, but there was really nowhere you could go on your first anniversary, or take a date, to go and get drunk. There wasn’t that element.”
Perhaps the best example of someone taking vegetarian food to the mainstream in Australia is one that not everyone even realises is vegetarian. Mark Koronczyk started Lord of the Fries 10 years ago as a food van, and in that time it’s expanded to eight restaurants with three more coming soon, including the first international store in Mumbai. Each week Lord of the Fries serves an average of 10 tonnes of chips across its Melbourne stores.
“We just wanted to see a kinder menu being more mainstream,” Koronczyk explains.
In terms of the fast-food chain’s acceptance on such a scale, he says, “I think society’s changing ... I think people’s tastes and expectations are expanding to be more inclusive of everything, rather than excluding things.”
Back in the Smith & Daughters kitchen, the staff is packing down after another busy weekend. While the restaurant is closed tomorrow, Martinez will be back at work on her day off, tinkering with the recipes her customers have requested she create for the deli.
“Being thanked for what you do is just so awesome. That’s why I probably won’t do much else other than this style of food again. We’re giving people what they really want.”
Smith & Deli
111 Moor Street, Fitzroy
Lord of the Fries
383 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy
This article first appeared in Broadsheet's 2015 winter print issue, available for free now at shops, cafes, bars, restaurants and galleries across Melbourne.
Click here for a complete guide to the best vegetarian restaurants in Melbourne.