Interview: Australian Vegan Chef Shannon Martinez

After finishing her third cookbook, the plant-based professional was diagnosed with cancer and embarked on two new endeavors

For over 20 years, Shannon Martinez has been cooking professionally, but it was a moment of good will—stepping into the kitchen of Melbourne pub the East Brunswick Club to make vegan food after the chef “went to the bank and never came back”—that started her on the path to becoming Australia’s plant-based poster girl. The owner and head chef of beloved restaurant Smith & Daughters (housed in a historic Fitzroy bluestone, with its trademark upside down “EAT VEGAN” neon cross) and to-go outpost Smith & Deli, Martinez just finished her third cookbook, Vegan With Bite, and was starting on her fourth when she was diagnosed with a rare type of breast cancer. She paused the development of that book’s recipes—but nothing else. Instead she took on more: working on a “cooking for chemo” book and a cartoon (with her friend and artist Tamara Scoulidis) called The Adventures of Chuck, which will see all proceeds donated to the Peter MacCallum Cancer Foundation—specifically to underfunded research programs.

We spoke with Martinez about making vegan food accessible and her compulsion to create, even in the darkest moments.

Courtesy Nikki To / Vegan with Bite by Shannon Martinez / Hardie Grant Books 2020

Where to begin—let’s go chronologically? Tell us about Vegan With Bite. Was it easier or more difficult to write your third cookbook?

This time around, it was so easy because I knew exactly what I wanted. The team I had was incredible; we all had the same vision. It’s like a bougie budget vegan cookbook. With vegan food, and my recipes especially, it’s really ingredient-heavy. The methods aren’t necessarily hard, but for me, coming from a non-vegan point of view, it takes a lot of ingredients to layer up ingredients enough to make the dish really fucking delicious. I feel like that’s why a lot of vegan food can be quite thin tasting—because they’re missing the fats and proteins and all that sort of stuff. And people just take them out and don’t replace them. They just remove the fish sauce or remove the shrimp paste and don’t think about what they brought to the dish in the first place.

My ingredients lists are usually massive, so I’ve tried to tone it down a little bit. Then the methods are super-easy and fast to make—no soaking things overnight or anything like that. You get home at 6PM and your kids are hungry or you want it on the table at 6:30—that’s what this book’s for. I also made sure that all the ingredients could be found easily. You don’t have to go online and find special ingredients and wait a week for them to be delivered. They’re not scary recipes.

Courtesy Vegan with Bite by Shannon Martinez / Hardie Grant Books 2020

You mention your non-vegan mindset—you eat dairy and meat, but very little—can you offer some advice to people who want to start cooking more plant-based dishes?

The most valuable thing you can do is to learn proper basics of cooking in general. Don’t focus on vegan cooking, but just cooking. Don’t focus on vegan food, because it’s all just food, right? The methods are the same, it’s just about learning how to substitute certain ingredients. Don’t go chucking out all your cookbooks because they’re not vegan. You can still follow that recipe that your grandma gave you for the shepherd’s pie you love and just learn the little subs and tricks. That’s why my food is a bit different, I think.

Most of my customers aren’t even vegan, but they come to the restaurant because everyone’s changing the way they eat

Our collective attitude toward vegan eating has changed so much since you embarked on your plant-based cooking career. But you still have to prove yourself so much more than a “regular” chef, it seems? Do you think that’s because you’re not strictly vegan yourself?

I’ve got to constantly prove myself. It blows my mind that I get so much shit for being a non-vegan vegan chef, yet nobody says anything to non-vegan chefs for not offering vegan food. Smith & Daughters has really helped vegan food, and helped change the mentality of lots of people—most of my customers aren’t even vegan, but they come to the restaurant because everyone’s changing the way they eat. In reality, I’m less focused on vegans and really targeting the majority of people in the world—especially the Western world—because if we can get the majority to reduce their intake of meat and dairy, the effect that has on animals and the environment is huge.

Courtesy of Smith & Daughters

So you finished that book, started the next one, and suddenly found out you were sick. How did you so quickly decide to write a chemo-focused cookbook?

My mum has had cancer twice. The first time she got it was about 16 years ago, and I looked into what foods are good while you’re going through chemo. So I learned a bit from that. But then this time around, I was looking for myself and it’s just so fucking depressing—all the literature out there. Also nothing that addresses your energy levels for when cooking for yourself. Not everyone has a family or a partner to look after them, so the reality is that a lot of people will go through this alone.

In a weird way, my working insane hours, going out afterwards and not sleeping and then going back to work has prepped me for this because I already know how to function when I’m exhausted. But at the same time, to go from my level of energy to zero on some days has been the hardest part.

But you still feel a compulsion to be creative and to work? 

I just knew I couldn’t sit here for the next three or four months, doing fuck-all because I’ll go nuts. So I thought, “I’ll just write a book,” but I want to actually address—alright, so you feel like shit today, you probably can be in the kitchen for five minutes max, what can we make? You have good days and then, after treatment, bad days. So, on the good days we set ourselves up for the bad days. And it’s pretty well-documented that a vegan, vegetable-heavy diet during treatment is really beneficial.

If you feel like your body needs something, especially when you’re fighting something like this, then do it

So will it be vegan?

For the first time, this book will not be all vegan. What I’m looking at doing is having every base recipe be vegan, but there will be versions of each recipe so people can add different ingredients. This should be a time of no judgement: if you feel like your body needs something, especially when you’re fighting something like this, then do it.

You were saying that during treatment your tastebuds changed. Beyond flavor, there’s texture and scent and beyond. Can you elaborate on those factors people might not have considered?

Yes. Even down to the act of physically eating. You don’t want to sit upright at a table with a knife and fork; you’re going to be on the couch lying down. You need a bowl in one hand and a spoon in the other. There are so many little things like that that haven’t been taking into account in a lot of these books.

Courtesy of Shannon Martinez + Tamara Scoulidis / Somekind Press

And there’s also The Adventures of Chuck, can you tell us about that? 

I’ve got this little team of my really close friends and—because of COVID and chemo, I have to be really careful—they take me to hospital and sit with me during treatment. One of my friends took a selfie of the two of us when I was in hospital. She sent it to my mate Tamara, who drew it just because she’s an artist and loved the picture. She drew it and sent it to me, just as a nice gesture. When I saw it I said, “We should make a comic out of this. Like a superhero comic and you guys can be my superheroes.”

Every emotion you go through gets morphed into a monster. Without sounding like a mental health brochure, things like fear—fear is this bad guy that’s made of a thousand spiders. I grew up playing Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat and I just loved the idea. It’s like when I decided to shave my head, it’s about taking the power back. You just feel so helpless because the treatment you don’t really have a choice over so much, so this is a way to take some ownership by battling this thing. That’s why I thought something like Mortal Kombat—or Tank Girl for me, that was number one. So we are definitely borrowing from Tank Girl in the comic when I shave my head and take back some power.

Who do you envision is your main audience?

Teens, young adults, adults. It’s going to be heavy but really silly and fun. I think the days of cancer only affecting older people are well and truly gone. People in their 20s are getting it and there’s just not a whole lot out there for that age group. So I thought it was really important, but also wanted the comic to be light and empowering and fun—and something they can take into treatment with them when they’re feeling a bit anxious or sad. Because mindset is such a huge part of healing.

Courtesy Nikki To / Vegan with Bite by Shannon Martinez / Hardie Grant Books 2020

Do you feel this is just in your nature—no matter what the circumstance, to find creative outlets and embark on new projects?

I can’t imagine anything worse than sitting down and doing something that doesn’t have a point. My mum was intensely hard-working and giving. For me, people that have a public platform and don’t use it for good, that really annoys me. I don’t want to be this cancer advocate, but I have gotten to a point where people listen to me, so if I can help people, why would I not? Especially when I can help people by doing the thing I love most in the world.

Pre-order Vegan With Bite and The Adventures of Chuck and Her Bubble of Trouble online; all proceeds from Chuck donated to cancer trials at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Foundation.

Hero image courtesy of Shannon Martinez + Hardie Grant Books