If you ask Shannon Martinez what the hardest part of enduring breast cancer treatment was, she doesn’t hesitate. “Definitely losing my tastebuds,” the chef says, “and although they are back now, there was a long period last year where I couldn’t taste anything. It was definitely a low point and very scary; my taste is the one thing I base my entire existence on.” The food she missed the most? Chilli. “I love chilli, but my tolerance is only slowly coming back. I’ve had to train myself again!”
During treatment, the founder of popular Melbourne vegan restaurants Smith & Daughters and Smith & Deli, decided to throw herself into an exciting new project; the result is the relaunch of her much-loved business and a move into a spacious new venue in Collingwood, which opened this week. “Thinking about the new venue was escapism from my cancer life. Starting a new project was a way to get motivated again. It had to work and that’s a driving force,” she says.
It was lucky then that this new venue, Smith & Daughters, took an immense amount of planning and organisation, not least because there’s an 80-seat restaurant, boutique supermarket and a large cafeteria-style area, all offering up freshly prepared vegan food. And while all of that kept the self-taught chef busy, it was the planning of the numerous vegan offerings that was the real challenge. “I had to write the menus without tastebuds, and although there is, of course, muscle memory from years of cooking, it still made me doubt myself,” she remembers. “I was grateful to have the chefs I have been working with for years, who knew my palette and could support me.”
With Smith & Daughters – which is one of the world’s largest vegan hubs – opening this month, the Melbourne-based chef spoke to T Australia about her love of food, the biggest myth about cooking vegan meals and what she hopes her customers feel when they visit her new venue.
Why is being vegan important to you?
“Firstly, food is my everything. it’s the first thing I think about when I wake up in the morning, it’s my work, and it’s the first thing I do when I get home after working a double shift; it’s my life. When I first started specialising in vegan food in 2005, there was nothing out there, no books and very limited produce. To me, that challenge was exciting. [Veganism] ticks all the boxes, its heathy and I’m super aware of animal welfare. We have such a massive impact as chefs and the hospitality industry as a whole on the way people eat, I want to create food that people love and makes them feel good.”
When you were planning this new venue, you were also having treatment for breast cancer. How did that affect what you wanted to create?
“Not being able to leave my house because I was too sick gave me a lot of time to think about what was (and wasn’t) working with my business model and how I could fix it. The main thing we needed was just more space. As much as I love that the current Smith & Daughters is in a heritage-listed building, because of that we could never extend the kitchen or offer lunch as it was too in demand.”
What will excite people the most about this new vegan hub?
“Well, I’m most excited about how it will look. Smith & Daughters and Smith & Deli have always been and always will be independent; we’ve never had financial investment. But I see my businesses as my children, and now ‘my girls’ are growing from their grungy teens into a Vivienne Westwood, European glamour fantasy. This time around I can finally show people the restaurant that has always been in my mind. It will be very reflective of my personality, style and food. It’s 100% me.”
What do you want people to feel when they make your recipes or eat your food?
“Love and confidence. I really have a simple approach to cooking, as I’m mostly self-taught, my food is all from the heart. I want to create food that is cosy, my ideal place for eating my food would be on the couch where you feel at home and relaxed. I also feel really lucky that I can bring back foods to people that may be taken for granted if they eat vegan. Food brings back so many memories to everyone. I always remember my grandmother’s house had such an amazing smell from her meals, and even now that she is gone, I can still remember that smell. When you become vegan that can sometimes be taken away from you, maybe you can’t eat that family recipe you once loved. I get to bring those memories back to people and that is a superpower I love.”
What is a misconception about vegan food that frustrates you?
“That it’s hard to make! People just need to convert recipes they have been doing their whole lives. There’s a replacement for everything, it can be easy.”
Tell us about this one-pot burrito rice recipe, why do you love it? Do you have any tips for making it?
“This is one of the most popular dishes to make from my Vegan with Bite book, people love a one-pot wonder! Vegan with Bite is all about debunking the idea that vegan cooking is hard; this dish is 30 minutes start to finish and not expensive to make at home. It’s garnished with corn chips (who doesn’t love that) and it makes heaps, so you can roll it into a burrito for the next day or even make it into a dip. It’s really delicious.”
Shannon Martinez’s One-Pot Burrito Rice
3 tbsps extra-virgin olive oil
1 brown onion, finely chopped
½ red capsicum, seeded and diced
½ green capsicum, seeded and diced
3 garlic cloves, minced
450g veggie mince or soaked textured vegetable protein
1 tsp chilli powder, or to taste
2 tsp ground cumin
2 tsp ground coriander
½ tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp sweet paprika
1 tsp dried oregano
1 × 400g tin diced tomatoes
300g (1½ cups) long-grain rice
150g (1 cup) frozen corn kernels
1 × 400g tin black beans, drained and rinsed
625ml (2½ cups) beef or vegetable stock
3 spring onions (scallions), sliced, plus extra to serve
250g shredded vegan cheese
Chopped coriander (cilantro) leaves and lime wedges, to serve
1. Heat the oil in a wide shallow saucepan over a medium heat. Add the onion, capsicums and a big pinch of salt and cook for 5 minutes, or until softened. Add the garlic and cook for another minute. Add the mince or textured vegetable protein and fry, breaking it up into small bits if using veggie mince. Add the ground spices and oregano and cook for 30 seconds, then stir through the diced tomatoes and cook over a medium–low heat for 5 minutes. Add the rice and stir to coat in the spiced tomato mixture, then add the corn and black beans.
2. Pour over the stock and stir to combine. Bring the mixture to the boil, then reduce the heat to the lowest setting and cook, covered, for 20–25 minutes, or until all the liquid has been absorbed.
3. Remove the lid and stir through the spring onion and half the cheese. Shake the pan to even out the rice, then sprinkle over the remaining cheese. Cover with the lid once again and leave for 1 minute to melt the cheese.
4. Finish with the avocado, coriander and extra spring onion and serve with lime wedges. If you really want to go all out, add some corn chips and a drizzle of hot sauce.