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Shannon Martinez - punk queen of plant-based cuisine and Australian chef

Shannon Martinez at the cutting edge

The magician of meat-free eating, the punk queen of plant-based cuisine, the mind-blowing Shannon Martinez.

"Oh my god, you’ve done your research! I love that!” laughs Shannon Martinez, when asked about the conversation with a bouncer outside a Goth bar that allegedly started her on her path to becoming perhaps Australia’s foremost pioneer of meat-free cuisine. One might expect that it was an in-depth dialogue on the sins of industrial production, shared on the street outside the club while music thrummed inside, that inspired her future career.

“That conversation with him was basically ‘I’ll let you in if you bring me vegan muffins’, so that’s when I made my first vegan muffin – because I was underage.”

Martinez laughs again, a full, throaty, infectious laugh that lights up her face. “But the first time the lightbulb went off was at the East Brunswick Club in 2006.” Martinez was working the bar there, taking a break from cheffing following her training at Sofitel and apprenticeship at Richmond Hill Larder. She hadn’t told anyone about her skills because “as soon as someone knows you’re a chef that’s where you end up being put, and I didn't want to be in a kitchen at that point." One night, however, the head chef went out to do the banking and never came back. “They were in the shit, so I was like, ‘alright, I can do this, I can help you.’”

Shannon Martinez explosive Calabrian spaghetti

Shannon Martinez' explosive Calabrian spaghetti.

Shannon Martinez preparing her explosive Calabrian spaghetti

Shannon Martinez preparing her explosive Calabrian spaghetti.

The venue was popular with a young demographic drawn to its regular punk shows, and Martinez read the room. Despite being a sometime meat-eater herself – “I grew up Spanish, I’d never been vegan or vegetarian, much the opposite actually” – Martinez realised a large number of vegans and vegetarians were attending, and had the idea of doing a vegetarian parma. “Why would vegans want to eat anything different to what I’d want to eat? You go to a pub, you eat a parma, right? So that’s what I started doing.”

She soon came across a small shop called Vincent’s Vegetarian in Footscray, and suddenly that lightbulb blazed like a nuclear candle. “My mind was f*cking blown. They had vegan lobsters, vegan half-chickens I didn’t know any of it existed and that’s what piqued my interest. No one was working with this stuff, especially not back then, and that’s when I become obsessed with it all. If anyone was going to do it, I was the guy.”

That obsession has paid dividends. Today, Martinez is recognised as a true industry pioneer in meat alternatives, with her own limited meat consumption forming the reference point for her ongoing refinement of plant-based dishes. Her venues, Smith + Daughters and Smith + Deli soon anchored Martinez’ reputation amongst Melbourne foodies following their 2014 and 2015 openings. Lona Misa at the Ovolo Hotel opened in 2021, joining Smith + Daughters as Victoria’s first hatted vegan restaurants. Since 2023, Sydney veggos have been able to experience the Martinez magic with Alibi at the Ovolo.

Martinez’ work hovers somewhere between science and art. Her food creations involve meticulous reconstructions of animal fats and the distinct mouthfeels they impart, resulting in extraordinary recreations of things like brisket, bacon, steaks, deli meats and more convincing enough to deceive all but the most observant carnivore.

“Depending on what I’m making will depend on the ‘fat’ that I use,” explains Martinez. “We use vegetarian suet in some things like salami, we use that in some of our meats. When we make the hams, we have this concoction we call ‘meat fat’ which is vegetable shortening whipped, we add butter and flavourings and that gets layered in between the meats. It’s a lot of problem solving, it’s very tactile. It’s so in the moment, you need to feel it.”

It’s been a long, sustained process of experimentation and iteration. “I always keep trying. It’s probably now to the point where as a chef in the kitchen I’ve done as much as I can without bringing on food scientists, with the crazy equipment and all the molecular breakdowns of stuff. So I think I may have peaked at where I can develop it from a chef’s point of view, maybe. It’s really good now.”

Shannon Martinez sitting on a red couch with her foot resting on a whole pumpkin

Shannon Martinez found the magic in meat-free eating outside a Goth bar.



It’s not always been plain sailing, however, and not just because of the vagaries of the hospitality business and the well-attested-to challenges of Covid. In her early days, Martinez was subjected to numerous death threats from the more extreme elements of the vegan culture, which has a reputation for a kind of ideological purity that deems anything but full-blown veganism as being an accessory to murder. “I used to get death threats all the time,” she recalls.

“It was pretty intense at first, and it always blew my mind. It’s settled down now. You’ll always have your fanatics, and I think for some people veganism can be their whole identity. At some point down the line I got tagged as the vegan poster girl – I didn’t say that, but it kind of stuck – and they didn’t like that. A lot of threats, ‘if I f*cking see you, you’re f*cking dead bitch.’”

Then, in 2020, her world turned inside out following the discovery of an aggressive cancer in her left breast, leading to extensive treatment which blew out her taste receptors. “I was having to write a menu without tastebuds, which was pretty full on,” explains Martinez of the time, prior to Lona Misa’s opening. “I’m lucky I have a good team who know how I like to cook.” The next three years would be a blur.

Shannon Martinez preparing her braised borlotti and chicory

Shannon Martinez preparing her braised borlotti and chicory dish.

Shannon Martinez pickled mushroom and radicchio recipe.

Shannon Martinez' pickled mushroom and radicchio.

Not being able to have the fight or flight stress hormone as a chef is pretty shit.

- Shannon Martinez

It took six months after treatment finished “heaps of chemo” and a lumpectomy – for her to feel confident in her palate again. Then, as cancer so often does, it returned: in 2022, she visited a friend in Queensland who gave her a hug which broke her rib – and which may have saved her life. A visit to the GP for scans turned up a new tumour in her right breast – just as she’d been asked to open Alibi. More chemo followed as well as a double mastectomy. During it all, she accepted the gong for 2023’s Restaurant Personality of the Year while donning a wig.

However, a brutal fungal infection soon invaded the healing tissue of her breast reconstruction. “I ended up in hospital for all of December last year,” she recounts. “The medication I was on makes you hallucinate like crazy. Hallucinating in hospital isn’t the best.” Treatment via an immunotherapy medication also destroyed her pituitary gland and its ability to produce cortisol – a permanent condition. “Not being able to have the fight or flight stress hormone as a chef is pretty shit.”

Nonetheless, Martinez’ relentless work ethic, curiosity, and vision of a different food future sustains her.

“I want my business to create as little impact on the planet as possible,” Martinez explains. “Humans are f*cking selfish, huh – says me, very hypocritical, who still eats meat – but everyone knows what’s happening with the planet, and the effect that the food system has on the planet.”

Her main goal with Smith + Daughters – “I’d say at least 50 per cent of our customers aren’t vegan, or vegetarian at all” – is that when they visit, it opens their minds up and changes whatever preconceived notions they have of what vegan food is. “Most of the time it works. They’ll say to me, ‘if I could eat vegan food like this every day, I’d go vegan.’”

In addition, she’s just finished shooting for a new, as-yet-untitled cookbook due in October, which she describes as utterly unique – an anarchic Italian-inspired vegan free-for-all tracing a morning-to-night-to-morning-after narrative in a Saltburn-style mansion where everything is ever-so-slightly askew.

“She’s either going to be a James Beard-nominated book or a complete flop, there’s no in-between,” she laughs. “Initially for the dinner party scene we’d invited a whole bunch of people and none of the dudes showed up, but it actually worked out amazing because now it looks like we’re all a bunch of rich bitches who just topped our husbands off, and now we’re just partying.”

Again, a peal of laughter leaves Martinez’ lips. It’s a beautiful sound, an affirmation, a gauntlet thrown down to life and to death and to the doubters. But there’s little doubt here: Martinez has earned that laugh, through her craft and through sheer hard work. And what kind of a future would it be without the nourishment of laughter?

Words by
Brendan McCallum
Photography by
Carmen Zammit
Published on
7 Mar 2024


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