Talking to Shannon Martinez is like being caught up in an incredibly exciting ride on a very colourful journey. So infectious is her zeal for life and her love of sharing good food with everyone, that, having spent time with her and had a peep into her world, I couldn’t help feeling as though I was glowing myself and appreciative of life and all its glorious possibilities.
What led you down the chef path?
Food was always a massive part of my life because of my Spanish background. I was always cooking. When I was 12 years old, for Christmas, mum bought me a trunk that had my first knife, my first spoon, my first tea towel. That was what cemented it for me and really got me interested in it. When my parents got divorced, Dad had always done all the cooking, he was the Spanish side, and I lived with Mum so I was so used to the food that he was making that I started learning form him and learning from my grandma and playing with the dishes at home so I could reintroduce those flavours because he wasn’t cooking for us any more.
Then when mum knew I was really into food, she saved up all her money and sent me to MLC which has an advanced hospitality program. A single mum, knowing what I wanted to do and knew that this was an opportunity that would be really great for me.
How does it work there? Is it Year 11 and 12?
I’m pretty sure I only did it in Year 11. It’s a VET course; Certificate I in Hospitality, so it’s like jumping ahead basically and they have a commercial kitchen and they also have a restaurant that they open to retirement homes and so on; it must be $10 or something and we learn how to do services and we learned what commercial cooking is about. You had to do work experience so I went to Sofitel in the city and I was in the banquets kitchen. I was one of only two women in a brigade of 15 men so it was crazy.
That’s full on. What an intense introduction to that world.
Absolutely. Especially seeing I was a 15-year-old girl. But I loved it so much and I asked whether I could continue working there for free and they let me work more so I’d work there after school and catch a train into the city and then mum would pick me up at 9 o’clock. I’d do my shift and wear my outfit. I loved it.
I love those stories. It just shows the huge amount of passion you had.
Right from the start which I find fortunate. For me to have known what I wanted to do right from the start when I have so many friends who are 30 years old and still don’t know and I’ve always known. It was that or music for me. I did both side by side for quite a long while but decided in the end that cooking was the easier way to make a living, well, the more guaranteed way.
I’m not sure it’s necessarily easier…
It’s harder, but it’s a more guaranteed way to earn a living. I gave music a good go, went to the States and gave it a good shot but decided that food was it. So while I was travelling with music and my ex-husband was a skateboarder and we used to live in the States for their summers and come back for summers here and I’d cook over there with people and wherever I could I’d try to get into peoples’ houses and cook with their grandmothers. I got back to Melbourne and then worked here (site which is now Smith & Daughters) about 12 years ago actually. A friend of mine was working here and they didn’t have anyone that knew anything about Spanish food and it was a Spanish restaurant. They kinda needed a name to put to the Spanish food I guess. So maybe it was 14 years ago, I started working here. That’s why when we found this space, I said to Mo (Maureen Wyse, business partner), we have to have this.
What was it called then?
De Los Santos. It was here for ages. It was before the massive Spanish movement in Melbourne. Before MoVida and all that really took hold and then I guess when those restaurants did all take hold, this place, De Los Santos kind of faded away a little.
So I was here and then the whole vegan thing started at the East Brunswick Club on Lygon Street. I was bartending there. I used to get sick of cooking once in a while and I loved hospitality so I’d jump behind the bar or run the floor for a while and then one day the head chef went to the bank and never came back and it was a Friday night and it was an hour before service. Someone there knew I was a chef and sort of said, do you reckon you could maybe help us for the night and that was it and then I was stuck in the kitchen.
Someone is going to make a movie about you one day.
That’s very funny. That’s crazy. So just to go back…Sofitel…then I did my apprenticeship and I was working at Stephanie’s at the Richmond Hill Larder, but school just wasn’t for me and the food was really boring compared to the food I’d grown up eating. Apprentices are still making the same shit these days that I was making; brand snap baskets. Boring seventies food that they’re not ever going to make. It just hasn’t been modernised.
So they’re not techniques that lend themselves to other things either?
They could do it differently. Yeah, the basic techniques, of course, but it could do with some modernising and bring some of the methods and product into the present day.
Ok. I was talking to Martin from El Atino on Bridge Road and he said that he trained in Mexico even though he’s from Argentina and he said they didn’t learn all the French techniques, but instead learned traditional Spanish methods and he now likes to put his own sort of fusion twist on it so whatever you learn must be useful and then allows you to modify it?
Totally. And I respect the traditional methods of course but to me, and I have arguments with my friend who owns Lee Ho Fook in the city, Victor Liong, and he and I get into massive fights all the time because Chinese food is my number one favourite and to me, Chinese food is the holy grail of food full stop. People put French food on a podium but, for me, Chinese food is where it’s at. They have just nailed every method of cookery; steaming, frying, baking. They know it all and they’re older and everything. So we fight all the time and I get into arguments with him, and I say to him, but you are Chinese food in Melbourne, why are you fighting with me? But he has a real sentimental thing to that French classic connection and that’s how he has cooked. He’s grown up in those kitchens, in brigades and all that and it’s just not my style. I don’t like anyone calling me Chef and I don’t like a regimented kitchen. It’s not the environment I enjoy, I’ve been there and I just don’t like it. To me food is fun, it’s not angry male-driven, aggressive stuff, which is what a lot of those kitchens are.
Do you think things are changing? A couple of months ago I had watched the film, Burnt, with Bradley Cooper as a head chef who does all the yelling at the people and is drunk and throwing things around and I asked a couple of the chefs I was talking to at the time how they manage their kitchens and, well, I speak to a lot of male chefs…
Of course. Because most of them are male.
And their response was that that was how they were trained but they try not to do that because the whole idea, especially in Melbourne is to hold onto staff…
Oh they’ll leave, yeah.
Because young people would rather do other things and it’s hard work.
They won’t put up with it either.
So if you’re nice to them and build a team, it works better for everybody.
Totally. You have a crew. I have chefs in the kitchen right now who have been with me since the East Brunswick Club which is 2006.
That says a lot.
Yeah. And they follow me from place to place. Each place I open and new staff I get, I just add and add. It’s really important to me. The male driven industry pisses me off. Women can be in the kitchen if it’s for free at home, but as soon as you get paid for it, then it’s a man’s world. In the Gourmet Traveller Top 50 that just came out, it was all white, all male.
Ok. One of my best friends in Christchurch is a Head Chef and she always said that as a woman chef, you enter the kitchen and you have to earn the respect of your team, but as a male chef, you already start with it and have to do something pretty drastic to lose respect.
It’s true. Then a lot of women go to such extremes to gain that that they become worse than the men because they’re trying to be extra tough, extra aggressive, and you don’t want to do that just to be respected. That’s shit in itself.
It is interesting. It’s something I avoid asking women. Philippa Sibley said that she was glad I hadn’t asked what it’s like to be a woman chef, because she is a woman and she’s a chef and she can’t really compare it to anything else. So it feels a little bit like the elephant in the room sometimes. But why should there be a difference?
I think it’s a great question. It’s a massive issue in the industry. Why is there a chef of the year and female chef of the year?
Yeah. What’s with that? That in itself says what the industry is like. Not that a woman would ever win it because it’s always the same top 10 dudes that are always in the running for these things anyway but the fact that there is top chef and top female chef says it all actually. From that I’ve made sure that my kitchen is not ever like that. It’s a really safe space for everyone to be in. No one has to prove themselves to get my respect. They all start off with my respect and they have to do something for it to go away.
So, Stephanie’s was the wrong vibe for me. TAFE was the wrong vibe. I met the guy who became my husband and started traveling a lot and just learning about food everywhere I went, which for me was the best way to learn; from grandmothers and mothers. It’s just the best food. That’s the kind of food you want to eat. When people talk about last meal situations, it’s not something from a fine dining restaurant. It’s something their grandmother or mother used to make at Christmas time. That’s the food I love, where you get that sentimental connection to things.
So yeah the East Brunswick Club was the beginning if vegan food for me.
Were you vegan? Are you vegan?
No. I’ve got jamon tattooed on my arm and animals hanging from hooks on there. But at East Brunswick Club people started asking me regularly for vegan dishes and I didn’t have any on the menu and didn’t know much about vegan food. This was about 2004-ish so I put on a vegan parma because it was a pub, an old school proper pub, and it went ballistic. Then on a Monday we were doing two or three hundred vegan parmas in a night. Mental and it just became a massive thing in Melbourne. I had no idea. I didn’t have vegan friends, I wasn’t vegan, it wasn’t a really big thing at the time. It opened my eyes to the fact that there was an entire group of people who were missing out on food clearly. So I made a huge vegan menu and it just went crazy. Then the person who was managing the East Brunswick Club opened the Gasometer Hotel on Smith Street and he asked me to set up the kitchen there and the menu got even bigger, the vegan thing got even bigger again. Then I went to the Sweetwater Inn in Prahran and that was like an Aussie pub; tin shed, really cool. I struggled heaps to understand what ‘aussie food’ meant.
What does it mean?
I don’t know. I did Moreton Bay bug chowder. I didn’t grow up eating Aussie food so it was foreign to me. Oh and before that was the Peoples’ Market in Collingwood which was a huge outdoor pop up market for 5 months over summer. I had my own food truck so I left the Gasometer to start up my own business, I guess, in the lowest risk environment because it was a food truck. It was my firs all vegan venture so I got to test it out there because I’d always wanted to run my own restaurant. I met Mo who was running the market, she’s over there doing al the businessy side of stuff. My head doesn’t work like that. The Peoples’ Market was perfect for me because it wasn’t realistic for me to do it on my own; I didn’t know how to run places and do all the book work. So then Mo and I went and got jobs and started planning this restaurant and then I found this space and we opened up here and less than a year after we opened here, we opened up the deli. We just outgrew this space straightaway. We’re doing about three to four hundred meals here a night on a Tuesday so it’s crazy and our cool room is about the size of this table, so we can’t get ahead, which is great. Great problem to have. So we opened up the deli to try and provide for the restaurant but the deli became busier than the restaurant. So now we’re looking at getting a factory to try and deal with the wholesale side.
It is a pretty good problem to have. And in Melbourne. For you, it’s sustainable, it’s continuing, which is interesting because I think a lot of places can be flash in the pan.
For sure. We’re coming up to three years now.
Thank you. At the beginning, I thought it was just because we were new and it was the thing everyone was talking about so it was hectic but anytime now it will chill out and we’ll get to a normal pace, but it still hasn’t and it’s been three years and it can still be booked out weeks in advance. It’s awesome.
You seem really excited by it still.
It’s so good. Yeah. It’s so cool.
Now the cookbook you put out recently, you’re willing o share your recipes?
I wasn’t for a really long time because it’s not your regular food, so it’s not how to cook a steak. It’s not stuff you can go to William Angliss and learn. I’ve spent a lot of time figuring out how to make these dishes so it is kinda like giving away your child in a way. I was always worried about other restaurants knowing how I do things. So now they know. But I figured it was getting to a point where I needed to start sharing things and I had to think of it in a way like now that everyone knows how to make a lot of my things, now I have to keep pushing in order to make sure I keep ahead. So that’s the only way I can positively look at handing out my recipes is that it will keep pushing me to expand what I do and be more creative.
It’s an interesting idea because I had a chat a couple of weeks ago to the founder of this new thing called FoodByUs which is encouraging people to make food at home and then sell it, a bit along the lines of Uber and Airbnb.
I think I read something about that.
Yes and I spoke to another chef about that and I was more thinking, do chefs think well who are you to start selling food when I’ve done all this training and put in the hard yards but he took the angle of it being good that people have got something they have to share, like they’re really good at biscuits or Indian food because their parents are Indian or whatever and his thing was that you still can’t get past the restaurant experience and as you were just talking about your book, I was thinking, well people could have your recipe but it’s still not the same as when you create it here …
And you get the drinks and the atmosphere…
And it’s like that Spanish story, Like Water for Chocolate, you make it with the emotion you put into it, so maybe it will never ne the same if other people cook it. As good as your cookbook is.
It’s true. My grandmother would swear that the recipes she had given me were right, but they never tasted the same when I made them. I don’t know whether it was just the passion coming out of her. I used to think she had the most beautiful soft skin and I used to think, is there something on her hands? I don’t know what it was. And she would promise that she had given me exactly what she did. But I’d go and cook it and come back and tell her she was lying to me and she would just say, well that’s what I do. So no matter what, it will never be the same.
I was really nervous because I’d never written recipes down in the past. It’s mental for a restaurant not to write anything down.
And you have to come up with quantities for people at home.
Totally. Well I’d never written anything down, in restaurants or at home. I’m just a real fly by the seat of my pants chef. The recipes I write for the restaurant, I just write ingredients and no methods and then they figure it out from there. Proper cheffy chefs would hate it, but again my kitchen is very different to other kitchens. So it meant going form making a 20 litre bucket of aioli to making a cup od aioli. That’s hard to make those adjustments. But it was really really fun. We got asked to do it about a year ago and I always wanted a cookbook because that to me was what solidifies you in the food world. Leaving behind a book is so awesome. My collection of books is ridiculous. I had to move house just to make room for all my books. I’m an addict for books, so to finally have one is probably more exciting than having a restaurant to be honest,.
Aw, wow. Well I guess it’s tangible evidence.
It’s lasting. Restaurants come and go and once I’m over food, maybe the restaurant is done, but that is around forever. So it’s really exciting.
So where do you get the inspiration to push yourself further? Does it just keep coming, is it from other books, or from your heritage?
For the restaurant it comes from me…so, the reason I do vegan food as a meateater is as I was saying to you there was a huge gap for people and I’m so sick of egotistical chefs who only cook for themselves, whereas when you strip it back to what it is, our job is to serve people. We’re tradespeople. I do it because I love feeding people. It’s my favourite things to do. The look on peoples’ faces, even just at home when you cook for your parents or something, seeing that look on their faces is the best payoff. Vegans didn’t have that. No one was offering it to them because people didn’t want to take away their security blankets. A chef can make a steak taste great but take butter, meat and dairy away and it gets really hard. That challenge was the challenge I really wanted to have in food. All of a sudden, making steak out of wheat, making turkey out of soy, you have to figure this stuff out for yourself and there’s no books to reference. There was no one I could go to. There were no stages in this in restaurants overseas. So I’ll go out to restaurants, for example I went out in Sydney with Mo and we went to Portenas up there and I had the blood sausage and I was saying to Mo, I wish you could try this because it’s so good and I grew up eating it and it’s just one of those flavours I love and I said, that’s it when I get home I’m making it for you and we had blood sausage on the menu for four months and it was one of our top selling dishes.
I read about that and that you nailed the texture even.
And the flavour and everything. And that’s what drives me in terms of this business; recreating things that I really want people to be able to eat. I want everyone to have everything that they grew up eating. I don’t want anyone missing out. Why should someone who is making the decision that we all realistically should be making, why are they suffering for it. And that’s why I do what I do. To make people happy. That’s why vegan food became a thing for me.
It often seems more expensive, you know, if you’re making vegan cakes or desserts.
Raw stuff, I stay away from that. My food costs are lower than they have ever been in my life here. But then again sometimes vegetables can cost more than pork, which is disgusting. It depends on what you’re cooking.
The craziest thing here, compared to every other restaurant I’ve cooked in is the grease trap. In every other restaurant it needs to be emptied every few months. Here, it’s been two years and they still don’t need to empty it. It’s purely because there’s no animal waste going through the sinks.
That’s great. Well for here, not so great for all the other places I go to.
I know, it’s not something you normally think about.
So what’s next on the agenda?
We went to the States a few months ago to look for possible locations over there but that’s on hold at the moment, especially with the election situation. The book has been launched in the UK and it’ll be launched in America in March so we’ll be heading over there in March to launch it and maybe do some sort of pop up thing, but I think as far as a permanent space goes, it’s probably on hold for a while. Hopefully another book and trying to sort out a show, because there aren’t any vegan cooking shows.
Wow. So what’s on the agenda? A whole lot!
Well yeah. When you think about it, restaurant, deli, book, all in three years.
You are living the dream.
I feel as though whatever you set your minds to, you do.
That’s what we do. Until I can’t do it any more, that’s what we’ll do. It gets harder as you get older. I’m 35 and Mum says once you get to 40, it all get’s harder than it needs to. I’m like, ok well I have five years then to smash it out.
175 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy
Tues – Fri 6pm – 1am
Sat 10am – 1am
Sun 10am – 11pm