Meet Vegan Restaurateurs Shannon Martinez & Mo Wyse | Dani Valent

Meet Vegan Restaurateurs Shannon Martinez & Mo Wyse

A good fit: Business partners Shannon Martinez (left) and Mo Wyse say neither could succeed alone. Photo: Benn Wood

You might think that chef Shannon Martinez and logistics whizz Mo Wyse run their two vegan businesses for vegans. They don’t. “We are here for the guy who walks in and tells us he’s going to stop at Macca’s on the way home,” says Martinez. That makes it all the sweeter when the confirmed meat-eater sidles up at the end of the evening. “If I could eat like this every day, I’d turn vegan myself,” he inevitably says.

“We get at least one of those a night,” says Wyse, who oversees marketing and management for their Fitzroy restaurant Smith & Daughters, and the spin-off takeaway business Smith & Deli.

Plant-based 'oxtail' ragu at Smith & Daughters.

Plant-based ‘oxtail’ ragu at Smith & Daughters. Photo: Justin McManus

Both businesses have been a runaway success. The four-year-old restaurant recently shifted from a Latin menu to Italian and demand upped from hot to molten. Dinner prep starts at 8am, they turn tables three times a night, and the closet-sized coolroom is completely emptied every single day. People are there for the bolognese, the schnitzel and the meatballs, all of which are meat-free. They’re also there for the raucous rock ‘n’ roll vibe.

The Deli opened three years ago to ease pressure on the restaurant and instantly became a maelstrom in its own right. It’s known as much for chatty, tail-wagging queues around the block as it is for vegan croissants, oat milk lattes, and “facon” sandwiches. Where the restaurant is rollicking and speedy, the deli is retro and lovably kitschy, albeit with more tattoos than the 1950s ever had. Everything – the cheese, the ham, the curried egg, the Iced VoVo – is plant-based.

For Wyse (a vegan) and Martinez (not a vegan), the mission is to serve great food first and vegan food next and in so doing to open up true hospitality to a group that’s often marginalised.

“Being in restaurants is about looking after people,” says Martinez. “We saw that vegans weren’t being looked after. I thought, ‘Why don’t we give these people what they should have: proper food, not trashy burgers or chia seed puddings, just yum stuff that happens to be vegan?’ ” Along the way, they lure meat-eaters and show them that vegan food can be satisfying and delicious. “We reckon 75 per cent of our customers are not vegan,” says Martinez. “How do we know? They tell us!”

The chef called time on vegan fob-offs: spaghetti napoli minus the parmesan, the dreaded vegetable stack and other tired standbys. “As much as a stuffed capsicum or a lentil curry can be delicious, I refuse to do them because they are the cliched epitome of a vegan meal,” she says. Instead, vegan cooking has been a creative spur. Martinez has perfected an aioli thickened with silken tofu, spicy chorizo made with textured vegetable protein, even smoked salmon crafted from watermelon. “I compress the watermelon and slow-roast it to take out all the liquid, slice it like sashimi, then marinate it with kombu and smoke,” she says.

Creativity has always been a driver for Martinez, who worked as a musician – a classical violinist and a bassist in gothic-industrial metal band Voltera – before deciding that food was her big passion. “It was always music and food,” she says. In 2006, while her band was playing the US Vans Warped tour, she committed to cooking. “I was so bored with all the waiting around that I started working for the catering company for free,” she says. “Even at a music festival I still wanted to be in the kitchen.”

Two years later, Martinez and Wyse first connected via a vegan parma, though neither of them knew it at the time. Martinez was chef at the East Brunswick Club Hotel and the young patrons coming to gigs kept asking for something vegan. “It was annoying me. I would have to bash out vegan dishes on the spot,” she says. Her response was a game-changing parma. She disowns it now – “it was a mock chicken fillet, it tasted super Chinese, all the five spice you can imagine” – but the punters loved it. And so did Mo Wyse, a veteran vegan, visiting from her New York home. “In America, we’re spoilt for vegan options,” she says. “But Shannon’s parma was still the best vegan meal I’d ever had.”

Trained as a journalist and experienced in public relations and event management, Wyse first came to Melbourne to source product for her family’s skincare company. “I thought, wouldn’t it be dumb to fall in love here,” she says. “And then, on day one, I met the Australian guy who’s now my husband.”

After much trans-Pacific back and forth, Wyse settled into Melbourne and a gig running the People’s Market, a food truck hub in Collingwood. She knew she wanted a vegan offering alongside all the sliders and tacos. A friend steered her to Martinez, then at the Gasometer Hotel, running a menu that was 50 per cent vegan. “I didn’t know Shannon, but it was already my favourite place to eat,” says Wyse. “She did a mushroom pâté that tasted like the chicken liver pâté I grew up with. It blew my mind. I would crave it every week.”

The lovably kitschy Smith & Deli in Fitzroy has become a runaway success.

The lovably kitschy Smith & Deli in Fitzroy has become a runaway success. Photo: Eddie Jim

They connected, Wyse realised Martinez was also the maker of that much-loved parma and swiftly roped her in for the market. The vegan food truck went gangbusters. “Everyone else’s stalls were quite quiet and mine was insane, with a constant line of 30 or 40 people,” says Martinez.

The pair started looked for opportunities to collaborate, throwing around restaurant ideas while Wyse continued with her focus on events, including as a producer on Ellen Degeneres’ tour down under in 2013. She quit a job at Channel Seven producing Million Dollar Minute when they found the Brunswick Street site that became Smith & Daughters.

“We recognised that we share the same passion to create a product that doesn’t exist anywhere else, to create experiences that don’t exist anywhere else, to be a point of difference in the food world,” says Wyse. “We support and challenge each other.”

Mo Wyse (a vegan) and chef Shannon Martinez (not a vegan).

Mo Wyse (a vegan) and chef Shannon Martinez (not a vegan). Photo: Benn Wood

Neither believes they could succeed alone. “Even though hospitality means you’re around people all the time, it can be a lonely industry,” says Martinez. “If this was just me I would have crashed and burned in six months. I’m already up till 2am testing recipes. Imagine doing that then sitting down to do the books.”

Beyond the practical tasks, it’s also nice to debrief about the grief thrown their way. There are the meat-eaters who get mad that words like “sausage” and “mince” are used to describe plant-based products. “Why do you care?” asks Wyse. “Don’t worry, no one is taking your sausage away.” And there are the vegans who are upset that Martinez isn’t vegan herself. “I am abused every single day,” she says. “I’m called a sellout, accused of profiting off the vegan cause. Vegans are the worst. Sometimes I think, ‘F— you, I’m going to go and open a steakhouse’.” Instead, she stays up half the night trying to perfect vegan choux pastry. “I still haven’t got it,” she grimaces. “It’s just not puffing and holding.”

Martinez and Wyse have just released their second cookbook. Smith & Deli-cious is a compendium of daily recipes and comfort food from the Deli, and follows their first Smith & Daughters cookbook, released in 2016 and north of 40,000 in sales.

Where the first cookbook steered vegan cooks through restaurant dishes, the second is very much focused on the home: mac and cheese, “beef” stroganoff, bacon made from rice paper, and pantry staples like satay sauce. “This is everyday stuff, life hacks, recipes for the mum who’s annoyed that her teenage daughter has gone vegan and has no idea where to start,” says Martinez. “You can go to the supermarket, buy everything you need, and go home and make a million dinners.”

This story first appeared in Fairfax Good Food, 24 September, 2018.

2018-10-01T14:02:07+00:00

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