I am perched with my friend Timothy at a window seat at Smith & Daughters, the plant-based restaurant owned by Shannon Martinez and Mo Wyse, peering out onto a wet, shivering Melbourne evening. Despite booking a week in advance, the window was all I could get. We are sipping sharp Italian-New York inspired cocktails and anticipating a feast of faux-carnivorous delights: carpaccio and meatballs for entrée and polenta with beef ragù and chicken schnitzel for the main course. I'm not usually so carcass-oriented, but my friend – a meat-lover – is curious: how could a vegan restaurant have such a meaty menu? Will this be a return to the glutinous horror of the mock duck we pretended to enjoy as failed vegetarians at university? And when vegans say "fake meat" don't they really mean tofu or bready not-sausages?
Of course, I'm hoping for more. After all, Martinez and Wyse have been hailed for revolutionising vegan cuisine. Since opening in 2014, Smith & Daughters, and its delicatessen, Smith & Deli, have become a destination for vegans and vegetarians around the world, as well as being celebrated by omnivorous food lovers in their own right.
"Our goal is always to show people that vegan food has moved beyond the trend, the joke or the dirty word it once was," says the pair in their new cookbook, Smith & Deli-cious Food From a Deli (That Happens to be Vegan). And they do it through bringing politics into dialogue with pleasure. They don't deny the succulent joys of meat; they simply replicate them in plant-based form. Ethical eating no longer means self-denial and nor does a vegetarian dégustation mean asparagus 10 ways. Martinez's genius for experimentation with substitutes such as soy and mushrooms has given patrons a dizzying array of tastes and textures from blood sausage and gambas al ajillo to pulled-pork burrito oozing with cheese, chipotle chicken burgers and smoked salmon bagels. If we are to believe the glowing reviews, Martinez and Wyse may be responsible for ending the culinary divide between vegetarians and meat-eaters. Here in their corner bluestone building on Brunswick Street in Fitzroy, the two palates come together harmoniously and without compromise.
I survey the crowded room and spot our entrées delicately balanced on the tattooed arms of a rockabilly waitress, dressed in black with a scarf wrapped around her aquamarine hair. She sashays her way past family get-togethers, a table of expensive-looking women, a group of middle-aged men in puffer jackets and a scattering of scribbly hipsters. It's more mixed than the kind of crowd you'd imagine for a vegan restaurant and I'd put my bets on the majority being meat-eaters. The back wall is arrayed with vintage posters, religious kitsch and a neon 'Eat Vegan' cross, which casts a luminous white glow over the room.
My waitress, who had made sure that I was "okay with fakes", arrives at the table. I look down and see an exquisitely thin carpaccio, vermilion red and spread to the edges of my plate like a war-time map, scored lightly with horseradish cream and flecked with fried capers, parmesan and rocket. I cut a strip, wrap it around a stick of grissini and am surprised by the velvety texture, which is perfectly offset against the sharp acidity of the horseradish. The meatballs, luxuriating in a bowl of rich Napoli sauce and dusted with parmesan and buffalo mozzarella, are equally convincing. I notice how my body reads the food: rising in anticipation of a beloved texture and flavour, biting down and rolling it around in my mouth alert to any divergence from the original, then registering the discrepancies with delight. In place of the heaviness of meat, I feel light yet sated, with plenty of room for the main course.
The polenta and oxtail ragù has become Smith & Daughters' signature dish and the thick, mushroomy aromas that drift up from the plate explain why. "This is not a deviation," my friend murmurs, "it's an improvement." The polenta is superbly creamy and the ragù – made from compressed mushrooms – is fibrous and lush, rich and transcendent. This is the kind of food that brings a sense of wonder to the palate. "But how did she do it?"
I ask the waitress. "There must be a kind of science to it." The chicken schnitzel is as comically large as any you'd order in Mitteleuropa and I could have sworn it was chicken. And with all this very convincing meat, I am grateful for the fresh zesty bitterness of the radicchio and cavolo nero.
Choosing the Martinez take on bombe Alaska for dessert, we were puzzled by the non-egg meringue. Instead of sponge, this bombe Alaska has a chocolate sable, finished with whipped dark chocolate ganache, puréed poached quinces and black-pepper vanilla ice-cream. When it arrives, it inspires a series of happy queries: how can vegan ice-cream be creamier than the real thing? How does the meringue maintain its structure without eggs? With an interview scheduled with Martinez and Wyse for the next day, I left in ebullient spirits, knowing that we'd have plenty to discuss.
"There was this time when we were at Porteño," Martinez narrates, sitting opposite me on a large wooden table outside her restaurant. "The boys prepared an excellent vegan menu for Mo…" She stops and leans in, sotto voce: "Non-vegan chefs always make the best vegan food," then continues: "I took a bite of their morcilla, the blood sausage. It was perfect. Just like my grandmother's, the one from Andalucia in Spain. I dropped my fork and said, 'Mo, you must try this. If you're ever going to break your veganism, it's for this.'"
Martinez has a wildcat energy about her, a restless brilliance. She's all gravelly voice, punk make-up, Amy-Winehouse hair and high-strung glee. Wyse, sitting next to her, has been nodding along to the story. With her transparent hipster glasses, hair the colour of rosé (for the moment) and a tattooed wreath creeping around her neck, Wyse and Martinez share a similar aesthetic that belies the differences in their personalities. Unlike Martinez, Wyse is a figure of equanimity and calm: measured, thoughtful and with eyes that flicker between us and the restaurant inside, capable of giving directions to staff through gestures without skipping a beat. "It's true," she says. "Shannon was like: 'Eat this! You must try it!' And I said: 'But it's blood sausage!'" We flew home later that evening and before Shannon had even unpacked her bags she was in the kitchen-"
"I didn't sleep," Martinez interjects. "I made the meat version first, as I always do. I perfected that, put it to one side and then experimented all night with the vegan version. I'd take a bite of the meat then a bite of the vegan dish until I'd made a vegan version that was not just as good as the original but better. Mo loved it. And you know what? That blood sausage became a favourite among our vegan clientele."
Wyse and Martinez complement each other. They met in 2012 when Wyse asked Martinez to run a vegan food stall at the People's Market in Collingwood that she was coordinating. Martinez had cut her teeth at some of Melbourne's top restaurants and pubs and was beginning to specialise in plant-based cuisine aimed at people who were trying to reduce their meat intake. Wyse had studied journalism but decided to direct her passion for social change into food and event management. "I still believe that the only way to change people's politics is through their stomachs," she says. Martinez's stall was a runaway success with queues of 50 or more people each night, outshining stalls by restaurants such as MoVida. It was Martinez and Wyse's interest in veganism and a mutual admiration for each other's work ethic – they were always the first ones at the market and the last ones to leave – that inspired them to go into business together. Their vision filled a significant gap in our restaurant culture: a vegan establishment that allowed for adult indulgences – wine, cocktails and a devilishly delicious menu.
I love the story about the vegan blood sausage, partly because of its improbability but mostly because it encapsulates the intimate politics of eating; the emotional bonds created or broken through food. When Martinez describes herself being transported back to her grandmother's kitchen, it strikes me that this is something that Wyse, and other vegans and vegetarians, sacrifice. They give up the miracle of culinary time travel; the capacity to be taken back to a place or a person with a mouthful. And this may be why their cookbook describes Smith & Deli as a "feeling more than a place". "For me, food memories are everything," Martinez says. "My grandmother's cooking is why I started cooking. And the thing that I get, which no other chef experiences, is the joy of watching someone's face change when I serve them something that they haven't eaten for 20 years and thought that they would never eat again. If their grandmother has passed, eating a dish she cooked brings back this memory for them. I see them become teary." Martinez made vegan smoked salmon to help Wyse remember the lox bagels her Jewish grandmother used to make her.
The first time Wyse ate them, she cried. Vegans argue that we should not prioritise the fleeting pleasure of food over the suffering of an animal. But I've always found the argument unconvincing, simply because food pleasures are not fleeting. They tap into primal bonds in families, they help us remember people and places and they are part of our identities: they are the stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves. I wonder aloud whether this is part of the reason why some families react so badly to vegan children and why vegans end up forming alternative familial bonds with each other. They've rejected a family lineage; they've closed off their palates to generational memory and lore. Wyse agrees. "And that's one of the beautiful things we get to see at the restaurant: people saying 'I haven't been able to eat a meal with my family before and now we can all be comfortable together.'" Smith & Daughters allows for the physicality of sharing a meal together and it stimulates memories. I remember how many tables seemed to be parents and children happily feasting together; what bliss it must bring to know that meals can once again unite rather than divide.
As I walk away from Smith & Daughters I'm alert to all the new vegan options advertised in shop windows: vegan ramen, vegan falafel – even Woolworths stocks vegan ranges. According to 2016 Roy Morgan research, there are almost 2.1 million people in Australia (11.2 per cent of the population) who identify as vegetarian, but no figures yet exist for vegans. Research cites concern for animal welfare and the environment, and health and weight-loss as the main reasons for adopting a vegetarian diet. But surely we've known about the problems associated with eating meat for years – why the sudden trend?
When I ask Martinez and Wyse, they identify the crucial change: vegan options no longer mean ethical slop. And the break from a bland vegan past is signified in the phrase "plant-based cooking"; it's a more relaxed and interesting approach to something that used to mean denial and discipline. Experimenting with vegetables is the new frontier. "It's the most creative thing that chefs can do," says Martinez. "We know how to cook a perfect steak, but how do we cook a perfect vegan steak?" There are, of course, certain vegans who oppose Smith & Daughters, who protest the imitation animal flesh and who are probably miffed at being robbed of their ennobling sacrifice. But for the rest of us who have long wanted to help the environment and reduce our meat intake without being condemned to the culinary damnation of an entrée sans prosciutto, or more seriously, our precious food memories, Shannon Martinez is nothing less than a saviour.