Joining the green party: Vegan movement grows in Melbourne

Plant-based diets are now part of a mainstream conversation.
Plant-based diets are now part of a mainstream conversation. Photo: Shutterstock

Preparing meals on board an ocean-going vessel is difficult enough without being rammed by the Japanese whaling fleet. ''Every time we got hit on the Sam it was an hour or so before serving a meal, which is usually the rush time in the galley,'' says Raffaella Tolicetti. Raffa, as she is more affectionately known, is a veteran of six campaigns with the marine conservation group Sea Shepherd, four of those anti-whaling missions in Antarctica, and on all but one she has been chief cook.

''Both times we got rammed I was cooking, with the dead lights shut and no possibility to see what was happening; the only clues were coming from the bangs and the hits that I could hear from outside,'' she recalls.

During last year's Operation Zero Tolerance, where I embedded with Sea Shepherd for the duration of that campaign on their newest ship, the Sam Simon, we were at sea for 70 days.

And, as it is on all Sea Shepherd ships, every meal was vegan. Of course, dishing up vegan cuisine is much easier when you're not colliding with an 8000-tonne factory whaling ship, and to that end, Raffa's first cookbook, Think! Eat! Act! is being released in June, to show how easy it is to be vegan, while also raising money for activist organisations.

Being veg - of either the vegan or vegetarian varieties - isn't the sole domain of activists, however, despite perhaps a lingering public image of it being something militant fringe hippies embrace.

Mo Wyse and Shannon Martinez of Smith & Daughters.
Mo Wyse and Shannon Martinez of Smith & Daughters. Photo: Anu Kumar

Oscar host and daytime television queen Ellen DeGeneres is an out-and-proud vegan, former American president Bill Clinton has likewise transitioned and late last year, megastar Beyonce tried it on as well. Plant-based diets are now part of a mainstream conversation.

Melburnians, fortunate to live in one of the most veg-friendly cities in the world, are joining that conversation. ''The food options are excellent now,'' says Janine Cowie, who first tried vegetarianism as a teenager four decades ago. ''I'm loving the choice of milk products; we've come a long way from the soy milk powder of the 1970s.'' Dairy milk alternatives include soy, nut, rice, coconut and oat milks (although most of our cafes offer soy and a handful almond milk, our cafes are still a way behind those in LA, which offer the full range, as well as hemp milk). In fact, almost every animal-based item will have a plant-based alternative, with new products constantly coming onto the market, such as Kinda Bacon. Kim Miller developed the bacon replacement out of coconut when she ''couldn't find anything like it for sale, so I attempted to recreate it'' and has now found herself with a new business.

The inner-north, in particular, is something of a ''vegan bubble'', says Naty Guerrero-Diaz, co-owner of Las Vegan Cafe on Smith Street. These days, she says, there is no typical vegan. Their clientele ranges from families to fitness fanatics and ''everyday people, bankers, lawyers and academics, students''.


There is enough demand to warrant several dedicated veg eateries, such as Yong Green Food and Munster Haus in Fitzroy and North Fitzroy, Mr Nice Guy in Ascot Vale and older places such as Vegie Bar in Brunswick Street, Fitzroy and Carlton's Shakahari, with the newest arrival being restaurant Smith & Daughters, which opened last month also on Brunswick Street.

Although 100 per cent vegan, owner Maureen ''Mo'' Wyse says omnivores shouldn't feel excluded. ''We're a Latin restaurant that happens to have a plant-based menu and drinks offering,'' she says.

''The food is a non-exclusive experience that absolutely everyone can eat. And it's definitely not what you traditionally think of when the word vegan is mentioned. It's one of the main reasons why we're called Smith & Daughters, so there's no preconceived notion when you walk through the doors.''

Shakahari restaurant, Carlton.
Shakahari restaurant, Carlton. Photo: Gary Medlicott

Since going vegan six months ago, RMIT photography student Liza Mills has met so many other vegans in Melbourne she is now working on a coffee table book featuring portraiture photography and their stories. ''Essentially what I'm trying to capture is how vegans aren't protein-deficient hippies like so many people think and rather a lot of us are normal, everyday working-class people,'' she says.

Previously a self-described ''meat-loving fitness freak'' she was investigating nutrition as a means of improving her sporting performances when she stumbled upon the documentary Forks Over Knives. Her conversion is a very common one: confronted with the reality of the treatment of animals as they are turned into meat, her conscience would not allow her to continue being a part of the process as a consumer.

''I never really made the connection between my love of animals and the fact that I happily ate them,'' she says.

Raffaella Tolicetti, chief cook on the anti-whaling vessel Sea Shepherd.
Raffaella Tolicetti, chief cook on the anti-whaling vessel Sea Shepherd. Photo: Billy Danger, Sea Shepherd

Vegetarians, broadly speaking, avoid dead animals - so that's no eating meat, including seafood, and extends to not wearing leather or fur. However, animal parts sneak their way into all kinds of products in ways that are not obvious. That packet of jelly beans may appear to be bacon-free, but if they contain gelatin (crushed bone), they're no longer veg-friendly. Animal rennet (stomach lining) appears in a lot of cheeses, sugar can be processed through bone char and some apple juices use fish as part of the clarifying process. Ditto alcohol. ''When filtering the drinks prior to bottling, companies can use things like isinglass [from fish bladder], gelatin, egg whites, and sea shells, among other things,'' explains website Barnivore, which lists the veg-credentials of booze brands.

Where vegetarianism is mainly about diet, veganism is about the whole lifestyle, rejecting the use of animal products and derivatives in every way, from diet (which includes also not eating dairy, eggs, honey) to clothing, toiletries, skincare, medications, furnishings and entertainment.

As a way of living, it's nothing new. Renaissance painter Leonardo da Vinci was said to be vegetarian, for example, and Buddhist and Hindu religions have had aspects of vegetarianism for centuries.

Superstar singer Beyonce.
Superstar singer Beyonce. 

Being veg is a considered choice to live in ''harmony with your ethics'', Tolicetti says. Some even prefer to call it a ''plant based diet'' or ''cruelty-free living'' rather than using either of the ''v'' words. Regardless of the label, it requires discipline and some level of research to self-educate about ingredients and manufacturing processes. The internet, and social media in particular, have obviously made the sharing of this information a lot easier.

It wasn't always like this, Cowie says. ''There were a limited number of magazines and books from which to source information, and very little information was available about the ingredients of processed foods,'' she says. ''Before comprehensive food labelling, my intent was to be vegan but I was often unknowingly eating additives and preservatives sourced from animal products,'' says Cowie, who raised her daughter as a vegan. Her four-year-old grandson is now being raised a vegetarian.

''I don't think I ever really thought about it in terms of raising a vegan child. I believed so strongly in the principles, and that healthwise it would be best for both of us, that I just made it part of our lives.

Former US president Bill Clinton with actor Jennifer Lawrence.
Former US president Bill Clinton with actor Jennifer Lawrence. Photo: Getty Images

''It wasn't always easy, but neither was speaking up about environmental and social justice issues, but it would have been harder still to live with not doing it.''

Guerrero-Diaz initially found it challenging, feeling like she was the only vegetarian in the village - until she met Melanie Ellis, her Las Vegan Cafe co-owner. The other problem, she'll happily tell you, was her ''brie on toast everyday'' addiction to cheese. ''I couldn't really understand how I would live my life without it,'' she says with a laugh. ''It wasn't a trivial matter for me to give up cheese.''

She gave up dairy for three months in 2005, due to doctor's orders, ''and it wasn't really as hard as I thought it was going to be''. But Melanie's own chocolate addiction meant they ''kept coming up with excuses''. Finally though, in 2007 they went cold turkey. ''That's it, that's the end. We haven't really looked back,'' she says. Engaging with Melbourne's vegan community also helped, joining online groups and attending real-world meet-ups.

Walks the talk: Vegan Ellen DeGeneres.
Walks the talk: Vegan Ellen DeGeneres. Photo: Reuters

Few vegans go cold turkey overnight and most advise making a slow transition, starting with vegetarianism. Wyse suggests just including a few vegan meals each week because even that will have a positive effect on the individual, the environment and obviously the animals spared.

''Veganism is a path, it's not something written in stone,'' Tolicetti says. ''As any philosophy you follow, you can question it, you can better it. You don't have to sail to Antarctica to make a difference, either. Choosing your food is already an action.''

Meat-free Melburnians

Status: Vegan.
Time: Five years
Why: Because I love animals. Once the lights are turned on regarding the way they are exploited and treated for human consumption there is no going back.
Best thing about being vegan: Fine dining. I search the world for vegan gastronomy and live to eat and cook. Food is love.

Status: Pescatarian or aquatarian. The only meat I eat is fish.
Time: Eight years
Why: I stopped eating meat (except fish) because I don't think it's necessary or good for my insides!
Best thing: Knowing that I'm not draining Earth's resources like selfish land-based animal meat eaters!

Musician from Die Roten Punkte
Status: Vegan.
Time: 21 years
Why: Animals are my friends.
Best thing about being vegan: I always wanted to do leaps like Pete Townshend, but I could never get high enough off the ground. Then I found the answer: banana power!

Musician from Magic Dirt
Status: Vegan
Time: 10 years
Why: After reading about the farming methods used by the dairy industry. I was shocked and saddened by what happens to not only the female cows, who have to be kept constantly pregnant, but what also happens to their calves who are so cruelly discarded as being of ''no use'' to the industry, such as the bobby calves.
Best thing: Knowing that I am.

Vegan myths dispelled

1. Protein is in almost everything.

2. You don't have to like or eat tofu or soy.

3. You can still eat ''creamy'' foods.

4. You don't have to sacrifice flavour.

5. You don't need to spend a fortune.

6. You don't need to spend hours in the kitchen.

7. It isn't hard.

8. You absolutely can eat a healthy, varied, delicious diet using absolutely no animal products.

- Blogger and chef Melanie Baker,

Pre-order Raffa Tolicetti's cookbook here

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