Vegan eateries are growing in Melbourne and the bestsellers are junk food

Larissa Dubecki
Mo Wyse and Shannon Martinez are the masterminds behind Smith & Daughters and Smith & Deli in Fitzroy.
Mo Wyse and Shannon Martinez are the masterminds behind Smith & Daughters and Smith & Deli in Fitzroy.  Photo: Eddie Jim

The Big Mock is a dish that will sound eerily familiar to anyone who grew up on an infamous advertising jingle of the 1970s. Namely: two non-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, Cheezly, pickled onions on a sesame-seed bun.

Unleashed on the world at Brunswick's Cornish Arms Hotel, it was put on the pub's Facebook page and picked up on Instagram before wending its way to various food blogs. The rest is vegan history.

"We had people ringing up from interstate asking about it. People drove down from Albury [320 kilometres away]. Twenty came in on a bus from Dandenong. It was total madness," says owner Anthony Foster.

In a way, the story of the Big Mock and the transformation of the Cornish Arms is emblematic of the new-vegan paradigm. When Foster took over the pub in 2009 it was just another typical pub with a uni-student-heavy population and a menu indistinguishable from any other pub in a 1000-kilometre radius. Things were pretty sleepy at this address in Sydney Road.

Then a new chef, Lloyd Kembrey, came along. He'd been working with prominent vegan-friendly chef Shannon Martinez (remember that name: she's going to figure big later in this story) and asked to trial a vegan menu one night a week. "I was … unenthusiastic, let's put it that way," says Foster. But something funny happened on V-Day. The jungle drums sounded across social media. The crowds came. And a new business model was born.

Vegan mac daddy from the Cornish Arms Hotel.

Vegan mac daddy from the Cornish Arms Hotel.

These days the Cornish Arms is a purring Prius of the pub restaurant world: a hybrid vegan/omnivore where the two food tribes coexist more or less happily, one side chowing down on fish and chips or chicken parma, the other on – erm – fish and chips or chicken parma, only vegan versions that use all the tools of the trade including mock meat, facon (that's fake bacon), Cheezly and nut-based aioli. There are no virtuous barley stews here but you can get a BBQ Deluxe Meat Loathers pizza with mini "beef" burgers, facon, mock chicken, coal-roasted sausage and vegami (vegan pepperoni).

Not to put too fine a point on it, it's vegan junk food. Unashamedly so. "We find the junkier the better," says Foster. "We tried to go the healthy route with things like lentil curry but it doesn't get half the reaction. I guess the thing is that vegans can get their healthy fix anywhere."

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The moral of the story ought to be clear. Vegans just want to have fun. For many readers that will necessitate a mental shift from the cliched, morally righteous food ascetic (hobbies: sermonising and wearing cheesecloth). In fact, vegans have infiltrated the Celebrity-Industrial Complex, with famous converts who include Tom Hanks, a noticeably trimmed-down Bill Clinton (who, it must be said, slips in some salmon from time to time on his doctor's orders), and Beyonce (who, in an act of either sheer perversity or utter stupidity, was papped wearing a fur coat to a vegan restaurant in Los Angeles).

Anthony Bourdain memorably dismissed them as "vegetarianism's Hezbollah-like splinter faction", but statistics show vegans are a growing market force.

Research commissioned by burger chain Grill'd and released in January found 480,000 Australians now identify as vegan, and 2 million as vegetarian. Grill'd, which produces three vegan burgers, puts it down to the so-called millennials (otherwise known as Gen Y): "Millennials … are increasingly interested in and critical of food brands, what is in their food, where it comes from, how it tastes and how it plays into their health."

In other words, veganism is becoming a broader church, its pews filled not only by those concerned with its traditional domain of animal cruelty, but broader issues of sustainability, including deforestation, pollution from industrial farming and the significant carbon footprint of raising livestock. "They're a generation aware that we're not going to have any fish left in the sea before too long," says Foster.

Egg McMartinez and ribs from Smith & Daughters.

Ribs at Smith & Daughters. Photo: Eddie Jim

They're also a generation that doesn't like being preached to. Some diners at Fitzroy's Smith & Daughters don't believe it when they're told it's a vegan restaurant. The menu has items such as chilli dogs and southern fried chicken, for one. A neon sign says "eat vegan" but it's subsumed into the Mexican-styled Day of the Dead decorations. If this is a cunning plot to convert carnivores to the dark side, it's a velvet revolution.

"We wanted to make sure the space didn't have the typical vegan vibe," says chef Shannon Martinez, who opened the thumpingly busy Brunswick Street restaurant with Mo Wyse two years ago. No cheesecloth in sight: the duo is heavily tattooed and their hair changes colour with unerring regularity.

"There are plenty of vegans out there who aren't your typical health nuts. They want to come out and have a good night, drink cocktails and beer, get a bit drunk, have a party with their friends with good music. It's that whole vibe everyone else gets but vegans tend to miss out on."

Martinez isn't a vegan, the record ought to note (although Wyse has been for 17 years). She credits it with her ability to make mock-meat products that taste like the real thing. The business partners tell a story about visiting Sydney meat temple Porteno (like most smart restaurants these days, it does a vegan menu on request). "Shannon was eating blood pudding," says Wyse, "and she looked across the table and said to me, 'If only you could taste what is going on in my mouth right now'. I could tell she was thinking about it the whole way home on the plane. She didn't even drop her bags home, she just went to work. Three days later it was on the menu."

The Reuben sandwich served at Smith & Deli.

The Reuben sandwich served at Smith & Deli. Photo: Josh Robenstone

Business is booming (and that blood pudding sans blood turned out to be one of their best sellers). So much so that last year they opened nearby Smith & Deli, which takes its cues from the great New York City delis, from the vaguely institutional shade of green to the fake-pastrami Reuben sandwich and smoked salmon (made from compressed watermelon), dill and cream cheese on a rye bagel. The Egg McMartinez, a play on the McDonald's breakfast burger, typically sells out by 10am. As Wyse and Martinez plot world domination – maybe a move to the US, where Wyse hails from – they're also working on their first cookbook, due to be released by Hardie Grant late in the year.

Their growing empire is testament to the fact that veganism has become something of a bull market. "What shocked us the most was the support from non-vegans," says Martinez. "Around 75 to 80 per cent of our customers are non-vegans. A table of 10, one or two might be vegans and the rest meat eaters."

Gigi Pizzeria in Newtown packs them in with its vegan fare.

Cheese-free: Gigi Pizzeria in Newtown packs them in with its vegan fare. Photo: Sahlan Hayes

Sydney pizzeria Gigi also tested market forces when it went vegan last year. Owner Marco Matino, who has run the popular Newtown restaurant for the past 10 years, was prompted to adopt a "plant-based menu" (a term he prefers over "vegan") after a long and winding road-to-Damascus experience.

Further complicating his story is his rarefied status as a pizzaiolo accredited by the Naples-based Associazone Verace Pizza Napoletana for his adherence to its stringent rules on making wood-fired pizzas. Essentially, Matino forsaking meat made him an apostate in the eyes of customers who couldn't imagine life without salami and cheese. It also means he can no longer serve the AVPN-accredited margherita, thanks to its buffalo mozzarella, although the marinara (San Marzano tomato, garlic, fresh oregano and extra virgin olive oil) keeps its AVPN tick.

"It goes deeper than a business decision for me," says Matino, who nonetheless contends he's just as busy post-vegan menu. "A lot of Italian customers didn't understand it at first – they thought it was something faddish – but plenty of them are coming back."

"Most chefs think vegan food is a joke, which just comes down to laziness," says Martinez. "You've cooked with cheese and meat and dairy for so many years and you instinctively know how to make things taste amazing. It's like you have this crutch of throwing in a whole heap of butter at the end, but as soon as you remove those things you have to start really thinking about it."

Which brings us to the vexed issue of mock meat. Some vegans say no to faux as a matter of principle. To many others, increasingly convincing versions of mock meats – typically made from either soy, wheat protein, mushrooms or a plant root known as konjac – are the clincher to make them think a vegan lifestyle is possible.

"Most vegans aren't avoiding meat because they don't like the taste, it's because they don't like the cruelty and death that goes with it and the environmental side of things," says Wyse. "Most people are brought up eating their grandmother's roast and they have strong, emotional memories of it."

It seems that in this most-pragmatic of revolutions, it's now possible to be a part-time vegan. Sure, you might be derided as a midweek warrior but movements such as Meat Free Monday have plenty of people finding the middle ground between the options previously known as All or Nothing.

"As a meat eater I'm trying to convince other meat eaters you don't have to eat meat every single day," says Martinez. "Being in this business, I don't eat meat that much any more and it makes me appreciate it more when I do. That will have a massive impact on the world and the way we eat rather than trying to make everyone quit outright."