Chef Shannon Martinez on breast cancer, vegan stereotypes and losing control

Sticky situation: Shannon Martinez releases her latest cookbook in the midst of crisis.
Sticky situation: Shannon Martinez releases her latest cookbook in the midst of crisis. Photo: Nikki To/Hardie Grant

Shannon Martinez smiles at the camera from beneath her jet-black fringe and messy electric-blue buns, her right hand gripping chopsticks cascading with noodles. It's the eve of the release of her third cookbook, Vegan with Bite, and Martinez doesn't recognise the woman on the front cover.

"I look at the cover of that book and it doesn't look like me any more. I can't relate to that person any more," she says.

Chef Shannon Martinez was forced to re-evaluate her image after shaving her head seven weeks into chemotherapy.
Chef Shannon Martinez was forced to re-evaluate her image after shaving her head seven weeks into chemotherapy. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen

If 2020 has been challenging for the hospitality industry, it's been hell for Martinez, chef and owner of Smith & Daughters and Smith & Deli in Melbourne's Fitzroy. In July, just after COVID-19 restrictions shut her restaurant a second time, she was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer, a less common variety that tests negative for certain hormones and protein receptors required for regular treatments. Less than a month after the diagnosis, her long-term relationship also came to an abrupt end.

Martinez has a reputation for being tough, tattooed and taking no prisoners. She's credited with pioneering Melbourne's vegan scene the way Britain's Venom pioneered the death metal music she listens to. Her style is inextricably linked to her identity, something Martinez was forced to re-evaluate after shaving her head seven weeks into chemotherapy.

"When you get cancer, you feel a loss of control; people shove needles in you and you just have to take it. It's the first time I've ever had to do what people tell me," she says. "Getting rid of my hair has actually given me a lot of freedom. It feels liberating."

Cover of Shannon Martinez's new book Vegan with Bite.
Cover of Shannon Martinez's new book Vegan with Bite. Photo: Hardie Grant

Regaining control also materialises as Martinez continuing to cook and create, even though chemotherapy has zapped her energy and taste receptors. She's on track to complete chemotherapy in early November, but before then she'll have released Vegan with Bite, a comic book series and will nearly have completed another recipe book, this time written for chemotherapy patients and the people who cook for them.

The first "episode" of The Adventures of Chuck, a six-part comic book series illustrated by tattoo artist Tamara Scoulidis​, has just been sent out. It's about the importance of surrounding yourself with a strong support network (or in Martinez's words, "squad") during tough times, with all proceeds donated to cancer trial research.

The cookbook, Vegan with Bite, launches on October 7, building on Martinez's mission to persuade people to eat less meat. Featuring more than 80 plant-based recipes (here are five) with a focus on affordability and flavour, the cookbook is as much for meat-eaters as it is vegans, perhaps even more so.

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"Around 70 per cent of customers at Smith & Daughters are not vegan," says Martinez. "It reflects the way people are eating now, cutting back meat. Vegans are already on that path, but if we can change the way meat eaters eat, the impact of that on the environment and animals is massive."

In writing the book, Martinez took inspiration from a $4 cook-off challenge she participated in last year for the charity Sacred Heart Mission (it costs Sacred Heart $4 to provide a nutritious meal for someone experiencing homelessness). Next, she tested the recipes on Instagram, filming her process with one hand and cooking with the other. The "one-handed chef" recipes that elicited the best responses from her followers made the cut.

Corn and spring onion congee by Shannon Martinez.

Martinez created this comforting corn and spring onion congee for Sacred Heart Mission's challenge (recipe here). Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen

Vegan with Bite features Martinez's family favourites, with plenty of textures and big flavours – a far cry from the clean-eating health claims made by many vegan recipe books and diets. Martinez's written introduction doubles as a disclaimer: "You will find no help here if you are looking to target your macros or any of that crap. This book is less about clean living and more about TASTY living, with a lower impact on the world around us."

All of the methods are straightforward and speedy, with no specialty ingredients required. "I want someone to be able to come home at 6pm at night, the kids are crying or whatever, and they can have dinner on the table in half an hour without meal prep," says Martinez.

The cookbook Martinez is now writing is different again. The chapters in Cooking with Chemo are not based on courses or seasons, but broken into energy levels: good days and bad days. Recipes hone in on heavily seasoned, calorie-dense dishes (Martinez lost her appetite, along with six kilograms, during her first week of treatment) that are simple to prepare and eat. All the base recipes are vegan, but there are suggestions for making dishes meaty, which Martinez acknowledges will be controversial for some of her fans.

"Your priorities change when you're sick," she says. "Who am I, and who are vegans, to judge anybody? You're fighting for your life and if your body is craving something, then give it to it."

The idea for Cooking with Chemo was sparked after Martinez's ability to taste was severely affected by her cancer treatment. Tastebuds are often collateral damage during chemotherapy, which aims to kill off harmful cancer cells but can injure healthy ones, too. They grow back quickly, but fast regrowth can confuse the brain's taste-processing centre, which leads to what Martinez describes as a "super metallic taste".

"It's like having a mouthful of blood," she says. "Your mouth is very alkaline, which is why acidic things like South American and Thai food, those really bright flavours, are really working for me at the moment. Other than that, everything tastes flat."

Martinez began browsing existing chemotherapy recipe books and found them regimented, bland and unrealistic – there was no way she was going to follow a daily schedule littered with green juices and suggestions on what time to shower and when to fill out a devotional journal.

"I realised pretty early on that this was something I could really do to help people, to figure out ways of writing recipes with an affected palate," she says. "This book has given me a purpose, and it's given having cancer a positive spin."

When Martinez's cancer was diagnosed in July, she was adamant she didn't want to become "the poster girl for cancer" or for the illness to define her.

"I didn't want to be the poster girl for vegan food, either, but look what happened there," she says. "I'm so fortunate to have gotten to a place where people listen to what I want to say; I couldn't sleep at night knowing I could be doing more."

Looking past COVID-19, cancer and cookbook launches, Martinez won't reopen Smith & Daughters, which usually seats 96 customers, with a 10-person indoor limit. She's working on applications for extended outdoor dining and will continue delivery until reopening is financially viable. Smith & Deli will also keep delivering, but Martinez is eyeing off a bigger space to turn it into a cafeteria-style venue inspired by Katz's Deli in New York.

"Coming out of COVID, it's going to be all about affordable dining. It's more important to have a client base that spends $20 three times a week than someone who only comes in once a year on their anniversary."

Vegan with Bite is available from October 7 via Hardie Grant. The Adventures of Chuck comic books are available via Somekind Press.

Live within 5km of Collingwood? Taste Smith and Daughters' magic in action when it pops up at Congress wine bar with a vegan riff on Congress' famous pig's head sanga. October 10, noon-4pm. Pre-order via congresswine.com.au.