Ask any chef in Australia to name the most important part of their job, and they’ll give you the same answer as Alejandro Cancino: “Flavour.” But for a certain kind of chef, a new breed in this country, it’s both a passion and an unusual problem.
For Cancino, who heads the kitchens at Brisbane’s Urbane and The Euro, flavour is by far the biggest challenge facing chefs who want to cook for vegans – and do it well. “Let’s say you have a piece of beef that’s dried, aged,” like Wagyu rump, he says. “The only thing you need to do is grill it, season it with salt, and you have an explosion of flavour straight away.”
Vegetables don’t have that same punch, that same immediacy. So Cancino, who provides a vegan degustation at Urbane, has to work hard to make sure the flavours are “special or strong or tasty”. For a vegan experience that has energy and flow, Cancino focusses on starchy vegetables, grains and seeds. In other words, you really don’t win friends with salad.
Veganism is defined by the Vegan Society, a charity in the UK, as “a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose”.
For something that sounds like such a good idea, it sure gets a bad rap among meat-eaters. In practice, a vegan lifestyle means no meat, no cheese, no milk, no yoghurt, no eggs, no leather, and no honey. It involves populating your pantry with dubious-sounding staples, like savoury yeast flakes.
In Australia, we’re suspicious of fussiness around food, especially when that fussiness is related to lifestyle – meaning that it reflects the diner’s personal choice. Cancino, who is a vegan at home, actually loves meat. “Meat tastes really nice,” he says. But his thinking centres largely on meat’s impact on the environment. Oddly, it’s possible that moral and ethical concerns play the biggest role in veganism’s image problem. Some omnivores take moral choices to mean an implied judgment: I eat in this fashion, and so should you.
But although veganism has been around forever – the Vegan Society was founded in 1944 – it’s easier to live large on a vegan diet than ever before. Marieke Hardy, an author who’s spoken extensively about her vegan practice, remembers that seven years ago she was “an incredibly unlikely vegan – I could probably eat a pig and a duck in one sitting, I was a total glutton. The most important thing for me [when I became a vegan] was to be able to maintain my hedonistic tendencies in this new way of living.”
You can get vegan degustations at the fanciest restaurants, like Bentley in Sydney, ezard in Melbourne, or 1907 in Perth; you can probably get a vegan sandwich at your local food court. In Melbourne, you can join Facebook groups for vegan parents, playgroups, or powerlifters. The Vegan Society in Alice Springs has 3476 likes. Veganism, in other words, is no longer a fringe practice. Suddenly, it seems like the vegans are everywhere.
“You know I’m not a vegan, right?” Shannon Martinez tells me. For many reasons, this comes as a mild shock.
Martinez is the co-owner and chef at Smith & Daughters, a Latin-inspired vegan restaurant on Brunswick Street in Melbourne’s Fitzroy.
Brunswick Street was already a miniature vegan Mecca, running the gamut from raw food to cheap-and-cheerful phở. But as soon as Smith & Daughters (the name has a complicated story - read about it here) opened there last March, it became a go-to destination both for vegans and their indifferent companions. Since then, Martinez and Co-owner Mo Wyse – who actually is a vegan – have opened Smith & Deli, a New York-style offshoot tucked a couple streets away, where the queues on Saturday mornings are literally around the block.
There’s something pleasantly sly about the way Smith & Daughters presents itself. On the one hand, its vegan cred is right there on the wall, in a huge neon sign that reads “EAT VEGAN”. On the other hand, that wall has lots of busy decorations and maybe it just looks like a giant neon light.
“Veganism, for most people, hasn’t grown past the kale and dirt phase,” says Wyse. But she and Martinez, in their unusual vegan/omnivore collaboration, have been slowly altering that perception.
Wyse recalls a particular incident with a blood sausage. “We were sitting across from each other at the table and Shannon [Martinez] was, like, dying,” Wyse says. “She’s looking at me going, I wish you could try this, I wish you could taste this. And now I can.”
To the blood sausage aficionado who’s never tasted Martinez’s version, this will sound like a ridiculous claim. In fact, while Martinez keeps the specifics of her recipes to herself – in some cases, they’re the result of a decade’s worth of experiments – her blood sausage isn’t that different from the one you might serve an omnivore.
“The methods are the same,” she explains. It’s actually the same recipe her grandmother used to make. “We just figured out how to replace the blood.”
The trick, she says, is identifying which animal components are bringing what flavour to the dish. “There are a lot of similar ingredients found in meat that are found in vegetables. Ones that are heavy in iron, and so on. It doesn’t always work out.”
Like all inventive people, Martinez has a holy grail. “Éclairs,” she says grimly. “I’ve been trying for about a year. I try it every two weeks, and they’re always bad. Like, so bad. Like, disgusting.” Eggs are the main problem: making the choux just right, the perfect texture and lift.
Wyse particularly loves Martinez’s smoked salmon – which is convincingly constructed, somehow, from a watermelon. “This is science,” Wyse says.
It will probably be a long time before veganism feels wholly normal, to the degree that, perhaps, vegetarianism does. But what’s so interesting about veganism in Australia today is how many ways of being vegan there are.
There’s Cancino’s home practice – “I try to taste the flavour of the food without covering it” – which sounds ascetic and appealing, and the show-stopping vegan degustation he’s crafted at Urbane. There’s the cleverness of Wyse and Martinez, who have figured out that veganism needn’t be a meal’s main feature. Smith & Daughters and Smith & Deli are known as vegan haunts – but the former is mainly a Latin American restaurant, and the latter is mainly a sandwich shop. Against all odds, veganism doesn’t look austere anymore. It looks like a lot of things. More than anything, it looks fun.
You know that liquid that comes with canned chickpeas? It turns into an emulsifier and foaming agent when whipped for long enough, making it an excellent egg white substitute in vegan baking. Known as “aquafaba” (Latin for “bean water”), the liquid can be used in nougat, macarons and these deliciously easy meringues.