BY RITA BRATOVICH
There was a time when the word “vegan” was irrevocably linked to tie-dyed t-shirts, incense burning, mystical cults and a diet reduced to lettuce leaves, tofu and purified water. But if you browse a restaurant guide these days you’ll find the choices in Sydney have transitioned well beyond “vegan friendly” to include “vegan” as a stand-alone category.
Sydney’s Inner West, with its demographic of young, alternative, socially conscious hipsters was an early adopter of vegan culture. Suzy Spoon, who owns Suzy Spoon’s Vegetarian Butcher, ran a vegetarian burger cafe in Newtown in the mid 1990’s (nowadays her business runs out of a purpose-built food production workshop in St Peters).
The then much smaller community included lots of punks and skateboarders who met at the cafe and formed friendships. When she closed the business, those people dispersed – some even going back to eating meat. Today, however, the community is stronger than ever, something Suzy attributes to the Internet and social media.
“It’s massively important. It’s how this thing has grown in the last ten years,” she said, adding, “once you’re part of this team, it’s a real community and you can go to dinners and you can go to events and you can make friends…”
The networking and communication opportunities afforded by social media appear to be key in the growth of the vegan movement, with different aspects appealing to different people.
Fotini Platis of Gelato Blue in Newtown says their decision to become a plant-based gelateria came down to two things: people frequently came into the shop asking for dairy-free options; and her father, who created the business and makes the gelato, is lactose intolerant.
“Being around milk would affect his skin and affect his allergies,” Fotini explained. Her father started experimenting with alternatives some years ago, finally deciding on coconut milk because of its creaminess.
When they opened the shop around four years ago the product was mostly cow-milk based, now it is entirely plant-based. It was a gradual transition, so they were able to garner converts along the way. Asked how it has affected business, Fotini replied:
“It’s been a really good move for us. There’s a lot of people out there that have been forgotten about…Now when people come and say ‘What are your dairy-free options?’ we can say ‘well the whole shop is’…that’s something we’re really proud of.”
And it’s not just vegans or people with intolerances who are trying the plant-based gelato. Spurred by public discussions about gut health and diet, many are seeking alternatives.
“People will try it because they feel ‘Oh I won’t have dairy bloat after I eat this – that’s so good,’” Fotini has observed. She believes veganism is here to stay: “[It] is not a fad, I think it’s something people are moving towards as they find more about why…it’s better to reduce meat and reduce dairy out of your diet.”
If pub food was the last bastion of the meat-eater, then it too has been conquered with the recent opening of Australia’s first vegan pub bistro, The Green Lion. Situated above the long-running Red Lion Hotel in Rozelle, The Green Lion bistro offers a totally plant-based version of a classic pub menu and also features a bar serving vegan drinks and alcohol. Owners Bhavani Baumann and Sacha Joannou saw an opportunity to introduce veganism to this less conventional segment of the market.
“Our thing is that we want just the average family to maybe eat a couple of plant-based meals a week and we try to make that easy for them,” explained Bhavani.
The menu is a plant-based imitation of traditional favourites like burgers, pizza, lasagne, tacos and even shepherd’s pie. The Red Lion Hotel had not offered food for a number of years, and if the first week’s business of the Green Lion bistro is any indication, then patrons were clearly hungry.
“We’ve been full every day, night. Totally packed,” Bhavani beamed. And there’s been no negative feedback or experiences so far.
Gigi’s Pizzeria in Newtown recently celebrated it’s first anniversary of becoming vegan. The very popular restaurant took a chance on a total menu overhaul, with vegan substitutes for classic Italian fare. It hasn’t hurt business at all with patrons having to line up on some nights.
So, what are the health benefits or risks of changing to a vegan diet? Nutritionist Robyn Chuter of Empower Total Health, advises that for most people, a vegan diet is a healthy, complete, optimum way to eat, although, consultation with a professional is recommended for people with particular health issues, pregnant or breast-feeding women and young children and adolescents.
“One thing that I would say, a lot of people have just followed various celebrities on social media and been led down some awfully bad paths when it comes to nutrition,” noted Robyn.
There are many myths and misconceptions to contend with. One being the idea of “detoxing” – “If you want to detox, stop toxing!…Your body knows what it’s doing and it’s constantly striving for health.”
Another prevailing view is that you need to take supplements. Robyn admits that the body may need to go through some adjustment and recommends a gradual transition to veganism. She does advise taking vitamin B12 supplements but insists nothing more is normally needed.
Elizabeth Usher is a vegan spokesperson and entertainer who writes and performs parody songs. For her, as for all the vegans in this article, animal welfare is the central motive. She says “ideally… veganism extends beyond diet; it should include what you wear, what you use to clean your house, personal care products…”
To that end, The Cruelty Free Shop in Glebe provides a full range of vegan products including ingredients, snacks, cleaning products, pet care, gifts, clothing and books. They are also active in the community, raising money for charity and hosting festivals. They’ve become an epicentre for Sydney vegans.
The future? It seems the movement now has traction and is embedding itself into mainstream culture. “I can’t see the trend tapering off,” noted Elizabeth Usher.
Suzy Spoon’s Vegetarian Butcher, 49-51 Hutchinson St, St Peters, www.ssvb.com.au
Gelato Blue, 318 King St, Newtown, www.gelatoblue.com.au
Gigi Pizzeria, 379 King Street, Newtown, www.gigipizzeria.com.au
The Green Lion, 726 Darling St, Rozelle , www.facebook.com/thegreenlionbistro
The Cruelty Free Shop, 83 Glebe Point Rd, Glebe, www.crueltyfreeshop.com.au
Empower Total Health, 1B Bulls Rd, Burraneer (cnr Woolooware Rd), www.empowertotalhealth.com.au
Elizabeth Usher, www.veganthused.com