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‘It’s Not Just A Niche Thing Anymore’: Shannon Martinez Is Overseeing The First Vegan MasterChef Challenge

It almost doesn't seem right that, for the first time in the show's 12-year history, MasterChef will be featuring its first vegan Mystery Box challenge.

But if you ask Shannon Martinez, of Melbourne's Smith & Daughters, and Smith & Deli, she says the timing makes sense.

"I can kind of believe it, it’s taken people a pretty long time to catch on," she told 10 daily via phone of the increased hunger, and acceptance, of plant-based menus.

"I think, generally, the public has really changed the way they perceive vegan dining. Before, people used to think it was a bit of a hippy whatever, a bit of a joke but people don’t think that way about vegan food anymore, it’s come a really long way in the last ten years."

At Shannon's restaurant and takeaway deli there's an endless display of creativity on the menu which, at first glance, looks like it's packed with seafood, meat and dairy options -- like a creamy looking mac n' cheese, garlic prawns or even a chicken schnitty with fries.

It's the type of creativity that Shannon wanted to see the MasterChef: Back To Win contestants embrace when faced with the task of creating something delicious without their usual go-to ingredients on hand.

"It’s pretty easy to cook a nice piece of fish or a nice piece of beef as long as you season it well -- you’re pretty much good to go," said Shannon.

"But when you take these food crutches away from people, things they’ve been able to rely on to finish a dish like throwing in a bit of butter in at the end or some cream or chicken stock -- you take all that stuff off people and it really throws them."

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The most challenging part of Shannon's Mystery Box challenge isn't necessarily what's inside the box but rather what's under the contestant's benches.

"What I had a big part in is, on MasterChef, they’ve got the under bench pantry, all their staples, so they had to change all that up because, obviously, we can’t use milk, we can’t use creams, butter -- any of that stuff, right?

"So I had to sort of go through it with them and show them the alternatives that we use at Smith & Daughters and Smith & Deli -- kind of what makes up our under bench pantry, I guess," said Shannon.

Staples were swapped out for vegan alternatives with gelatin making way for agar (a gelatinous algae substance), cow's milk replaced with oat milk and vegan cream cheese stepping in to play a host of new roles.

"You can thin it out and use it like a pouring cream, you can turn it into a frosting for cakes, it can be put through an icecream, it’s a really good thing to play with," Shannon told 10 daily of the spread that is usually created with cashews or silken tofu.

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Instead of using eggs, a staple for all the ice cream makers and pastry chefs on Back To Win, Shannon said the magical aquafaba was brought in.

"It's liquid from a can of chickpeas. That was really fun too because, I think a lot of people who aren’t vegan or not too interested in vegan food might not have seen that before -- it's such a cool product".

If you're sceptical that vegan food could ever be cool or something you'd want to put in your mouth, rest assured there won't be a hint of anything gluggy, bland or rubbery in the challenge set by Shannon.

"People might be expecting to see crappy lentil curries and veggie stacks and stuff like that -- there’s none of that sh** on this [episode] -- some of them have really pulled some awesome ideas out," she told 10 daily.

Shannon's hoping that the MasterChef episode will show just how delicious and sustainable plant-based meals really and bust a few myths that have surrounded veganism for years.

"I think the more people are exposed to it, the more it becomes normal and then the more people try it -- it won’t be the joke dish on the table any more," she told 10 daily.

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"I’m not here to tell anyone to go vegan by any means but we all need to change the way we eat," Shannon added.

I just want people to open their eyes a little bit and be like, ‘Oh sh**, it’s not what I thought it was -- actually, this looks alright’, that’s what I want.

In October, Shannon will release her third cookbook that will bust two of the biggest myths about vegan cooking -- that it's expensive and time-consuming.

The upcoming book is based on a campaign Shannon spearheaded for the Sacred Heart Mission -- a non-for-profit organisation in Melbourne that provides a wide range of services for people who are experiencing homelessness, disadvantage and social exclusion.

"They feed the homeless and it costs them $4 a day per meal so we did a whole campaign of $4 cook-offs -- I created different recipes every couple of days and then I invited other chef friends of mine to do the same and post videos,"Shannon told 10 daily.

"So this book kind of came about from that. I’m trying to sort of dispel a few myths about vegan food and one of those myths is that it’s expensive and hard to make."

Shannon also enlisted the help of MasterChef judge, talented food writer and her good friend Melissa Leong to bring her food philosophy alive on the pages of her "bougie budget" cookbook.

"I’ve got Mel in and she has been so amazing at really translating my voice and my message, she’s much better than me at it, that’s for sure.

"Otherwise it’d be me saying, ‘This dish is YUM' or 'This dish extra is EXTRA yum,'" Shannon laughed.

Phrases that we're all going to be yelling at the TV this week for the first-ever vegan challenge on MasterChef Australia. 

MasterChef: Back To Win Airs Sunday-Thursday at 7.30 pm. Only On 10, 10 Play and WIN Network.