Suzy Spoon spills the beans on being a vegan ‘butcher’, and we test out her speciality Festive Roast. By Elizabeth Usher.
Suzy Spoon has been known on the vegan scene in Sydney as a ‘vegetarian butcher’ for almost a decade, creating vegan sausages, schnitzels and other tasty delights such as ‘smokey rashers’ and ‘shredded seitan’. That her life is centred around vegan food now can be traced all the way back to 1986 and a confronting formative experience as a 16-year-old exchange student, across the ditch on a farm in New Zealand/Aotearoa where she saw a ‘broiler shed’ for the first time.*
“I’d never really seen that sort of thing before, even though I’d come from a farm in Australia and had experienced lots of farm life in my years until I was sixteen. I’d never really experienced that sort of factory farming and animals in big sheds and I found it quite horrific.”
Spoon described the exchange family she stayed with as ‘lovely’ and the setting as ‘beautiful’, which contrasted even more with the situation she witnessed the chickens going through as they grew so quickly: “It really affected me. So it was right then that I didn’t eat meat anymore.”
Fast forward 20+ years and Spoon felt there was a gap in the market for flavoursome, easy and versatile vegan options. On a personal level, she was missing things “I thought we needed to make really delicious recipes that were important to me, and had sort of cultural significance to me, things that I missed from my childhood like schnitzels and sausages.”
When she decided to move beyond making these items for herself, friends and family, she never thought the business name ‘Suzy Spoon Vegetarian Butcher’ would cause so much controversy!
As she describes it, “The name the ‘vegetarian butcher’ just came to me and I thought that is such a great name because that is exactly what I’ll be making, all the little butcher things, they just won’t have any meat! … I then Googled that name and saw that there was already one in Amsterdam, but when I first thought of it, I was oblivious [to the fact the term already existed].
Spoon was also oblivious to the storm of controversy that would soon erupt, encompassing meat eaters angry that the name ‘butcher’ was being used, as well as vegans who objected to the name. She reveals: “I was quite surprised to see so much anger about the name! I got anger from meat eaters who really felt that I had stolen their word ‘butcher’ and how dare I do that. And then I also got people who were vegan or vegetarian saying, ‘Now I can’t go in your store, because I can’t go into a business called a butcher.’
“Of course I can see both sides of those arguments … but I don’t really agree. I feel we work with a living language and that we as vegans and vegetarians, can own that word if we would like to. People, I think, are mature enough to embrace a word and spin it, like we have in the gay community – you know, we grab all the disgusting things people call us and spin them, we’ve always done it.”
Spoon does admit that in a way, the controversy over the business name probably ended up being helpful in terms of spreading word of mouth about the new business: “It got people talking and even if people thought it was disgusting and offensive for whatever reason, they would still have a conversation with their friend about it, and their friend probably had a friend with a vegan daughter or a vegan son. And so through people talking about it, it reached all of the right people!”
With the end of the year fast approaching, our conversation turns to Spoon’s most expensive and labour-intensive product, the Festive Roast. Originally available only for Christmas, it proved so popular that Spoon now sells it year-round. She explains that she wants to provide something exceptional, that can stand out as the centrepiece dish on the table for a birthday party, a special family gathering, or some other occasion: “You cook it up, it looks beautiful, it tastes great … I feel as though the roast is this wonderful shared special item.”
And so her business comes full-circle. From her original desire to create vegan versions of dishes from her upbringing to satisfy her own nostalgic desire, Spoon now provides customers the chance to share a ‘traditional roast dinner’ with family and friends.
Retail Store: 397 King Street, Newtown NSW 2042
Trading hours: Tue-Sun 10am-6pm (check the website for varied holiday trading hours starting Monday, 21 December)
Product review: Festive Roast
Purchased and cooked by Elizabeth Usher. Review and photos by Elizabeth Usher.
On this occasion, I cooked two versions of Suzy Spoon’s Festive Roasts: the Classic Roast and the No Gluten Roast. I’ve previously cooked Spoon’s Classic Roast on a few special occasions, but never before the No Gluten Roast. It is slightly smaller than the original version, and more difficult to cut into slices that stay in one piece. It also was drier, but this may be because we cooked them for the same amount of time, and possibly the smaller roast needed less time. In addition, we were not cooking in our own kitchen, instead using a strange oven for the first time that perhaps had uneven heating.
The No Gluten Roast was still very tasty, and the main differences in the ingredients list between the two options (besides obviously replacing the flours) come from swapping soy sauce for tamari and adding butter beans. NB: in terms of allergens, the website states “This product is made using ingredients free of gluten. We are not certified “Gluten Free” but every effort has gone into the hygiene of our equipment and the production of products to ensure no cross contamination of gluten. Our No Gluten roast is made at a separate time to our products containing gluten.”
In both cases, I found the taste and texture of the tofu ‘skin’ to be polarising, with some not liking it, and some wanting more. It does certainly add flair to the look of the dish! The process of cutting off the string and ‘carving up the roast’ at the table can also add a little theatrical pizzazz to the meal if desired.
Overall, for my personal preference, if there were no diners requiring the gluten free version, I would pick the original variety (the Classic Roast) due to the texture (you can really get your teeth into it!) and ‘slice-ability’ – plus the fact that you get an extra 100-200g of product, due to the difference in ingredient costs.
As is almost always the case with food photography and marketing, don’t expect the distribution of the ‘stuffing’ to be as perfectly balanced and even as shown in the stunning ‘promo shot’ images for the products. The flavour remains top-notch, though, and any lack of internal symmetry can serve as a reminder that you’re eating something that’s not been spat out of a cookie-cutter machine-based factory process, but instead has been hand-crafted in batches by a small team of humans dedicated to the unusual and seemingly paradoxical – but ultimately delicious – field of ‘vegan butchery’.
Postscript On a personal note: Elizabeth is friends with Kris Coon, one of Spoon’s key long-term employees, who is recovering from a recent heart attack. A GoFundMe account has been set up to help with his rehabilitation and living costs.
* I.e. the intensive farming of so-called ‘broiler’ chickens who have been bred to grow particularly fast and large for meat. Elizabeth’s music video for her Veganthused song Born to Die includes footage from Australian broiler sheds.
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