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Podcast Interview: Melissa Murphy-Webster, AVS Organic Foods

Liss is the mastermind behind AVS Organic Foods, and a pioneer of vegan cheese here in Australia. So I caught up with her to chat about vegan cheese, how the business started, adopting chickens and how she’s adapting to life in lockdown in Melbourne.

Vegan Cheese – how did all of that start?

I actually was looking at making vegan desserts or like little things for cafes and it turns out compared to people who actually do vegan desserts, I’m crap.

So here’s the thing, people say if it weren’t for cheese, I’d go vegan. And although for me, it was actually eggs that held me off, cheese was still a big factor when we were socialising and having a glass of wine and creating colourful platters. So we just started playing around [with recipes]

Because when you initially started AVS, it wasn’t cheese. You were making vegan sausage rolls and roasts and pastries and more savoury items right? So was the cheese just an accident?

The funny thing is the first time I actually tried to make vegan cheese, I looked online and found a recipe for basic cheese and the recipe, it called for nutritional yeast. At that time I’d never heard of what nutritional yeast was. So I used normal yeast, and although it wasn’t disgusting, it certainly wasn’t cheesy. It took me months still after that to realise that nutritional yeast was different from baking yeast. And then obviously once I discovered that the world simply opened up!

What’s your vegan story? How did you end up a vegan almost 8 years ago and then starting a vegan business?

I was listening to the radio. I remember being in my kitchen, listening to the radio and heard the term Bobby cow. And I thought, a Bobby cow, what is that?

And I Googled it and went, “oh, okay”, and I said to my husband, “we’re not having dairy anymore”. To be honest, we did ring a few farms to ask how they treated their mothers and the cows… and bobby cows were the reason why we gave up dairy.

It opens up your mind to actually have a real good look at what’s going on around, whether it be animal cruelty or human justice or environmental, it’s it literally the matrix.

A lot of people try and look at the negatives of veganism and think that we’re missing out on things, but you and both know that that isn’t true…

I’ve never loved food so much! It’s the weirdest thing. [Before] we were literally having meat and three veg or a combination of that and as soon as we realised that we’d have to cook without it, probably the best thing to do was to look at Asian and Indian foods and look at how they substitute all that.

The flavour is the spices and herbs that they use as in the sources and whatnot. So it opened up a massive range of different foods, plants that we’d never eaten before … And, and so our diet is ginormous.

Your taste buds get hijacked when you just have 20 staple items that you ate day in, day out. And it’s beautiful being in this time, whilst plant-based foods are now on the rise and more people are into it because there’s more things to get excited about.

There’s nothing that a plant can’t create in nature that’s comparative to animal protein that I’ve been able to see this far. I mean, look at aquafaba! But I’m not missing anything, if anything, I’ve gained more.

What’s one of the best things that has happened since you’ve gone vegan?

Our health, definitely. We weren’t really into exercise or sports or anything like that. We were both probably a on the dumpy side, eating crap foods. We actually missed the phase of junk food vegan.

We gained a new passion for exercising though. Literally exercise is my antidepressant now. And I think that’s the thing that I appreciate more than anything about being in Vegan is gaining my health back, and more to the point, stop throwing my health away. I crave the gym. I get driven by being around other people who are driven.

Now you do have quite the menagerie at home as an animal lover. Who do you have living at home with you?

We’ve got rescue chickens that we take in and over the years we’ve rescued and rehomed about 25. And they’re here for life and for their best health. They get treated the same way as dogs and cats would here. We make sure that we do everything we can to make them happy and have a great life.

We have two rescue cats Mikey and Dot, and our dogs Sam and JD.

We got JD pre-vegan and we got her and her brother before we know about what a puppy farm was. So, unfortunately, we did get them from a breeder but we are absolutely sure it wasn’t a puppy farm.

The chickens we rescued from Melbourne Chicken Rescue.

You’ve got quite a big range of vegan cheeses, what’s your absolute favourite from all your products?

The Muenster is still my all-time fave. Sometimes I’ll do something with the Parmesan, but I always go back to the muenster.

So not only this year did you expand into Western Australia, but also into the UAE! How did that come about?

Our feedback and support from our customers has been amazing. We’ve been around for a very long time, we were one of the first producers of a block style cheese in Australia, if not the actual first.

We listened to what people said and we have been encouraged throughout by our awesome customers being very happy. Considering like there was no market five years ago.

What’s your maybe one little piece of advice you could give to someone who. Is considering a vegan diet or a vegan lifestyle?

Stop trying to compare products. Two completely different products will taste completely different. So if you start with the mindset that I’m tasting something new, instead of different and open up your mind to enjoy the flavour rather than the comparison, you’ll have a much easier time getting used to, or getting a phasing out some of the other products.

It’s just food. I mean, amazing food, but it’s, I mean, if you’re already eating apples and bananas, I mean, you’re already eating vegan food.

Find out more about AVS Organic Foods and their DIY Kits for sale, and whether they can deliver to you at avsorganicfoods.com.au