"Is David here?" I keep asking cooks as they send me back and forth between Joe Beef, Liverpool House, and Le Vin Papillon, a family of restaurants located side by side on Rue Notre Dame in Montreal's Little Burgundy district. I am looking for David McMillan, co-owner of Montreal's revered Joe Beef restaurant. The other owner, Fred Morin, isn't around today.
Since its opening in 2005, Joe Beef is one of the cornerstone restaurants that has helped Montreal garner its title as a premium destination for culinary travelers for its unapologetic, gluttonous cooking and unforgettable atmosphere. And The Art of Living According to Joe Beef: A Cookbook of Sorts only strengthened Joe Beef's reputation as one of the most influential restaurants in Canada by winning the Piglet Award for best cookbook in 2012.
Having met McMillan several times between working and eating in restaurants and witnessed him drink a lot on his episode of Chef's Night Out, I am slightly intimidated when I finally sit down with him in the Joe Beef dining room. David McMillan is physically imposing, but so is his reputation. At 45 years old, the man who has been at the helm of the Montreal institution since day one looks a lot more serene than I imagined.
To celebrate Joe Beef's tenth anniversary, I spoke, ate, and drank with both David McMillan and the restaurant's successor, Marc-Olivier Frappier (a.k.a. Marco), chef and co-owner at the culinary empire's more vegetable-forward addition, Le Vin Papillon. The duo discussed their ethos behind their Montreal-inspired food, why they decided to shut the media out for a year, and their thoughts on the state of Montreal's contemporary dining audience.
MUNCHIES: How would you describe the art of living according to Joe Beef? David McMillan: The art of living according to Joe Beef is based ten or 15 years ago when Fred Morin and I worked together in other restaurants. I've been working with him for 20 years. The art of living according to Joe Beef was like Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. Fred and I going to the market, Fred and I going antiquing, Fred and I talking about clam chowder, you know, that stuff. We weren't into just cooking; we had many different interests and we still do. When we opened the restaurant, we wanted not to just cook but to work with our friends and do all kinds of different things.
Marc-Olivier Frappier: People that get this will work with us for a long time, and people that just want to cook don't work with us for a long time. If you work here for four years, you know how to deal with the plumbing, install tiles, do some gardening, and you maybe even learn how to weld.
In a way, would you describe this place as a sort of school, then? David: I have to say yes, though I never wanted to be that pretentious. We are older and we are working with young people. I want everybody that works here not to make the same mistakes I did, but I also want them to leave here being well-rounded. I want the chefs to know something about wine, beer, French cooking, history, plates, silverware, etc. My father was a teacher, maybe it's a paternal instinct, I don't know. But I hate it when kids come here, work, and then give me two weeks notice. I feel like I didn't do my job.
Sometimes it happens, and when it does, it upsets me. I didn't really have good mentorship. People always used to tell me, "You're not feeling so good? Here's beer. Here's drugs. Here's more money." Those three things never really worked for me. Money was not and does not make me happy. Being an ethical, moral man and running an ethical, moral business with people that I actually care about has been the great redeemer.
Do you get annoyed of all the attention the restaurant has received after ten years of being open? David: I say don't say nothing about Joe Beef; I couldn't give a fuck. We've made a conscious decision over the last year to have more or less a media blackout.
Marco: Joe Beef is based on such simple principles. We just cook the food that we like and that our customers are gonna like. What are we gonna say on a stage with a mic in our face?
So then what annoys you about "foodie" culture? David: It's a good thing that people are interested. What annoys me sometimes is perhaps the lack of education that people have at it. When you come to a restaurant, it can't just be about taking a picture of the food that you're eating on your plate. I'm pretty much obsessed about the service I get, the bathrooms, the ambiance, the decor, what art is hanging on the walls, the playlist, and the actual depth of intelligence on the wine list. Does this food remind me of somebody else's food? It's important that Joe Beef food is Joe Beef food. You have to be true to yourself.
Do you think Montreal's palate has evolved over the years? David: It's changed so much. The kids are fucking kings. People love to harp on hipster shit and this and that. No man, the kids are super dialed in. They're sober. They're intelligent. They're non-judgemental towards race or sexual preference. They're super open-minded when it comes to wine and food. The kids now are the best dining public ever. Joe Beef would be shit without its public.
In your mind, who is the most unique chef right now? David: Martin Picard has the most unique cooking in North America. He's not even close to being adulated as he should. Joe Beef is a good restaurant in Montreal, but Martin Picard is one of the most important chefs in the world in my opinion. There's Michelin-starred restaurants in Europe that have never done a quarter of the work that Martin Picard has done. He's easily one of the top ten chefs in the world, but perhaps being an insular French Canadian that despises the media has not helped getting him to that level.
Having spent some time with Martin Picard myself, it seems to me that you guys share some of the same ethical values. David: You know they say what's the key to success? Truly and authentically caring about what you're doing. I think it might be that. I truly fucking get devastated when someone didn't love it here. It affects me physically.
That sounds stressful. How would you define Montreal cuisine? David: On any given night, if you look at who's at the restaurant—let's say at the original Joe Beef, which was ten tables—I bet you there's a table of four Jews, four Anglophones, four Francophones, and most likely four Greeks, four Italians, and four Asians. And it's like that every day in Montreal. What is it that we will cook that will make these groups happy? It's that fine line not to confuse anybody's mouth or tastebuds. I get offended personally if I go to a restaurant and order a half chicken and it fucking has ginger and curry. I'm not in the fucking mood for ginger and curry. This fucking sucks.
Marco: It's super Montreal to do an Italian half chicken under a brick and serve it with a Sauce Alexandre and French fries, which feels more American.
David: Montreal is the best place to cook in the entire fucking world, let me tell you that. That's for sure.
Why? David: The dining public. People love New York and the restaurants there. Yes, New York is great, but New York City is a giant steakhouse. Nobody eats kidneys. Nobody eats livers. Barely anybody eats charcuterie. Nobody eats nothing. The weirdest thing they eat in New York are lamb chops. Here? I have 24-year-old girls that come to this restaurant of whatever heritage that drink the most bizarre natural wines and that have tongue, some kidneys, some rabbit, and they don't fucking care. Why do we get so much attention from the media now from the US and all over the world? Because they come here and they look at our menu and say, "What the fuck! You guys get away with this?"
It's not for show, it's for real.
Thanks for speaking with me.
This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in April, 2015.