Inside the Wild Mind, Music, and Food of Montreal Madman Beaver Sheppard
Beaver's physical and psychological scars from cooking in the city's top kitchens have fueled amazing art.
Photos by Alison Slattery.
Most chefs don't have the voice of an angel. Most chefs don't have supermodels offering them thousands of dollars for a painting they did of Hugue Dufour. And most chefs don't curate a rotating weekly menu dedicated to the entire Muslim Caliphate. But Beaver Sheppard is not most chefs. In fact, he's not even really a chef.
Beaver—a.k.a. Jonathan Sheppard—is an artist in the broadest sense of the word: one who's been cooking, painting, and songwriting through adulthood with the reckless abandon of a kid who's eaten too much candy.
Which, in many ways, he still is.
Speaking in a soft, folksy, Maritime stream-of-consciousness that jumps from idea to idea but usually culminates in a punchline, Beaver is a vessel through which various forms of creativity manifest themselves. Many of those punchlines involve dark and depraved tales of working in some of Montreal's best-known restaurants and fans of MUNCHIES' Chef's Night Out series may even recall a particularly agitated and "juiced-up" Beaver presiding over a chaotic kitchen at the now-defunct Bethlehem XXX.
But for all of his antics and occasional dips into darkness, Sheppard has a definite innocence in his cherubic face and bright blue eyes, which happen to perfectly match the T-shirt and flat-top baseball cap he's wearing when I meet him on a bench in Montreal's Parc Extension neighbourhood.
"I'm not very deep," Beaver confesses. "I just live like a fearless child."
That fearlessness is at the very root of Beaver's creative process, but so is the childishness; one that goes all the way back to summer camp in his native Newfoundland, where he constructed a giant papier-mâché beaver to represent Canada.
"The kids started calling me 'Beaver dick' because of the papier-mâché and the counselors were like, 'Stop calling him that!' And this one kid, Buzz, was like, 'Let's just call him Beaver!' And it just kind of stuck," he says. "I tried to get rid of the name because it was stupid, but after a while, I just accepted it.
When he attended cooking school in Prince Edward Island, the name followed him.
"So I was like, 'For fuck's sakes, I guess I'm Beaver.' People think it's a wild name, but there was a show called Leave it to Beaver, it's not like my name is fucking 'Zebra!'"
He insists that "Beaver" is not some sort of Ziggy Stardust-like alter ego, but admits that it does make an impression. "'Beaver Sheppard' is the stupidest fucking name ever, but if you're fat and have a funny name, people will remember you."
We're eating chicken and lentil dosas from his favourite neighbourhood Indian restaurant, Dosa Pointe, down the street from Marché BK, the place where he would source lamb testicles from for his "Caliphate" menu four years ago at Bethlehem XXX.
"We needed a steady flow of lamb's nuts for kata-kat [a.k.a. tak-a-tak], the street food of Karachi, and the only place we could get them from was at BK."
Each week, the menu focused on the cuisine of a Muslim-majority nation: from Pakistan and Syria to Madagascar, Nigeria, Mali, Afghanistan, Western China, and Indonesia. "We were kind of ahead of that giant cloud that really came down more recently. We were just trying to stay pure to the dishes, even though it's hard to find the ingredients," Beaver says.
Beaver had acquired a solid foundation in French technique at culinary school, but the reach of the Muslim world allowed him how to look at basic ingredients from a completely different perspective.
"The West African stuff is all flavored with smoked fish," Beaver explains excitedly. "The meat has an insanely strong smoked flavour, but they cook with all of these mudfish and make it delicious. So, you get combinations like smoked fish and peanut butter and then hot peppers and scent leaf and palm oil and preserved snails shavings."
In a lot of ways, this exploration was part of a culinary journey that Beaver has been on since he was a child in Newfoundland, eager to experience flavours beyond the infinite candies and sips of beer he was given by his parents.
"My earliest food memory was when I was about six years old and I was wearing just underwear and the whole street was eating and gathering and I was running around and everyone was handing me meat and I was chewing on it," Beaver recalls. An Indian neighbor handed him a piece of seasoned meat "and I was just blown away. It was the first time I tasted something like curry before."
Despite training in French technique, Beaver nevertheless maintained an interest in foods outside of the fine-dining canon. "Growing up with next door neighbours from Texas, I was just obsessed with what they ate. The everyday food of people is so much more interesting—it's thousands of years of culture."
But Beaver's time at Bethlehem XXX was also an escape from a near-decade working the grind at some of Montreal's busiest and best-known restaurants. From his brief tenure as a garde-manger at Au pied de cochon, to working the line at Globe at the height of city's ostentatious supper club era, to working at a convenience store diner, Beaver has seen a cross-section of Montreal usually reserved for kitchen lifers. And despite his parallel interests, he has the scars, physical and otherwise, to prove it.
"It was Hell on earth," he recounts. "I hated it, but I loved it. It was pure warriorism. It was just fucking go to war every night. It was war against yourself to get the job done. That, and being up to the chefs' standards."
He adds: "I remember one week, during F1 weekend at Globe, I came home on the Sunday, looked in the mirror and the next thing I know my roommate is waking me up. I totally passed out in the bathroom with my dick out and everything, just from pure exhaustion. I've gone to bed at night and heard the sound of the paper coming out of the chit and you're already timing the next day in your head. It's a mental fuck, it's just such a mental fuck."
One night during service at Au pied de cochon, working under the helm of Martin Picard and Hugue Dufour, Sheppard got 130 orders in one shot. Instead of rolling into a foetal position and crying, as many might be tempted to do, he claims that he put a kitchen knife in his mouth, jumped up on a table in the kitchen, and put his arms triumphantly in the air. Diners clapped and he banged out an unreasonable amount of orders from his station.
Dufour's recollection of Beaver, however, is a little less triumphant.
"I liked the guy quite a lot, but he was a messy cook and he was all over the place," says Dufour, who now owns M. Wells Steakhouse and M. Wells Dinette in Queens, New York. "My chef de cuisine at the time was always on his back. I remember once we were looking for him everywhere, and when I found him he was downstairs pouring caramel and writing the word 'happy' [with caramel] that he stuck on the door of the walk-in fridge. I was like, 'What the fuck? We're looking for you!' He was out of this world. He was definitely unique. It was a crazy time but I liked the guy a lot."
Sheppard would end up painting abstract portraits of Dufour and Picard, and many others, as part of his Chefs I've Worked For exhibition, which premiered at Montreal's Never Apart gallery in early 2017 and one of his chef paintings will soon be presented at Galerie Robert Poulin.
Never Apart Executive Director Michael Venus tells me that it was "a no-brainer" to exhibit a show of Beaver's work. "He's a true original with extreme talent. When I first saw his paintings I will admit, I was shocked in a great way. He captures the subjects in a raw, powerful way with a boldness that reflects his emotions toward these chefs through the vibrant colours, intense sharp lines, and dramatic textures. His work is refreshing and people really relate [to] and enjoy them. I hope he paints more."
Dave McMillan, the subject of Beaver's first-ever painting and himself a painter, describes Beaver's style as "contemporary naive."
"It's pretty fucking funny," McMillan says. "I like anyone who paints. If you have that in you I hope that you paint. I like Beaver's music too. He used to work for me at Globe a long time ago—talented. He's a bit all over the place, but he really knows how to put tasty food on the pass."
As a burned-out line cook and restaurant owner, Beaver would often come home from work and draw for hours just to calm himself. But two years ago, on a whim, Beaver decided to take up painting whilst nursing a broken arm and enjoying time away from a disastrous partnership with a fellow chef. He channelled years of mental and physical anguish into painting, and the result is canvases stabbed with brushes, abstract demonic figures, and very candid, sometimes cringe-worthy anecdotes about chefs who have since risen to prominence.
"Somebody asked me, 'You want this big pile of paint?' and I was like, 'OK!' My girlfriend, who painted, just left all her painting stuff and canvases at my place. So I just started painting and stepped back—and I don't know why—but I just called them 'Dave McMillan' and 'Fred Morin' from Joe Beef. I started just super-aggressively throwing the paint on and mixing them on the canvas. I was like, 'I have no idea what I'm doing!'"
"I just want to be remembered for doing cool stuff. I'm going to fucking die, I just want to leave some cool shit behind."
While he may not be able to explain exactly what the paintings mean, Beaver uses his work to reclaim a part of his past that belonged more to his bosses than it did to him. "They are some of the most insightful and brilliant people I have ever met, and now their essences are forever trapped in cages of my creation," his artist statement reads for the Never Apart exhibition.
Soon enough, he realized that he was onto something, and he began digging deeper and darker into his culinary past. Beaver claims that his work quickly found fans, too—including a Romanian supermodel who offered to buy his painting of Hugue Dufour for $1,000. "I was like, 'I'm going to fucking hold on to it. I like this one.'"
The paintings are an exercise in both creativity and vindication. "I like the fact that these chefs paid me fucking nothing and now I have all these paintings that I can sell and maybe recoup some of that money. I feel like I might have a knack at this shit and I've always wanted to make art more than anything in my life."
One particularly brutal painting is of Chuck Hughes, for whom Sheppard worked more than a decade ago in the early days of Garde Manger. Next to his portrait at Never Apart was a story about Hughes ferociously berating a dishwasher.
"It was dark, but he fucking said it, and that's life," Beaver says of the painting.
Later, however, he admits that he feels bad about including the story. "I'm kind of regretful of that quote. Chuck was on a weird tip back then. He's really calmed down and I've heard he wants to mend all the shit he broke."
When reached for comment, Hughes told me that he was unaware of the painting. "Is Beaver still alive?" he asked earnestly.
Informed that Beaver was indeed still among the living, Hughes was relieved, adding that he was "excited to see what the painting is," and "if he feels bad about it, it must be pretty awesome."
After I sent Hughes a photo of the painting via text message, he responded, "A masterpiece!"
He added, "I was pretty addicted to hard drugs and alcohol back then, but the painting looks like me at the time—fighting crazy demons and not equipped to deal with everything happening in my life. But I'm ten years clean this past May."
Hughes clearly wasn't rattled by the ferocity of his former cook's vision, either—he later inquired about buying the painting from Beaver.
Like Captain Willard in Apocalypse Now, something keeps pulling Beaver back into the jungle of dish pits and grease traps that he inhabited for so long. Even though most of Beaver's income currently comes from music and touring with his band CO/NTRY, the potent buzz of dopamine and testosterone that his brain unleashed after a successful service still calls to him, like the cries of a wounded animal.
"The thing is about food, as much as you get sick of it—it drives you fucking insane—it's all you can think about. It destroys your life but as soon as you leave for a couple of months, you just want to start up again.
"It's so addictive; you just want to get back in there and go to Hell. Playing live is great, but I'm getting tired of playing music and doing shows and doing all of these soundchecks and waiting around; the waiting around is so boring. There's a lot of anxiety. With cooking, the feeling when you're finished is superhuman. You feel like you did something impossible."
For a time, Beaver did stop working in kitchens, but it didn't get him any further away from his perils. During a two-year period, Beaver was unemployed and "slinging candy," about which he did not care to elaborate on the record. "I was really crazy. I used to go out every fucking night and party. It was full-on for two years and my life was to be out. I lived above [porn theater] Cinéma L'Amour and used to roll into Blue Dog and Blizzarts [across the street] a lot."
For now, Beaver is focusing on music, becoming a vegetarian, and fixing his teeth, which he says are worn out from eating too much candy as a child. He hopes to open a farm-to-table restaurant in his hometown of Harbour Grace, Newfoundland, where he owns land near the wharf.
"I want to give back to the really, really desolate hometown where I grew up. There's just nothing now. It used to be bustling but now there's fucking nothing."
This move would bring Beaver back to the place where, as a child, he would paint his face black, fight imaginary ninjas, set booby traps in the woods, and get lost in his own head for days on end, learning the importance of being lonely.
"In Grade 8 all of my friends just cut me off. Overnight, I had no friends. I was really into Nirvana and I was writing all of these songs about cocaine and being constipated," he says. "I wrote so many songs—isolation is a great creative push."
Harbour Grace is also where Beaver's father, an architect who, like his son, picked up painting later on in life, realized that his son was tapping into a creative frequency that few of us ever do. "He always thought I was crazy," Beaver recalls. "He'd look at my drawings and say, 'You're fucking wild! You're wild, my son!'"
A previous version of this article stated that Sheppard worked at Dépanneur Le Pick-Up for free, but he was paid after initially working a few unpaid shifts. We have updated the article to reflect that and we regret the error.