Prepare for zombie apocalypse with new Canadian cookbook
‘It’s not what we set out to build’: Joe Beef chefs on how fame changed the eatery
TORONTO — Montreal chefs Frederic Morin and David McMillan are ready for the end of the world.
The culinary giants behind the much-lauded eatery Joe Beef return with a second cookbook filled with tongue-in-cheek tips on how to cope with the end-of-times: homemade cough drops, soap, and boullion cubes (formed with a hashish press) as well as recipes for pickled port butt, pickled deer necks, pickled eggs and pickled tongues.
Joe Beef: Surviving the Apocalypse, co-written with long-time collaborator Meredith Erickson, doesn’t seriously portend a zombie apocalypse but it does bemoan Instagram-driven “self-praise” and “obsession of the self.”
In a recent stop in Toronto, the trio also fret over the threat of cultural erosion in FrenchCanadian cuisine, pointing to recent menu changes at the longtime Parisian-style restaurant L’Express.
“You’ll see multi-coloured tomato salad with burrata — it just doesn’t fit. And you’ll see tataki of tuna with sesame and soy. And they removed the jellied egg, which was like a mainstay,” says McMillan.
“Our cuisine is somewhat under assault by the rest of anglophone North America,” McMillan says. “It’s important that we do what feels like Montreal.”
The new book includes a chapter on Montreal’s original inhabitants — from the Mohawk territory of Kahnawake — addressing a glaring omission in the trio’s 2011 book, “The Art of Living According to Joe Beef.”
“We were embarrassed... it was quite glaring,” says Erickson.
“I started off the first book more or less with the premise that North America was a great darkness until the Europeans came two kilometres from our restaurant and started to cook,” McMillan admits. “I was quickly corrected in a not so friendly letter from our friend (Taiaiake) Alfred who (is) in this book.”
Also present is the spirit of their late friend and ardent champion Anthony Bourdain, who provides a back-flap endorsement that Erickson says was received by their editor just a few days before the “Parts Unknown” star died in June.
“And then we read it right around that time that it happened,” she says. “Devastating.”
During a recent interview with The Canadian Press, the talkative trio touched on a range of issues including why McMillan can’t afford to eat at his own restaurant and the problem with “best of” lists. CP: So why focus on the end of the world? McMillan: We struggled through the restaurant business, especially in a city with crumbling infrastructure like Montreal — just general corruption and mismanagement of funds, you know .... We have three kids a piece, 100 employees, so there is always an impending sense of doom (and) that just making payroll every 14 days is a giant stress.
CP: But don’t you feel like a success story? You have three restaurants now. You’re considered to be among the best.
Morin: There’s a process to becoming “The Best” by the list standard that it becomes a job in itself. You have to abide by their standard, their criteria, you have to strive to plate the way “The Best” expects it. You have to offer service the way “The Best” expects it, and our process is not driven towards that.
McMillan: If we wanted to try to fit into the Michelin system, there’s a formula to that. The dining room manager should dress a certain way, the wine list has to be a certain way, there has to be a certain element of luxury. There’s a game that you have to play and I won’t play that game. I’m going to play small country bistro for the rest of my life ....
I want to make sausage, I want to make prosciutto, I want to make terrine, I want to make smoked salmon.
CP: The public appreciates that now more that a few years ago don’t they? People certainly seem to be more aware of where and how food is sourced.
Morin: There are restaurants often that will serve “local lamb” that is not (local), that is New Zealand lamb. And in most of them are in that two-, three-stars, high end (range).
McMillan: There are restaurants that always have asparagus on the menu. We have asparagus on the menu, but it’s four weeks; 28 days. (This) has also been the death of French cooking as well. You go to small, country restaurants today in the countryside in Burgundy and it’ll be strawberries from California in a three-Michelin-star restaurant and pineapples from Hawaii in the middle of nowhere.
Morin: And the public is guilty of that because they’ve been requesting choice and this word applied to a menu that can be awkward — a “diversity” of food on their plate where they’re, “Oh, I’m bored with local halibut, I feel like something else.” ... So the restaurateurs are compelled to create a menu which goes from a simple prix-fixe menu to...
McMillan: ...50 appetizers (and) all the proteins under the sun.
CP: Going back to the “Best of” lists, can success have a dark side?
David: Fred and I were the chefs at Globe restaurant for a decade where it was packed, where we garnered many accolades and many articles. And it was a very successful restaurant that we took from zero to a restaurant that sold $140,000 a week and sometimes more. (And then) I didn’t want to be in the restaurant business anymore .... When we left Globe, he was on antidepressants and I was alcoholic and on antidepressants as well. We opened Joe Beef as a therapeutic restaurant with 20 seats for me and him that was going to be open from 7 p.m. and we were going to do 40 people and that was it.
Then David Chang said his two favourite restaurants in the world were Noma and Joe Beef in a minute American publication. Next thing you know, we had writers from the Washington Post, the Philadelphia Enquirer, the LA Times, the New York Times inside the restaurant. Then Anthony Bourdain was inside the restaurant.
Listen, we’re happy, it’s a wonderful restaurant. We wrote this book about it, we love being there, but it’s not what we set out to build. We set out to build a therapeutic restaurant where Fred and I would cook 40 meals a night and split money if there was any money to be split .... It takes 12 weeks to get a reservation at Joe Beef and it’s been that way for eight years. It’s never not been 12 weeks to get a table.
I’ve often thought about selling it. It comes to my mind once a year. Less so now, but it’s not what I wanted.
CP: I read that you can’t even afford to eat at Joe Beef.
McMillan: That’s absolutely correct. Dinner for four at Joe Beef the way people eat at Joe beef — aperitif, a bottle of white wine, a bottle of red wine, protein rich, celebratory dinner — it’s accurate in saying it (costs) what I make in a week. CP: How much is that? McMillan: Probably $1,000. Probably $200 per person.
Fred: But Joe Beef is a very tempting menu .... I look at the Joe Beef menu and I’m compelled to think the same way — I would have this, I would have this, I would have the sides, I would have this. There are some restaurants that are very affordable because you don’t want to order anything off the menu. Except maybe the trout.
McMillan: The customer decided what the restaurant should be. Fred: They wanted rib steaks. McMillan: They said, “David, I work very hard in my life... I don’t eat hangar steak with French fries.” ... I was like, “I apologize. Fred will order a large steak for you next week.” ... And that’s all we’re selling. And then we’re putting steaks this thick (holds his fingers three inches apart) and we’re selling them all. And we’re putting steaks this thick (extends fingers) and we’re selling them all. And then we’re putting $120 bottles of wine (and) we’re selling them off. And then we buy one $200 bottle of wine, we sell it right away.
So that we buy a lot of wine and a lot of steaks and a lot of lobster and a lot of oysters and then people are going, “Hey, it’d be nice if there’s truffles on it.” ... And now we have truffles.
Frederic Morin, left, David McMillan and Meredith Erickson are the minds behind Joe Beef: Surviving the Apocalypse, a new cookbook.
The cookbook Joe Beef: Surviving The Apocalypse by Frederic Morin, David McMillan and Meredith Erickson.