Food52's Piglet cookbook tournament has come to a close, and Chez Panisse's Alice Waters has declared a winner: The Art of Living According to Joe Beef by Frédéric Morin, David McMillan and Meredith Erickson. This is Food52's third annual Piglet, a bracket-style cookbook tournament judged by cookbook authors, chefs, and other food industry folk.
Joe Beef was up against Christina Tosi's Momofuku Milk Bar cookbook, and, as Waters herself puts it, the decision came down to crack: the chapter in Joe Beef called 'Building a Garden in a Crack Den' was written "with such affection about how they have replaced 'pop cans, plastic bags, and cigarette butts that littered our yard with tomatoes, kale and turnips'" that it beat out Tosi's ode to Crack Pie.
Below, Frédéric Morin and David McMillan talk about their Montréal restaurant Joe Beef, their "cookbook of sorts," why they won't open a restaurant in the US, and why the world needed another seasonal, ingredient-driven cookbook "about as much as we need another Kardashian." (Note: Neither Morin or McMillan knew they had won when they spoke to Eater.)
So The Art of Living According to Joe Beef made it to the Piglet finals.
Frédéric Morin: Yeah! It's weird that we're up against Momofuku Milk Bar because David Chang's a good friend of ours and it's going to be a tight one. I have kind of a secret happiness, a secret satisfaction — well I guess not so secret any more — that our book beat The Family Meal from elBulli. That's good, that makes me happy. They're all books that I love, you know, Blaue Gans is an awesome place and [Kurt Gutenbrunner's Neue Cuisine is] an awesome cookbook.
What do you guys think Alice Waters thought of your book?
FM: I don't know. I've never met her, I've never spoken to her, but of course I know her for the same reasons you know her, that everybody knows her from. Hopefully she liked the little garden at the back of the restaurant chapter. Hopefully she'll love the French food, the French undertones, the French feel of Montréal. But I don't know. Hopefully she'll like it as much as I like it.
David McMillan: When I heard that — I didn't even actually know until this morning that it was Alice Waters — just the fact that she even holds my book in her hands, even just mutters the words Joe Beef, goosebumps for me. I'm 42; I've been a fan of hers since I was 18. The fact that she even reads the idiocies that we say, I hope she cracks a smile. Alice Waters reading our book is ridiculous and it's nonsensical and it's a dream for me somehow.
You're up against Christina Tosi's Momofuku Milk Bar cookbook, and both of your books have forewords by David Chang. What are your thoughts on the competition?
FM: Oh, I love it. For once there's somebody who makes desserts that stand up in people's mouths, not on big white plates, you know what I mean? I find them very pretty but in a way the focus isn't on being pretty it's on being disgustingly delicious. And the ice cream, the soft serve ice cream, she's preaching to the converted. I love soft serve ice cream, I have an addiction to it. I tried a few flavors that she does, just to play with it because I was curious, and it's really delicious. There's always a hint of salt in her desserts too. It's very nice. She just makes desserts for people to eat. They're not compositions, they're not somebody's metaphorical perception of the seasons, you know? But both Momofuku and this book, they both convey the spirit of the kitchen, the pastry shop, the Milk Bar production kitchen. And it's straightforward, without being vulgar. Some cookbooks are too beautiful almost, but in this book it's exactly how they do it in the kitchen. I'm sure there are no tricks in there. Not little minefields scattered through the book with ingredients that they "forgot" on purpose. She's a monumental person, too. It's like her pastries came from Mars.
Your book's cover proclaims it "a cookbook of sorts." Why go the route you did, with essays and such, as opposed to a straightforward restaurant cookbook?
FM: Well first of all we wouldn't have done that even if we had a publishing deal with a company that was like, why don't you organize the recipes according to seasons, or according to ingredients. We need that about as much as we need another Kardashian. In the book I wrote about my life as a train fan — I ride trains. I wrote about my garden, I wrote about welding. David wrote about wine, he wrote about telling stories, he's fascinated with Montréal history. But instead of selling it and cross-dressing as somebody we are not, we were fortunate enough to make a treatment that included all these chapters, and it was accepted. They didn't ask for us to change anything. So why not? We were even lucky enough to have a dumpster chapter to include everything that didn't fit anywhere.
DM: We both read a lot of cookbooks, we both consume a lot of cookbooks, Fred and I. Not to diss any other cookbooks, but we just kind of wrote a cookbook that we wanted to read. We were really selfish when it came to the subjects. I was trying to write for Fred and Fred was trying to write for me. It's the way we work in the restaurant. It's not a question of outdoing each other, it's a question of Fred wants to keep my interest and I want to keep his. And the book reflects both of our hobbies and the day-to-day of the restaurant. We didn't want to write another cookbook, you know, recipe, picture, recipe, picture, recipe picture.
It's important to us to get the message across to people in North America that Québec exists. That our francophone culture is an old one, and the history of dining in Montréal is very old and food is generally really important to the people of Québec City and Montreal. Dining in America I feel sometimes is not so old. Like dining in Las Vegas didn't exist really twenty years ago. Dining in the boroughs of New York City didn't really exist 25 years ago. Dining in Philadelphia is relatively new. Whereas French food in Montréal, in the old port, there are restaurants there that have going strong since the twenties or the thirties. We're just trying to communicate our love for French cooking in Montréal, somehow.
What's going on in Montréal dining these days?
DM: It's changing a lot. There are a lot of chef-owned restaurants popping up now that are I think similar to ours. Some are great and, you know, some are misguided. There are new restaurants but we still have our venerable institutions, like L'Express, like Moishes, like Jimmy's, like Schwartz's. But things are changing.
Mostly for the better?
DM: Yeah, absolutely for the better. The quality of food gets better all the time, more available and less elitist. As long as the food keeps on. More food and more good cooks: good restaurants breed good cooks, and good cooks go on to open their own restaurants. So it makes more capable individuals throughout the city cooking food for all different price points. Get good food and good wine out of the hands of the rich, really.
The book came out in October. Have you noticed an uptick in traffic to your restaurants because of the book?
FM: Yeah, for sure. What's interesting also is before even it was published, we had acquired the rights for the French version, and we found a local publisher to publish and transcribe it. Their graphic artist and their translator did a very good job keeping the spirit of the book and the looks of the book. It's a book that is almost identical to the English book — it was sold for the same price and it was the same shape. So we have the Québec media thing and then we have the American and Canadian media thing. But definitely the French book did big, big, big, big, big, big things for us. The English book was very big as well, still is very big. I guess I'm not convinced people came because of the book, but rather that they planned a trip to Montréal and then amongst their restaurant picks they put us in there because of the last seven years we've been open. I can't tell if it's strictly the book.
But it's funny because the director of photography on Andrew Zimmern's show, he's a super nice guy, and he said, "Everywhere I've gone in the past six months, I've seen your book." It was at Animal [in Los Angeles], he saw it in Vegas. It's kind of cool that people read it who are in the trade, people read it who are not in the trade. I don't think it's going to be the book that's going to sell for $7.99 at the magazine store, you know? Nor do I think it's the book that's going to buy me a cottage, either. But writing a book that sells well, even if you don't make a ton of money, it's a very good business card. The book stays out there. It's kind of cool. My son will have that book later. My kids will have it. It's durable. The restaurant might be closed in five years, in two years — hopefully not — but the book will still be there on somebody's shelves.
Any exciting projects in the works?
FM: Well, making the restaurant nicer, making the garden in the Spring. We're not — some people ask, oh, would you open in the States? We're not going to open there. I have the telephone number for a locksmith in Montréal, I have the phone number for a dishwasher, I have the number for a vegetable guy, I have a number for anybody I want. I don't want to have to find all these guys again in another city! And honestly if I have to leave my house, my family, twice a month? Fly somewhere else, stay there for four days? I'd cry on the plane. Maybe I just don't have the emotional capacity to disconnect like that. Plus when you read the book I think you can see that there's definitely a true love and a true respect for our town. I wouldn't feel that about another city. So just hanging around town, you know, doing our little things.
Who knows, maybe another book one day. It was fun doing the book, an interesting project. For people, like most chefs with ADD, a cookbook is actually a fun thing to write because you don't have to have a thread. You can change your mind every half hour. Let's go to mashed potatoes, let's go to eel. It's like telling stories sitting at the bar except you have to write them down. It's a fun thing to do. I could never write like people like [Anthony] Bourdain or Gabrielle Hamilton who have true writers' skills. They're able to remember by the end of the paragraph what they wrote in the beginning. Speaking for me and David, we don't have that.