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Why Chefs Should Pay More Attention To Wine

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Frédéric Morin and David McMillan
Frédéric Morin and David McMillan
Photo:Chuck Ortiz

Joe Beef, The Liverpool House and McKiernan Lunchonette are three Montreal restaurants that have managed to hug the line between high and low brow with uncommon grace. Joe Beef has quickly become one of Montreal's best restaurants and a sort of French-Canadian mecca for American chefs and other food obsessives. Their cookbook, The Art of Living According To Joe Beef, came out last year and immediately struck a chord with many as a much-needed dose of humor and authenticity within a food (and wine) world that often takes itself a bit too seriously.

Here, in part 1 of an interview with chefs David McMillan and Frédéric Morin, and sommelier Vanya Filipovic, McMillan talks about why he thinks chefs should spend more time in the wine cellar, what wine means to French-Canadian culture, and why high-alcohol wines just don't make sense to him. Stay tuned for part 2 on Monday in which Morin and McMillan talk about everything from anal-retentive restaurants to locavorism.

One thing about the cookbook I loved so much was that chapter on wine. Can you talk a little bit about how that made its way into the book? You know, in the restaurant business 50% is food sales and 50% is wine and the kitchen and the dining room work together. I find that too many chefs are just about food. I think it's super important to be interested in both of the things that are going into the customer's mouth. Being good in a kitchen is important but understanding the role of wine is tantamount for a restaurant in my opinion. To be serious, I go to a lot of restaurants that have a phenomenal, amazing chef but have a disaster of a wine program. Or vice versa. Many chefs would be well served to spend as much time in the wine cellar as they do in the kitchen.

How do you think understanding wine, in your case, affects the food? It's more fun to cook when you understand wine. When you are cooking appetizers, for example, and you know that we're serving this Raveneau Montée de Tonnerre that we're drinking, you have a visual imprint of what it Chablis tastes like. And if you know that table 10 is going to be drinking that Chablis with the appetizers you're sending out you work in a different way, you cook the sauce down this much, you add this much pepper, etc. You're working with the dining room.

Red Burgundy is a big passion of yours, how does that play into the food at Joe Beef? It allows us to hold back in the kitchen. Other chefs might make a more masculine sort of brown sauce, a stronger reduction, whereas we'll hold back and put water in the sauce. Because we are working toward pinot and gamay in the dining room we can afford to lighten things up. Everything doesn't have be, you know, dark brown.

The cookbook has been, for a lot of people, their first introduction to French-Canadian cuisine and culture. How do you view the role of wine in that context? Here we've always eaten in French restaurants with French wine. Even 15 years ago when I was buying wine in a restaurant there were only two California wines—Mondavi and Cherry Block, I think. Wine, particularly European wine, has always been important to the French-Canadian culture within the province of Quebec. But when I look at, say, Toronto--you know, Toronto 25 years ago was a beer town. Wine is relatively new there and I'll say that about New York as well. There were no restaurants in Hell's Kitchen and Soho and fucking Williamsburg and Carroll Gardens with real wine programs. Wine was something that was where? At La Grenouille on the UES?

We down south talk a lot about the "American palate" for wine (and how it's changing). How would you describe the French-Canadian palate? There's been a serious French wine program at our local SAQ wine stores for 100 years, you know. If you give an older French-Canadian person Australian Chardonnay, they're like, "Get this the fuck away from me—what is this?" And if you say, "Here's CA chardonnay," they're like, "Why?" So we've had to keep the path to French wine and old world-flavored wines. Even when we wanted to play ball [with bigger, more modern wines] like the rest of the world, it never worked, so we just gave up.

So in America wine writers have a fun time talking about how the American palate is becoming more European—at least in urban areas. So are we finally just catching up with Montreal? I don't want to say it that way, but kind of. You know we read Wine Spectator too, but we were reared on Bordeaux and Burgundy and Beaujolais. So we'd get the magazine back in the day and see, like, "Bin 707, 96 points!!!" and I'd be like "Fuck, I kinda want to try that." And we'd buy some and we'd try one bottle and we'd all be perplexed and looking at each other and trying to say good things about it because it's 96 points. Then, after a couple years, it was just like, forget it, it doesn't work with our constitutions. I like to drink a lot of wine, and wines that have a ton of oak and alcohol, it just doesn't work. What, am I gonna go to dinner and have one bottle of wine and go home? For real. I am coming for dinner and that means we're going to kill fucking eight bottles of wine, no? I can't do that if you're pouring wine that's 15 percent. I am gonna be home in an hour and a half. VF: That's another thing about Montreal, you know, dinner is all night. I lived in the U.S. shortly and was so traumatized when I would go out with friends and they'd order and then immediately ask for the bill.

What do you think is relevant in Montreal right now? Old things are relevant. L'Express to me is a very important restaurant because they've had a lot to do with all the sommeliers and wine people in the city knowing anything about wine. And I don't even know who to give credit to. VF: His name is Mario, Mario Brossoit DM: Well that guy deserves a fucking medal of honor. 20 years ago I was like, "I don't know if I like Beaujolais from Lapierre," and he was like, "Trust me, you like Beaujolais from Lapierre." Back then we were drinking all of these "natural wines" or Vatan and so on; we've been drinking these wines for 20 years.

So are most drinkers in Montreal unabashed Francophiles when it comes to wine? We still have those dumb ass guys, the alpha males, the golfers that want to drink cab. Americans? Not really. I find that many of the Americans coming to Montreal are coming here for good wine. Sometimes we'll get the alpha male from Chicago with his trophy wife that wants to drink 19% alcohol, 500% new oak wines.

When you were opening Joe Beef, what were your plans for the wine program? White Burgundy. Red Burgundy. It didn't quite work out that way, but we tried. So you wanted an all-Burgundy wine list? Yes, we still do, but someone will show up with something good and we'll have to buy some of it. VF: The thing is, it's all about wines we want to drink and sell ourselves. This restaurant is so overwhelming when you walk in, with the menu and the wine list on the blackboard. There's no physical wine list so what it comes down to is what we love to drink, reading the guest, and really communicating with each person.

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