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 two (see part one on wine here) of an interview with chefs David McMillan and Frédéric Morin talk about Montreal cuisine, OCD chefs, why "foodies" are like Trekkies (but worse), and their plans for the future.
How would you describe the food you make at Joe Beef? DM: Fred and I have worked together for 20 years and the food in the book is really the cooking of our career together. I don't know if it comes off really French-Canadian, I think it's more, you know, an Anglophone and Francophone getting together and becoming friends. Martin Picard (of Au Pied de Cochon), for example, is perhaps more 100% French-Canadian and born of it. Whereas our cooking is more Montreal cooking, it's the French-Canadian cooking for the Jew or the Anglophone sitting at the bar next to the Protestant guy.
In the book you speak out in different ways against pretension in both cooking and in restaurants—can you talk a little bit how you view the state of things?
DM: You know when you go to a restaurant and you have to have a speech about every course or the coffee, there's some guy in the kitchen that wants the server to do that. That's obsessive-compulsive disorder, that's like I'm washing my hands 45 times a day and I really need to tell you everything I can about this coffee. Where the fuck are we going? All I want to do in a restaurant - and we said this in the book - I want to drink wine and tell you how hard I am going to fuck you later, to my wife. You get what I am saying? Or lets talk about our children or the renovations we are going to do to our home or an unfortunate situation our neighbor is dealing with. It's fucking dining, where is this OCD part coming from? It shouldn't be there. FM: A lot of it is just self-congratulatory and masturbatory. Chefs who wish they were surgeons or Pat Metheny or something.
Where do you think it's coming from? Maybe people don't have the education or etiquette that I feel that, at least for us, was drilled into us growing up in French Canada. We were taught to not be too self-confident and bragadocious. We were taught that you should always be self-effacing. I think if Fred started talking too much about himself or I started talking to much about myself or how good this restaurant is, our friends and family would take us back and say, "Who the fuck do you think you are?" FM: The problem is the public doesn't react that way. The public will listen to people talk about themselves and jack off the menu again and again and again. DM: The "foodies" in control and the foodies that are blogging like crazy and putting these OCD chefs and pretentious restaurants on pedestals are very similar to what you see in Trekkies. For real. FM: They are worse. At least Trekkies know it's not real. DM: They look at Thomas Keller like he has holes in his hands, glowing—whereas I look at him as a guy with OCD that's making things pretentious that shouldn't be.
Does the anal-retentive thing fly in Montreal? Not really. It doesn't really exist. The restaurants that are really busy and sell a lot of wine and food, they're noisy food halls. L'Express is a noisy food hall, Joe Beef is somewhat of a noisy food hall. FM: You can't drink wine without talking a bit louder. That's maybe the problem with those square plate, tasting menu places—you don't drink enough wine. Listen if it wasn't meant to make you drunk, we'd drink apple juice. DM: You know you go to a restaurant in NYC and it's fun, fun, fun and then you go to another and [whispers] ? it's really quiet and you have to talk like this to each other. That's fucking crazy, I cant do it. There is nothing I am going to eat on the plate that's going to make that worth it. A genie has never crawled out of a bottle of wine.
But some people wander into Joe Beef maybe looking for that? In Montreal, of the people who are interested in dining, a very small percentage are into that. Some of them wander in here because they hear Joe Beef is a great restaurant and they walk in here with like gowns on, you know. And Fred's in flip-flops and shorts with an apron on. And we look at the lady, the lady looks at us—she looks around and then I run away and Fred goes back in the kitchen. They are expecting a large table for two with elbow room and instead we're like here, squeeze in here. We'll pull the table for you. The awkwardness?
Which restaurants do you love in America? DM: I love Balthazar, I love Minetta Tavern. I think Riad Nasr is pound for pound one of the unknown, top-five chefs in America. No interviews, no magazines. FM: The McNally restaurants with Riad and Lee at the helm are the ones that really work. These are Boulud-trained, French-trained chefs who love French food and wine. And they have a healthy off-work life.
I am sure you have people knocking on your door with offers to be on TV and expand, etc. Do you have any interest in any of that? DM: Yeah, offers with no money. [Laughs] Offers like "It'll be good for your business," or "It's good exposure." We both have young children, we both love this business, but we both love being at home with our families and we both have other hobbies outside the restaurant business. We're happy with this. FM: We're not overachievers.
You see that for a lot of chefs and restaurateurs having a really good restaurant, or even two or three really good restaurants isn't enough anymore. What's your take on all that? I mean you look at Chang – and we love Chang – if it weren't for him and Tony [Bourdain] and Peter Meehan, and all the love that those guys have showed us, we wouldn't have the book. But I wouldn't swap my life with his in a million years. I don't want to go to fucking Sydney, Australia ten times per year. Fuck that. FM: You know, maybe that's what chefs have to do now in a way. That's the market, that's reality but it's almost insulting at a certain point that you have to go clowning around harvesting wild vegetables on TV and go to all those crazy, stupid media cookout, BBQ things or grow mesclun greens for ghetto kids. You look at José Andrés, he's getting so politically involved. We have to never forget that we are not fucking instruments of a social movement. DM: I am your humble servant, a butler, a cook. That's the business we're in.
You mentioned that Fred had a comment about how Kim Kardashian plays into this? DM: He said, you know, one tweet from Kim Kardashian eating well would have more impact than ten years of Alice Waters' career. That's kind of heavy when you think about it. If Kim Kardashian started telling the youth of America to start eating properly, to have a balanced diet, the implications are staggering. FM: We, not we per se, but most chefs carry a burden of wishing they did something else. Whether we work with parsnips or Jerusalem artichokes or forage ants, it's not going to change anything. It's unimportant. What's important is to have enough of a good quality and to not run out. Remember what your mothers said: "Eat because there are kids in Africa that don't eat." We have to remember that most of the world doesn't eat.
You guys have some views on foie gras, and of course this is a particularly relevant topic in America right now—what are your thoughts? FM: It divides me. On one side, yes, the government shouldn't be able to make a law in a state that says you can't do this, you can't have your farm. But they should intervene to protect these chefs that are being stalked now. But you know the fact that there are so many voices and effort being directed into something that is so unimportant to the life of mankind ... It's fat goose liver. There is still Darfur, you know. But we're debating foie gras and whether the butter from Jersey cow is better than the butter from Holstein cows. And then there's some hipster in Brooklyn with a fixed-gear bike looking under his pizza crust, discussing the crust and debating the virtues of a coal oven. And we're having heated arguments. It's ridiculous.
So if you don't want TV or worldwide domination, what do you want? FM: Dessert carts in the restaurant, and spirits carts, and maybe a cheese cart. DM: We'd like to buy the building between Joe Beef and Liverpool House and not really grow, but just get better. When restaurants become successful in France you see that wealth being distributed to the Armagnac collection, more copper pots, a duck press, new toys, a better wine cellar. But as far as opening new restaurants, maybe one more, but that's it. We just want to do what we do, but be better at it.