Joe Beef's David McMillan has new book and a new way of living in the restaurant business

"Joe Beef: Surviving the Apocalypse" was a clever way to cast a cookbook, and, it turns out, a survival strategy

Published February 24, 2019 5:30PM (EST)

 (Salon Talks)
(Salon Talks)

The message from Fred Morin reported he was stuck on the runway at the airport in Montreal.

I was kind of relieved.

Morin and his partner David McMillan were due in the studio for an interview in 45 minutes. Morin and McMillan own Joe Beef restaurant in Montreal, an institution renown for its enthusiasms and excesses and the outsized personalities of its owners — Real showmen.

How on earth was I going to conduct an interview with these two rampaging nightlife Vikings? Video hosting is a bit of a trick, my job is to guide the conversation, not dominate it (not always my first impulse), still it doesn't really work when you can't get a word in. We got word that McMillan was inbound from the hotel, I figured I could keep up with one of the Joe Beef tandem. I needn't have worried. The team's recent sobriety — a sobriety McMillan addressed at length in bon appétit after coming into the Salon studio — has distilled McMillan (and according to McMillan, Morin as well) to his essential kind and generous, gifted conversationalist core: Curious, thoughtful, even earnest. It was a pleasure meeting McMillan and I look forward to meeting Morin in their restaurant, where I will drink moderately in order to keep up with the conversation.

Hi, I'm Manny Howard. This is Salon Talks. Today our guest is David McMillan. He's the coauthor of Joe Beef: Surviving the Apocalypse, and the co-owner and chef at Joe Beef the restaurant in Montreal, and a farmer, sort of.

Gentleman farmer.

Gentleman farmer, yeah, and we'll get to the apocalypse part of this book a little later. What's great about the book, “Joe Beef: Surviving the Apocalypse,” is that you step right into the world of Joe Beef from the first page, and it's a world I would like to be a part of all the time except the trip from New York to Montreal is a bit rough three times a day. One of the things I thought we would talk about, as a way of getting into this fantastic world, is just to talk a little bit about the restaurant's place in Montreal, and what Montreal is that you don't find anywhere else?

Montreal is maybe more based on our neighborhood. When it comes to Montreal, the restaurant fits into its time and place of where it should be near the canal, in its neighborhood, near the Atwater Market. Before opening Joe Beef, the restaurant, Fred and I sat across the street, and the building spoke to us. “What shall you cook here? What food shall be cooked inside this building?”

It came to us pretty easily. There should oysters here. There should be clams. There should be frosty cold beer. There should be chops —pork chops, lamb chops, veal chops, beef chops. There should be potatoes. There should be greens. There should be mushrooms. There should be trout, and apples. Apples, onions, potatoes, and proteins, and there should be what's available at the Atwater Market. We should be able to just take our bicycles, go to Atwater Market, buy food, and write . . .

The first thing we did is we put the menu on a big chalkboard, and we wrote a menu that was accommodating to the people of that neighborhood ultimately.

It was a little bit Anglophone, a little bit Francophone, a little bit Jewish, a little bit Italian, a little bit Greek. And we tried to focus the way that the menu lands on the table, that would satisfy all of those families eating there, right?

A typical dinner starts off with really a dozen oysters and clams, some ice cold beer, or white wine, followed by a barrage of appetizers of nasty bits, and vegetables, because nasty bits go well with vegetables, and then followed by excessive amounts of fish protein, seafood protein, or meat protein.

Let's just go now.

Potatoes and green vegetables, and then apples and watermelons.

And Atwater Market, is — because Montreal is a French city, European city, it's a central marketplace?.


It's what we try to make out of Union Square. What New Yorkers try to make Union Square into, or have successfully made it into?

Yeah. It is like that, but we have these central markets in the different areas in different neighborhoods. Atwater is in our borough. There's the Jean Talon Market, which was kind of like in the Italian borough. There's another market in East End, and these markets are very old, and they're very central to life around it, of course, and they fight off the invasion of modern grocery stores. But our markets are interesting because you can tell when you visit our markets that people cook at home. You see things in our markets that you won't see in any markets in North America.

You'll see snouts. You'll see tripe. You'll see ears. You'll see multiple blood sausages. You'll see all of the innard meats. Usually that's reserved for the back fridge of the butcher who's selling it to the restaurant that is more adventurous, whereas people make kidneys at home in Montreal. People have slices of liver medium rare at home with onions.

So there's an offal guy in the market.

Yeah. Absolutely. There's a horse meat guy. There's an offal guy. There's a guy who does very old beef, dry-aged beef. There's a guy who does, who believes that wet-aged beef is better. There's a guy who specializes in lamb. There's a sausage guy. There's a terrine guy, bunch of terrine guys, a couple of cheese guys. It's really cool, great market.

Yeah. Sounds amazing. And, you serve horse meat at the restaurant. Is that-

We have. We do, and we do get some kind of backlash sometimes, but historically there's always been horse meat served in our neighborhood. Little Burgundy, where we are, it's like a steel workers neighborhood. Originally in prehistory, well not in prehistory, but in history of Montreal, or history of Canada, the neighborhood that we work in was the most densely populated, most polluted area in North America. It used to be called the Calcutta of North America. There was lots of iron smelting going on along the canal, and heavy industry. And up the hill was Westmount, the richer area-

Always up the hill.

Up the hill was Westmount and at the bottom of the hill where we are, near the canal, was all working class. And horse meat was something that was readily available. Joe Beef originally was a place that used to make spruce beer.

Right. Oh, describe Joe Beef, the fever dream from which this great restaurant came from.

When we were thinking about building a restaurant, it was a time, this was like 16 years ago maybe, it was a time where there was lots of generic restaurants. People were opening restaurants called Nava, and doing the cuisine of Donna Hay on square plates. Which is nothing wrong with any of that, but you know, there was a bunch of restaurants in the city of Montreal that had these generic names that kind of had white atmospheres, and that served generic food. You could be anywhere in North America or Europe. You just didn't know where you were.

It was important for us, when we opened Joe beef, that we did a little bit of back history work, that we revived a restaurant that had existed, that had an interesting history, and that we built a restaurant that was appropriate to the neighborhood that it was in. That was a Montreal restaurant. It's kind of reappropriating a brand that already existed.

Right. And to be clear, the aesthetic is, in the book you talk about it being a shed. People get confused when they come to the restaurant because they've come a great distance, because the food is top notch. This is not, you're not casual about the food at all.

No. People come to the restaurant for two things, to drink and to eat. The rest, the details around the rest I don't care for. Neither does [my partner] Fred. I'm not a fan of luxury. I'm not a fan of high-end dining. I'm not a fan of multi-course menus. I'm not a fan of the wearing a suit and the wine list resembling a phone book. I'm just not a fan of luxury, but I am a fan of beautiful country cooking. So yeah, sometimes . . .

And we are on the lists, like Top 100 list or Top 20 list. We managed to weasel our way onto these lists for I don't know what reason, and people show up, people that are used to dining perhaps in the fancier restaurants of Manhattan or Chicago or Paris. Sometimes people show up very well dressed to Joe Beef only to . . .  It looks like a cottage. It's a bit of a dump.

The floors are painted. Right?

Yeah. Painted floors. I go to the restaurant supply store and I say, "What is the cheapest wine glass available at the wine glass store?" They go, "This one. It's one dollar." "We'll take these."

You break a lot of them. Right?

Right. I don't spend money on the details somewhat, but I like the food and the wine we're obsessive about.

This is your second book one of the great things about this book is that it has a pantry in it, a larder — I'm sorry. And it's a gatefold, a double gatefold and beautiful photography throughout, I must say. But one of the elements that I really loved about the book, and sort of around the organizing principle, which is when it all goes terribly wrong you should be prepared with these ... I don't know. Are there 30 luxury items that you've made yourself?

Yeah. It's important. Cooking and running a restaurant doesn't define Fred or I. We have many interests outside of the restaurant. Fred and I are two guys that never thought A, we'd ever have a restaurant, B, wives, and C, kids.

Right. Offspring.

Right. We're just a couple of nerds that were collecting oyster forks, visiting antique stores, and making dried sausages in the basement next to the hot water heater. Now that we have businesses, employees, children, and wards we have this constant impending sense of doom that we have to have an exit plan for everybody. Right. We just see the restaurant as being this ship of fools, really. Of which we have intimate relationships, but we're 100 now in these three restaurants on this street and we spend 60 hours a week with these people.

If you read the news a little bit or you feel feelings, there's this shepherd thing that Fred and I have, where we wanna pack everybody into a bus, and drive to the country and live happily ever after, drinking natural wine, jarred moose, cider making cider and vinegar. I don't know.

If ever there was an organizing principle around a cookbook, The Apocalypse, is as good a one as I can think of. I share that sense of impending doom and that you need to just be half prepared for it. You need a way out.

It makes me feel comfortable to have a bug out bag, to know the routes out of the city, to have a machete under the seat or my truck. We're not preparing for zombie apocalypse, but maybe.

No. It's a metaphysical apocalypse, as much as anything else. Once you've succeeded at something you need to be ready for it all to go away.

Yeah. You need the sense of security to keep on working hard.

That's right. There are plenty of wonderful and very accessible recipes in this book and also at the restaurant. The steak that you cook in the slow cooker and then finish off on the grill, just as sort of an aesthetic finish. Right. On an otherwise slow cooked steak. Is that the way of thinking about the Texas steak in here?

Somewhat. Yeah.

Yeah. But there are also some really funky, great recipes for kidney and tripe. Things that are very close to my heart.

You're a tripe aficionado?

Well, I eat it whenever I find it on a menu. My favorite tripe, the one I regularly hit is around the corner from my house. It's at a Dominican restaurant and in that cuisine it's called mondongo. And it's basically potatoes, and tomatoes, and carrots, in a stew. But I will eat it any way it is prepared.

The tripe, basic tripe recipe, from wherever it is in the world, it seems to kind of always be akin to each culture. The classic French one, which might not be the classic, but à la mode de Caen, C-A-E-N. With carrot, onion, celery, white wine. You can either eat them warm or you can either eat them cold. Or of course then, where tomatoes exist, tomatoes are added. Tripes international.

I say this often when I travel with Fred, and because of these books we've been forced to travel, which we don't love but we do. When I travel I say, "I can't wait to leave here. There's no food I eat." Fred goes, "What do you mean?" I go, think about it, when we eat we eat blood sausage, we eat blood pudding, we eat chitterlings, we eat kidney, we eat liver, or we eat fish. And when we travel and we got to these restaurants, nobody serves the food that we eat, so can we get out of here and go home already.

I'm starving.

Yeah. For sure. If I go to a restaurant and there's tripe we're eating tripe, immediately.

There's a great tribe at . . .  I've lost the name of the restaurant now. In Andrew Carmellini's restaurant, downtown.


Nope. It's the Italian one. Sorry Andrew. But every time I go I get it there. It's hard to find. My grandfather used to eat tripe, cold and ungarnished, on a plate with bread and butter, and a pint of Guinness, when he got home from the pub. I wonder if it was a restorative or an anti hangover thing.

I would say it is. The you say in French, the gelatinous effect of it. We call it pig squid, you know. We've done it too. We chopped it in small pieces, and put a bit of milk and flour, and fry them crispy.


Squid. Squid from the pig.

Right. Yeah. Little salt.

I enjoy cooking tripe very much but I understand people are apprehensive about it because if you see it at the butcher's meat counter it's quite an awful site.

It's terrible.

It's just a hellacious protein.

Yeah. But I do prefer it to beef.


When I can get it.

Can you talk to us about what your . . . Because I have all kind of ideas about why you organized the book around the apocalypse and what it gave you access to talk about. Because this isn't unlike any other. This is not really a cookbook. It's organized around cooking but it is not a cookbook. It has recipes on almost every page but it's not a recipe book.

Writing books is, as you know, arduous. It's not something that Fred and I wake up in the morning saying, "Hey let's write another book." It took us a long time to write this book from the first book and unless Meredith Erickson was with us, and pushing us, I don't think it would ever get off the ground.

But with this second book, the opportunity came where, we're not gonna write a book unless we can write a book. And like I said before, cooking doesn't define us. We have multiple interests and I said, "Let's write a treatment about surviving the apocalypse." Fred and I are both into solar energy. We're both into living off the grid. We're both into bug out vehicles, bug out bags, first aid kits, fishing gear, farming, seeds, preserving, pickling. These are the subjects we talk about, so if we can sell a book with these subjects in it we'll write it.

In the original treatment we sent it in thinking we would get no bites and we got bites, so we went for it and this is the book that we wrote.

Again too, I didn't wanna write a book where it's just like a picture of recipe and then a recipe. It's excruciating. It's too boring. I wanna get out in the truck and take pictures of boat houses, and apple trees, and cool rivers. And Meredith Erickson has great aesthetic. Jennifer May, who did the photography from the first book, did this book as well. She's a joy to work with. She lives up in Hudson Valley, kind of gets the outdoor thing a little bit.

And also, we wanted to write a book that wouldn't just be in the cooking section, that would be in the outdoor section. It could be in the fishing section. It could be sold at a sporting goods store. That could be sold at a hardware store. Our hardware store in our neighborhood sells the book.

They better. Where you buy your machete from, right.

I have like nine machetes.

We wanted to write an anti cookbook.

You have not actually written an anti cookbook because as you read this, all you wanna do is . . . A lot of these recipes are aspirational. There's bone broths that take days, and then adding a teaspoon of the bone broth to the dish afterwards is like this perverse twist for the reader 'cause they've just made the bone broth and their only gonna use that much in the recipe. Put it in the freezer.

There has to be super hard recipes. There's a lot of books written in very easy recipes and that's a category, and you can go there. Fred especially, Fred loves to torture people.

There's no four ingredients or less. Actually, there are four ingredients or less.

There's one we're seeing pop up a lot on social media. Is it'll be like, the Dutch Baby. In French culture that's not a thing. We've had to research the name. It's pascade. In French cooking that doesn't even come up anywhere really. And even in Quebec culture it doesn't come up, so we're seeing a lot of people making the Dutch Baby for the first time in Quebec. I know that it exists in the rest of North America but to see people in our home province enjoying that recipe is kinda neat. That's a simple one that people have been doing.

Now, the Dutch Baby is a simple concept can be more complicated. Me and you, I guess, would make a Dutch Baby with tomato tripe stew in it. Right. You know, the blood sausage Dutch baby is kind of a neat concept and idea. Lobster Dutch Baby is super fun.

And it's a great concept. Essentially, the Dutch baby is a very casual dessert throw off. Made in a small cast iron skillet.

I'd say it's a great vehicle for sauce. It's a great vehicle for a multitude of different French cooking applications. To do a beautiful savory Dutch baby with lots of thyme and garlic, and shallot, and to put grilled kidney in it, or some braised hair. It's kind of cool because baking is even something that intimidates a lot of home cooks. To say to make focaccia, focaccia let's say being the easiest of the breads to make at home, is still daunting to many people.

When I tell you that you can mix eggs and flour together, with milk, inside of this pitcher, and you can pour it into this hot skillet, and you'll have this beautiful impressive, impress your friends and your guests souffle, of which you can add multitude of different ideas that may come to your mind. You kind of look like a really good cook and it's a great vehicle for sopping up sauce and for sopping up protein and sopping up even vegetables. I've seen beautiful vegetarian versions online of green peas and merrells inside of a beautiful Dutch baby and cheddar cheese. It's just outstanding.

It really is taking off.

That Dutch Baby is the new thing.

When I saw the recipe I thought, "Oh, this is like Yorkshire pudding."

But it is.

Except it's easier than Yorkshire pudding, I think. It's one ingredient less. It's hard to imagine something easier than Yorkshire pudding.

And practice makes perfect with a Dutch baby. You can really, you know when the skillets hot, and you whip your ingredients properly, and the ovens a convection. You can really get some big air.

Oh, is that a trick that kids-

Yeah. It will blow it up and the kids just love seeing them blow up in the oven. I don't know why. I'm still excited about that recipe still.

Well you know, it took whole on social media, so that's gotta be good.

The lobster spaghetti did in the original book.

Is that right?

It's the bane of my existence.

Everybody orders it.

I have to cook lobster everyday. It's like 35 orders. 40 orders in two restaurants. And out of season, in season, either there be a revolution I think. People come from Taiwan. Excuse me.

For the lobster.

Yeah. We've had articles in Chinese newspapers about the lobster spaghetti.

Well you didn't learn your lesson because there's a lobster pie recipe in here. You're gonna-

It's a good one too. That's been popping up online as well.

Yeah. You're gonna get hammered on that.

Well, David thank you so much for leaving Montreal. I know you didn't do it just for us.

I did it for your good weather.

But you can get home in time to have something to eat 'cause I know you haven't eaten since you left. It's really great to have ya.

Thank you for having us Manny.

By Manny Howard

Manny Howard is the author of "My Empire of Dirt: How One Man Turned His Big-City Backyard into A Farm." @mannyhoward

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