In so many ways, Joe Beef seems to fit with current restaurant trends. The team grows their own produce, sources their meat locally and buys from family vineyards, but Joe Beef is not new to the scene. If anything, it’s old hat—a study in history and a return to middle-class values in Montreal. Their cookbook (of sorts) couples recipes with legends, anecdotes with instruction, illustrating lessons learned in the creation of a restaurant. It also serves as a guide to Montreal and surrounding areas, with everything from lodging tips to itineraries to the best place to get a haircut.
David McMilland, chef and owner of Joe Beef, is everything a restauranteur should be—he’s gregarious, loquacious, a bit crass and a drinker. He knows what he likes and he’ll tell you what he doesn’t. When it came to leaving the upscale dining scene, McMilland and his partner Frédéric Morin wanted to keep it simple. “We just wanted to do a regular menu, you know. Six appetizers, six mains, interesting wines that we thought were interesting,” says McMillan. Surrounding themselves with the right objects was key. “We get off on silverware, oyster forks, Le Creuset pots, on beautiful ancient copper pots, the right banquette, an old mirror… If I wasn’t fucking running a restaurant I swear to God I’d shut it down and open an antique shop.”
McMilland doesn’t see his decision to do old French recipes as anything incongruous. Considering the the working-class neighborhood of Little Burgundy where Joe Beef is located, molecular cuisine and square plates simply weren’t an option. “We would come off as guys who don’t know what they’re doing or have no sense of time and place, no education in history. ” Instead, McMilland and Morin, both family men with a strong sense of self-awareness, set out to create a small restaurant in a plain neighborhood that served great food without pretension.
The book has recipes, sure, but the focus is on the life of the restaurant. “We wrote a book about running a restaurant, about gardening, about welding, about Montreal, other people’s restaurants, about old historic restaurants,” says McMilland. He explains that the joy of running Joe Beef lies in the fact that he can leave the din of the kitchen, go outside and plant some lettuce, or head down to the workshop to cut a cedar plank on which to serve a whole arctic char. “If you’re a fucking chef in NYC, and you run a big ass restaurant, Joe Beef is that restaurant you dream of owning.”
McMilland is a diligent student of history, constantly pulling inspiration from old Montreal as the basis for his recipes. Several of the dishes highlighted in the book are taken from Canadian dining car fare. Patrick “Joe Beef” McKiernan, the restaurant’s namesake, embodies the spirit that McMilland and Morin try to capture in their food and in the culture of their establishment. A 19th-century Irish immigrant, Joe Beef earned his monicker through his ability to find food in times of need.
The original Joe Beef’s Canteen was a roughly furnished establishment that saw its fair share rowdy patrons, sometimes referred to as “The Great House of Vulgar People.” Though Little Burgundy has for a long time been considered an up-and-coming neighborhood, the rough edges remain. As McMilland soberly relates, “We had a guy on fire in front of our restaurant three weeks ago.”
The food at Joe Beef celebrates meat, and so does the book to some extent—there’s a recipe for a sausage martini in the cocktail section—but greens are key to the restaurant’s vision. In the summer, McKiernan explains, “The appetizers are all piles of raw vegetables or roasted vegetables or vegetable salads or greens and mountains of asparagus.” If you’re eating a carrot at Joe Beef, there’s a good chance it comes from the garden out back or from McMilland’s or Morin’s personal plots.
The Art of Living According to Joe Beef is available for purchase from Amazon for $25. Tune in to see Joe Beef and other Montreal foodie havens on the upcoming episode of Anthony Bourdain’s The Layover, airing 26 December 2011.
Photography for the book by Jennifer May