How Joe Beef owners Frédéric Morin and David McMillan plan to survive the apocalypse
This interview originally aired on April 6, 2019.
After 14 years in business, the Montreal restaurant Joe Beef has become an institution. Co-owners Frédéric Morin and David McMillan have fashioned a food and life philosophy inspired by their shared devotion to French cooking and by their deeply personal maverick spirit.
They've managed to capture that spirit in their two cookbooks. The latest is co-written with Meredith Erickson and is called Joe Beef: Surviving the Apocalypse.
Preparing for the apocalypse
David McMillan (DM): "We're at a point in our lives at the top of the Joe Beef pyramid and the five restaurants we own — as well as Fred having three kids and myself having three kids — where there's this burden of leadership and this daily anxiety of making sure all the bills going to get paid, that all the customers are going to be fed, that our children will get to their hockey games and swimming competitions. It's kind of made Fred and I reclusive. So we're surrounded by people and forced to live this extroverted lifestyle, but on the other hand we've kind of doubled down on being introverted somewhat and being prepared for the restaurants closing or being prepared for a snowstorm or being prepared for the roof to cave in or being prepared to get our kids out of this city and up at the lake and living off the grid quickly. It's made us crazy."
Finding a sense of camaraderie
Frédéric Morin (FM): "So many cooks leave a place and you never talk to them again. There are streets we wouldn't walk on because we had left those places. But at some point — and I'll credit David for this — we decided: It's pointless to be enemies with your friends. They go on, maybe they open beautiful restaurants, maybe you open a restaurant with them. It's all for the better. It's all for the greater good of mankind."
DM: "I used to get offended when a cook would leave. We'd spend maybe 60 hours a week together in the kitchen over four years then they'd say, 'I'm leaving in four weeks to open my own restaurant.' And it's kind of like a breakup with a girlfriend. So after being crushed emotionally so many times, I just decided more or less to start talking to people upon hiring them and saying, 'Listen, I understand you're coming to work at Joe Beef... but I would like you to keep your options open and when you wake up one morning and you know that it's time for you to leave, communicate that to me because I would like to be your partner when you leave here. I would like to promote the restaurant that you're opening. And I would like to counsel you. Can you make sure that you and me stay friends?'"
Experimenting with healthy living
FM: "It's funny, I think everyone has had... a member of their family or entourage who [was on] the cabbage diet, the grapefruit diet, where basically you eat 600 calories of one item a day and you lose weight. So [there's a whole chapter in the new book] that is a bit of a wink to the whole 'wellness' thing. The whole granola, health food, 1970s, hippie place was, for the longest time, the only place you could find seaweed, the only place you could find quinoa, the only place you could find nut butter. My secret dream is, in fact, to have one of those peanut butter mills in the restaurant that you see in every health food store and make our own nut butter to order. For what purpose, I don't know, but it's an object I've rarely seen in a restaurant."
The perils of 'food service' food
FM: "It's a tragedy what's happening to all those casse-croûtes [snack shops] in Quebec because most often there's a truck that delivers the same chicken nuggets, the same burger patties, the same pre-cut french fries, the same frozen shrimp, the same buns, the same everything. And basically you're just eating the same food service food all along the highway."
DM: "Food service food is extremely destructive to these small businesses. I understand [the appeal] because instead of 20 different phone numbers to get 20 different products to your small casse-croûte in the middle of nowhere, you just have one phone number that brings everything. So for the owner of the casse-croûte, it's a lot easier. But we're losing a lot of the individuality of these small snack bars all over Quebec. It's very difficult now to find one that still makes their hamburger buns, that still makes sausages, that still buys poutine cheese from the local cheese maker."
We can see that Canadian content regulations have a stimulating effect on Canadian music and I can't see why you don't have a local content requirement [for food].- Frédéric Morin
FM: "There's a Canadian content regulation and we can see that it has a stimulating effect on Canadian music and I can't see why you don't have a local content requirement [for food]. I've travelled from Yukon to New Brunswick over the course of a summer and I walk into a chain restaurant and if it wasn't for the smell of the sea nearby or the mountains on the horizon when I get out, I could have been anywhere. And that's sad."
Frédéric Morin and David McMillan's comments have been edited and condensed.