Fred Morin and David McMillan are the culinary kings of Montreal
Why the duo behind Joe Beef loves T.O. (more than N.Y.C.) and thinks lists are BS
The straight-talking Joe Beef boys: Fred Morin and David McMillan
Every spring, food fanatics get giddy waiting for Restaurant Magazine to publish its list of the world’s 100 best restaurants. Since Cambridge’s Langdon Hall and Calgary’s Rouge made the list in 2010, no Canadian establishments have squeaked their way onto the top 100. That is, until last year, when Montreal’s Joe Beef scored spot 81, sandwiched between restaurants owned by Alain Ducasse and Daniel Boulud.
It seemed almost comical, for this unfussy restaurant to be positioned next to Michelin-starred demigods of the chef pantheon. Not to say Joe Beef was undeserving of the praise. It was just that the juxtaposition was stark.
The Joe Beef boys are the first to agree that lists are, in the words of co-owner David McMillan, “bullshit.” Frédéric Morin, McMillan’s longtime friend and business partner, is “fed up with lists.” For Morin, “getting an email from a customer saying they enjoyed their meal means way more” than being ranked among the world’s best.
For locals unfamiliar with this Montreal stalwart, Joe Beef is the gem of Quebec’s dining crown. This casual, 75-seat restaurant was decorated on a shoestring budget with art, furniture and pans that McMillan and Morin borrowed from friends and family back in 2005. Today, it looks pretty much the same, but thanks to celebrity accolades from the likes of Anthony Bourdain and David Chang, there’s now a two-month wait to get in.
What started out as a restaurant by Montrealers for Montrealers serving the epitome of Montreal food — think bourgeois French fare such as foie gras and roast duck with Jewish and Anglo influences — is almost never occupied by locals anymore. (The locals head over to the Liverpool House, Joe Beef’s sister restaurant.)
“Most of the area codes in our reservation list are international,” says McMillan.
He and Morin opened Joe Beef 11 years ago, at a time when both chefs were close to burnout.
“I was burnt-out, drunk, and now I’m somewhere completely different. I never saw myself ending up here,” says Morin.
The duo decided to open a low-stress eatery near Atwater Market. They’d serve food they loved to eat and loved to make. As owner-operators, they’d take proper vacations. There’d be a vegetable garden out back (both Morin and McMillan love to garden). They wouldn’t let customers get away with calling the shots. The menu, a wall-sized chalkboard, would change at a whim, and if you acted out of turn, McMillan would show you the door or even his foot, if need be.
When asked if Joe Beef has become what he was trying to escape from a decade ago, he answers with heavy assuredness: “A 1,000 per cent, yes.”
“Montreal’s corruption, bad urban planning and language police can get you down a little bit, especially in the winter months when it’s grey and cold and wet,” says McMillan, a lifelong Montrealer, before admitting he sometimes feels like leaving.
Back in 2013, Joe Beef was hit with a dozen language violations. This was around the time Italian restaurant Buonanotte made national headlines after being fined for printing Italian words such as “pasta,” “antipasti” and “calamari” on its menu (the words weren’t paired with French translations).
It might sound Orwellian to some, but Quebec employs a gang of language police to enforce the Charter of the French Language.
“The inspectors they send are children; the one who came here wasn’t old enough to be our busboy,” says McMillan.
The officer took issue with a number of antique signs and art prints, claiming they were ads and therefore needed to have the French translation prominently displayed. A Twitter tirade resulted in a retraction from the government.
Over the last 20 years, McMillan has noticed Montreal’s economy shrink as Toronto’s grew. Businesses and people alike have fled in droves to Toronto.
“I’m jealous when I see chefs from Toronto roll into Montreal in Range Rovers. I’m like the biggest deal in this sh**hole city, and me and Fred can barely skim the dough together to drive pickup trucks,” says McMillan before cheekily admitting being dazzled by our “shiny lights.”
“I prefer it [Toronto] to Manhattan,” he says. “I hate Manhattan now. I go, when did Manhattan start sucking so hard? I’ll f**king go to Toronto. It’s more fun,” he says without a drop of facetiousness.
Apart from being blown away by the affluence of T.O.’s dining scene, McMillan notes that Ontario lacks a culinary vernacular, a cohesive cooking culture, which Quebec has. This isn’t a slight, but an observation.
“Toronto has amazing steak houses, amazing sushi, amazing Italian, Spanish, Chinese. It is a multi-ethnic city. It’s a metropolis, while Montreal is a town. I refuse to sh** on Toronto.”
Despite his love-hate relationship with Montreal, McMillan has no plans to move west.
“This would be a different conversation if I was 30. I’m 45 with three kids,” he says before reflecting on how his wife has been offered two high-paying marketing jobs in the 6. Should the right offer come her way, they might have no choice but to decamp.
For now, though, McMillan’s hoping the critics forget about Joe Beef.
“I love that Joe Beef is 10 years old, I can’t wait until it’s 15. I don’t want to be on any lists about anything. I can’t wait till people are like, ‘Yeah, my dad used to eat there,’ ” says the restaurateur. He then softens his voice, “Even if my business drops down 75 per cent, I’ll just get rid of staff, and it’ll go back to being a fun restaurant.”