A FEW years ago, the Montreal restaurant Joe Beef made a version of KFC’s Double Down sandwich, using foie gras in place of the fried chicken breasts. This is what passes as a joke for chef-owners and contrarions David McMillan and Fred Morin. The dish became a media sensation, and they served 50 a night. They kept raising the price, eventually to C$55 ($41). People still bought it. “We had built the perfect lure to attract food writers,” says Mr. McMillan. He and Mr. Morin eventually grew tired of it, and took it off the menu.
The real joke was neither of them ever ate one: They found it disgusting.
Mr. McMillan and Mr. Morin are pranksters and truth-tellers, who feed our id’s base desires with rich, playful combinations of high and low cooking. The Quebecois duo have come to symbolize a particular spirit of dining that shuns the preciousness now rampant amongst restaurants and chefs in favor of pleasure and people — it’s a spirit they shared with their friend, the late Anthony Bourdain, an early champion of their restaurant.
The Joe Beef team has been busy in 2018, opening two new restaurants and now releasing their second cookbook, Joe Beef: Surviving the Apocalypse. Like their first cookbook did seven years, this one upends the genre. More than a series of recipes and anecdotes, it’s a biography of obsessions, a history lesson, a manifesto, and an entertainment that swerves into mixed martial arts and PBS television. And though the apocalyptic theme seems prescient given the daily headlines, it grew out of “personal plagues,” says Mr. Morin, of relationships, addictions, and health. It’s a book about shutting out the noise and making meaningful things.
Much of that noise is “the overzealous adoration for food culture without the most basic understanding of where food comes from,” writes collaborator and former Joe Beef waiter Meredith Erickson. “The restaurant world is Spinal Tap-ing itself: the austerity of dining rooms, the tiring philosophizing about food. The stories told and the lies believed would make even a WWE fan cringe.”
Mr. McMillan and Mr. Morin find the luxury trend disturbing and Joe Beef’s appearance, at number 81, on the 2015 World’s 50 Best Restaurants list absurd. Mr. Morin believes one of the problems now is high-end cooks cannibalize themselves, eating only at similar places, reading the same books, watching Chef’s Table.
“Resist a little bit and stay outside,” he says. “Maybe the next great lamb dish will come from a book about birdhouses.”
There’s a singular creative whimsy to Joe Beef’s local French market cuisine. Above all, the duo employ a sense of humor to combat the self-seriousness that they see plaguing professional kitchens. They love puns, like in the cookbook’s recipe Brains over Matar (the Hindi word for peas, served with deep-fried calf brain). Though their cooking is deeply informed by tradition and technique, they’re not above using BBQ chips to enliven a dish, or employing a microwave to prepare 1.5 pounds of foie gras. Their Sunday dinner recipes satirize the easy, simplified versions of that genre by being ostentatious, expensive, and complex; a 28-recipe section details how to stock the most delicious bunker for the Apocalypse.
Their food hits a unique spot between comfort and surprise. “It’s just so obvious and for some reason all that stuff is like the matrix, it’s revealed to them,” says Riad Nasr, chef and co-owner of New York’s Frenchette, who has known Mr. Morin and Mr. McMillan since the 1980s and eats at Joe Beef every year.
However, an adulation of food is part of this degradation of dining and cooking. “This false belief,” says Mr. Morin, “that only the food and the wine should be the center leads to a whole aesthetic — a choice of music, a choice of furniture, a choice of art — that is blah, because everybody thinks what’s important is the food. Maybe the goal of a restaurant should be to make you forget what you had for dinner.”
What you should remember, they say, is the people.
Throughout their book Mr. McMillan and Mr. Morin feature their community: the diners they have served for 25 years, their employees and suppliers, and the indigenous Mohawk nation that has influenced Montreal cuisine. The most elaborate dishes found in Sunday Dinners are ultimately about throwing an end-of-the-world party for friends and family, with some etiquette lessons thrown in — “don’t just research your menu and flowers, research your guests as well.”
These days service and hospitality are conflated, but they don’t mean the same thing. One’s a job, the other is a spirit.
There’s a clear sense of right and wrong — though they reserve the right to change their minds — that informs Mr. McMillan and Mr. Morin’s gregarious French Canadian hospitality, a way of dining together that Mr. McMillan believes is disappearing all over the world.
“I turn off my phone. I have a wonderful conversation with a man or a woman or my children or a stranger and work at it as much as I work on understanding what I’m eating and drinking, being a diner. It’s not notching your belt and Instagramming this.”
Mr. McMillan and Mr. Morin, along with Allison Cunningham, opened Joe Beef in 2005 in the then-wilds of the Little Burgundy neighborhood. Now there are five restaurants, a slow growth given the proliferation of chef outposts. “With a global empire you become a facsimile of yourself,” observes Mr. Nasr. “Something gets lost with each incarnation.”
Nothing is lost in Joe Beef’s new places. They eschew designers and still construct their restaurants themselves, much of the woodworking done in Mr. Morin’s carpentry shop. Each new project lets Montrealers dictate what the restaurant and menu should be. The recently opened McKiernan, a spacious food hall in the city’s west end, serves lunch to the local workers in an area with a dearth of eating options.
Of course there have been inquiries to expand internationally. The Fertitta brothers, “the kings of Las Vegas,” says Mr. McMillan, wanted to put a Joe Beef in the Palms Hotel. And New York has beckoned, but Mr. McMillan says Joe Beef would never work there.
“They don’t eat what I eat,” he says. “These Montrealers drink really weird wine and 18-year-old girls don’t think it’s weird to eat deer liver medium-rare.”
There’s no deer liver in their latest cookbook. But Mr. Morin, Mr. McMillan and Ms. Erickson do offer a recipe for “Deer Beer Belly.” It’s stuffed with a peculiar sausage that includes pickles and French fries. — Bloomberg