Most top chefs wouldn't be caught dead serving Spam. But Frédéric Morin and David McMillan, two of Canada's hottest chefs and the masterminds of Montreal's wildly successful Joe Beef restaurant, wouldn't be caught dead apologizing for using the cheap, tinned meat.
"Spam is like chipped ham. It's good," Mr. McMillan insists. "It's delicious."
Spam makes a cameo appearance in the duo's unconventional book The Art of Living According to Joe Beef: A Cookbook of Sorts, a widely anticipated tome written with one of their original Joe Beef staff members, Meredith Erickson, released this month. The heavily processed pork is recommended as an ingredient in their oeufs en gelée recipe. Like other recipes in their book, such as "pork fish sticks," "kale for a hangover" and "smoked cheddar with doughnuts," this is not intellectual food. Their food aims straight for the gut.
It's cheeky dishes such as these that exemplify Mr. Morin and Mr. McMillan's disdain for culinary snobbery. And their irreverence toward everything but that which tastes good has won them legions of fansthroughout North America and beyond, including renowned New York chef David Chang, who considers Joe Beef his favourite restaurant. Their names have been mentioned in the likes of Food & Wine magazine, The New York Times and Bon Appétit.
"Pretension is the enemy of good food and good wine," Mr. McMillan says.
"When I make a dish and it's too beautiful, I hate myself," Mr. Morin adds.
With their opening of Joe Beef in 2005, and their subsequent Little Burgundy neighbourhood restaurants Liverpool House and McKiernan Luncheonette, Mr. Morin and Mr. McMillan have helped shape Montreal's food scene, setting the bar for unfussy, yet indulgent, cuisine. If they weren't well-recognized already, their new book, part cookbook, part memoir, part Montreal guide and instruction manual, is certain to bring them even more celebrity. Besides Mr. Chang, the book is endorsed by a host of culinary personalities, including television host and author Anthony Bourdain, Montreal chef Chuck Hughes and trailblazing Los Angeles chefs Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook. But unlike other internationally acclaimed chefs, Mr. Morin and Mr. McMillan say they have no ambitions to expand their reach, host their own TV cooking shows or run restaurants outside their own city.
"You can't live the life according to Joe Beef if you're, like, [operating a business empire] you see what I'm saying? Then we can't be who we pretend to be," Mr. McMillan says.
As it happens, living the life according to Joe Beef is full of paradoxes. Mr. Morin and Mr. McMillan loathe taking food and drink too seriously, yet they seriously love good food and drink. They'll tell you they don't care what anyone else thinks, but they lose sleep if their customers leave unsatisfied. Their success would be impossible without putting in long hours and plenty of elbow grease, yet they pride themselves in appearing not to work hard. As Mr. Chang writes in the foreword of their book, "It almost seems like they're trying not to try."
Mr. Morin and Mr. McMillan have a love of history and tradition that is reflected in their food. Their "dining car calf liver" dish, for example, is inspired by an old Canadian National Railway menu. Their "Pojarsky de veau" veal meatball on a veal chop bone is based on a French classic, purported to be created by the favourite innkeeper of Russia's Czar Nicholas.
Yetthey attribute their culinary careers, in part, to being incredibly picky eaters as children. Mr. McMillan says his mother claims he ate nothing but Premium Plus saltine crackers for two years, while Mr. Morin recalls going through a phase of eating only saltines, Chef Boyardee ravioli and hardboiled eggs with tiny packets of salt.
"Kids that ate everything? They're not discriminating now," Mr. Morin says. "People that eat everything are the people who put like … beets and grapefruit jelly on oysters. You know? The only way that could taste good is if it doesn't taste like beets and grapefruit."
The two met more than 15 years ago, when Mr. McMillan dined at Montreal restaurant Toqué!
"I was working in the restaurant in the basement," Mr. Morin recalls. "David came down in a sheepskin coat, the [kind]where you turn over the collar and it's all like fuzzy and nice and he had his hands in his pockets, and that nonchalance was what got me at first."
Mr. McMillan denies ever wearing such a coat. Regardless, the two clicked and they've never spent more than a month apart since. They share the same culinary sensibilities. (As Mr. McMillan explains, they both agree that "a small piece of cod looks stupid and a big piece of cod looks good.") Both have worked in fine dining. Both have worked in grocery retail. And if it weren't for cooking, their lives would likely have been much bleaker. (Mr. McMillan says he came "damn close" to becoming a serious drug dealer.) They share the same sense of humour, the same habit of peppering their speech with curse words. They can count on one hand the number of times they've quarrelled with each other, and they finish each other's sentences.
Take the following exchange, for instance, when Mr. McMillan is asked about a reference in their book to rumours that he threw busboys into dumpsters:
DM: "Who did we throw into a dumpster? If we threw someone in the dumpster, it was a cook … Pelo! Pelo we threw in the dumpster."
FM: "No, for his birthday, some kid for his birthday or something …"
DM: "Maybe it's JD in the freezer?"
FM: "No, we put JD – we put a cook half-naked in the freezer with Saran wrap and ketchup …"
DM: "… in his ears. And then we sent another busboy downstairs to get ice … so when he opened the freezer, all he saw was a dead body, wrapped in Saran wrap with blood in the ears. So he freaked. He actually took his stuff and never came back. He thought we were a Mafia restaurant."
Clearly, the two enjoy playing practical jokes on their staff. But they walk a careful line between work and horseplay. Working at their restaurants means handling everything from tending the garden to sewing sausage bags to firing up the meat smoker. Every so often, they count on each other to play the role of bad cop to keep staff on their toes.
"Instead of him having a confrontation with [a staff member] he'll put it on my back," Mr. McMillan says. "Which is fine because I put tons of stuff on his."
Besides having each other to rely on, Mr. Morin and Mr. McMillan emphasize that their families keep them grounded. They may be among the few acclaimed chefs who don't regard food as their top priority. It's their families and their interests beyond the kitchen that keep them in good humour. Mr. Morin loves gardening and tinkering in his workshop; Mr. McMillan paints.
Each has two children, of whom they speak with blissful, almost rapturous, expressions. The abrupt change in their manners while discussing their domestic lives hints at what may be essential to their own art of living, and why they never want to get too big.
"What happens when you do that, your quality of life will suffer," Mr. McMillan says. "I don't want to do other things."