Separate conversations with Frédéric Morin and David McMillan, chefs and owners of five restaurants in Montreal including Joe Beef, and writer Meredith Erickson, their co-author, illustrate a freakish Vulcan mind-meld.
The trio, recently returned to publishing with the extension of 2011’s seminal The Art of Living According to Joe Beef, spoke to me about what they call Book Two.
Only a “cookbook of sorts,” as the cover describes, Joe Beef: Surviving the Apocalypse isn’t simply about food. If the first book was a treatise on life lived to the full, the second might be considered the utility manual of how to do so.
“At the restaurants we can decorate, we can cook, we can work on the wines, on the playlist, but it’s very limited what we can do,” Morin says. “The book is a great vehicle to gather all the odds and ends, personality flaws and qualities and assemble them into something.”
The book is not about a singular end-of-days, but about all of them; from personal health to environmental sustainability in a restaurant culture of waste, political strife to the long-needed reckoning of mental and sexual harassment within the food industry.
At this sea change, Erickson views where we are now as “the determined to do great work phase.”
“Sometimes I thought of myself funnily, in the bottom cabin of some ship rocking back and forth violently and I just have to hang onto to my pen and page and get it all down,” she says. “I’m 38 years old. I was working in the restaurant business 15 years ago and the environment of then compared to today was night and day. All of these changes are for the better. … It’s a big but much cleaner new sea to navigate.”
Morin reads the first book as “exhilaratingly tipsy and hopeful and creative. And the second book is like, okay, how do we make that better? … How can we just not wreck the world?”
Both Morin and McMillan evoke their children as impetus of their shifting perspective; Erickson adds age as well. A look to the larger scope and the idea of what’s next.
“With the coming of the kids into the equation and us getting a bit older, there’s an impending sense of doom,” McMillan says. “It’s not like ‘Let’s go to the restaurant. Let’s have dinner and wine.’ It’s ‘Do we trust this babysitter? Is the front door locked? Did she tie the belt for the baby seat in the car correctly?’ … This book, it’s not about us any more. We see things differently. I have three kids and Fred has three kids and we have 100 employees. Like we’re all on this massive ship. It’s five restaurants on a boat, right? I’m the captain, Fred’s the captain too, and there’s other captains, and I want no one to drown. So there’s always this impending sense of doom. So that’s like the apocalypse.”
Not only do the dishes themselves speak to these new priorities – oeufs mayonnaise are a few pages before chaga ghee; the solitary cocktail, a margarita, is balanced by a vitality shake, limeade and a fruit cup dedicated to late restaurateur John Bil – but the sharply witty headnotes often sneak in teachable moments.
“A cookbook is an excellent way to convey little, insidious tips for bettering yourself and the planet without sounding [like] Gwyneth Paltrow. You can crack a joke about rabbit that makes people realize the importance of supporting local agriculture,” Morin says.
The food swings wildly from the confidently straightforward, such as their Galettes au Sucre de Mammie, a sugar cookie with six ingredients and three steps to make, to the unabashedly involved (see “Beauty’s Special” Saint Honoré, a choux-pastry and whitefish assemblage with piped pastry swans). That said, even the most complicated are written with the succinct language of a working kitchen. It is a particular balance evident in any project from this crew – from building restaurants to stocking a fallout shelter – romance and usefulness in equal measure. Food is but one of their myriad interests.
“The industry is funny,” Morin muses. “It insists on having its actors remain in the position that got them on the scene. They want the baker to stay a baker. …
"For us, it’s the armour, the cast we were moulded on is very uncomfortable. For David and me, one morning we’ll have a vision of being a farmer and move on to do that. And if I want to drive across the country, go to Alaska in my truck, then I’ll do that too.”
Thus, the book includes digressions on MMA, PBS and secret lakes. Even if detailing criteria for selecting a menu for a Sunday dinner at home, their concern is not so serious that it skirts obsession. To the authors, that would be boring.
“Don’t focus on any one subject. Tony [Bourdain] used to talk about this a lot,” McMillan recalls. “… Tony loved food, right? Tony loved music. Tony loved spy novels. Tony was an expert on food, but he could have had a show on many different subjects. I still meet chefs that know nothing about wine. And to me, that’s crazy. Speak about food about as much as you speak about music, about literature, about nature.”
Book Two conveys a view beyond the table. With photos of friends, employees, heroes, families, the book travels from cottages to farms, their homes and restaurants. It makes space to honour Mohawk history and claim to those lands. It is a book reconciling past and present, and preparing for the future.
“I’m also trying to take what’s ours with this book. It’s also a bit of a middle finger in the air. I’ve had, personally, a lot of issue with young cooks who are motivated by Michelin stars, or are motivated by the San Pellegrino awards, or want to be a top world 50 restaurant. A lot of that stinks to me with incredible pretense,” McMillan says.
Morin has similar thoughts: “The minute you agree to work with a scale that puts the best at the top, it’s a tacit understanding that there will be people at the bottom. And those people at the bottom, they will suffer from being at the bottom. They aren’t dishonest, they’re not stealing, they’re trying to make good food. We are not such sophisticated individuals that our lips can’t touch fake glass, so sophisticated that the sweetbreads have only one way to be cooked. We can’t live like that.”
McMillan concludes, “Get back to cooking. Get back to running a little business. Get back to yourself. Get back to going to the farm. Get back to mushroom-picking. You have to know these things to be able to survive the apocalypse.”
With that in mind, I’ve been cooking from Surviving the Apocalypse in my own preparedness initiative. The most recent dish, burnt-end bourguignon, is an expedited version of the French standard.
Burnt ends can be either irregular points and edges from a smoked brisket, or fattier off-cuts that a master might not serve on a meat plate. For mine, I went to Brushfire Smoke BBQ, the spinoff restaurant from Niagara Oast House Brewers in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. Their coffee-rubbed briskets are smoked over a combination of maple and local fruit wood for 14 hours, and sprayed with the brewery’s Barn Raiser APA. If purchasing yours, ask for such preparation details to inform the choice of wine for the braise.
Morin advises against overdone burnt ends, which lack texture. To compensate, he suggests slipping chunked brisket into the pot as well.
The stew is simple: bacon and aromatics into a heavy pot, bathed in wine and stock, ends into that, braised for an hour. I served the bourguignon with toasted baguette slathered with all-dressed compound butter, a hidden gem from the book. It’s a barbecue-sweet and salt-and-vinegar-sharp spread of crushed chips, hot sauce and softened butter. On a cold January Saturday, offer a barely dressed salad of bitter greens, and an apple tart to finish.
Ingredients (Serves 4 generously)
- 10 bacon slices, cut into matchsticks
- 1 large onion, finely diced
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
- 1 garlic clove
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 2 cups red wine
- 2 tablespoons red-wine vinegar
- 1 cup veal stock or water
- 1/4 cup salted butter
- 2 pounds brisket burnt ends
- 1 cup peeled pearl onions
- Salt and pepper
- 1 cup sautéed mushrooms of your choice, from 10 ounces raw
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Preheat the oven to 325 F.
In a deep sauté pan or large Dutch oven over medium-high heat, sweat the bacon until it renders all its fat, then add the onion and cook until translucent. Add the thyme, garlic and pepper, cooking for a minute.
Add the flour, stirring well, then pour in the wine, vinegar and veal stock, stirring to combine.
Add the salted butter and stir in the brisket ends and pearl onions. Bring to a simmer and cover tightly with aluminum foil or the Dutch oven’s lid and braise in the oven for 1 hour, giving it a stir and checking on the braising liquid at the halfway mark.
Adjust the seasoning to taste then stir in the mushrooms and the parsley and serve.
Recipe excerpted from Joe Beef: Surviving the Apocalypse: Another Cookbook of Sorts by Frederic Morin, David McMillan and Meredith Erickson. Copyright © 2018 Frederic Morin, David McMillan and Meredith Erickson. Published by Appetite by Random House, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.