shootin' the shit
Cassandra Landry | 4.18.15 | Issue #15
“I’m at the end of my career, at 45,” David McMillan, of Montreal’s mega-loved Joe Beef, says into the phone.
“In this business, 45 is the end, man. I’ve been cooking downtown since I was 15 years old. By now, I just don’t give a fuck about that stuff.”
That stuff, in this case, is Michelin stars. And you know, judgement in general. McMillan hails from Quebec, a French-speaking province in the far reaches of Winterfell, and is so uncompromisingly enamored of his heritage that your heart twinges a bit to hear him talk about it.
“Cooking for the public in Quebec is every cook’s dream,” he says. “Absolutely everything is accepted across the board by all the people of any age, of any creed. It’s not trying to be gory for the sake of being gory. You cook chicken one night, and kidneys the next, and liver the next. Every item sells out equally, nobody in the dining room says anything.” It sounds like utopia. A place where, as he puts it, hot girls order liver and face and foie gras without hesitation because that’s how they were raised to eat, and where Michelin notoriously does not go—even though McMillan says it’s coming eventually, whether you like it or not.
This is not to hate on Michelin, or those who strive for it, by the way. But ensconced as we are in cities where diners want stars before they book a table, or where one star is great but means you’re constantly angling for that second (what did we miss?), we wondered what cooking would be like if this particular measuring stick didn’t exist. What do you strive for, if not for “Michelin-level” service, or food, or recognition? So, we turned to all-knowing Montreal, a cultural hub that is defined by literally everything but the Guide, and specifically to a guy who likes cooking monster plates of rabbit for four, poppin’ magnums of Burgundy, and telling you what he thinks.
“Governing bodies are always interesting. We see them come and go,” McMillan muses. “I’m up here in the farthest reach of the Northeast, and I see people fighting in New York and Chicago and San Francisco for Michelin stars and it’s a really big deal. It just doesn’t appeal to me at all.”
He adds, “I don’t feel that everybody needs to eat on pressed tablecloths, everybody needs to eat with the finest silver, or that you must have the latest porcelain...fuck that. The only things I’m concerned about in my restaurant are two things: the liquid people drink and the food they eat. That’s it.”
When it’s morel season, he points out, the morels are the same at Joe Beef as they are in a three Michelin-starred restaurant. There isn’t amazing halibut that only exists for Michelin-starred restaurants. Skill is not exclusive to starred establishments.
“I don’t know,” he says, and heaves a sigh that sounds as far away as it is, “it’s a weird time to cook.”
It is a weird time to cook. The expectations are higher, the communication is louder, the judgment is harsher. The amount of noise involved with staying relevant is unreal.
“I feel like the air is clearer here,” he admits. “I feel blessed, to be honest with you. I can cook the finest lamb, chicken, milk and butter and vegetables and fish that I’ve ever seen in my career, and the only judges are the customers who come to eat in our dining room when it’s -25 outside.”
McMillan worked in Europe for a few years, and he remembers watching his fellow cooks posted up to the window at the pass if someone influential was in-house, panicked. “There’d be this paranoia, 24/7, but for what? That’s no way to live your life. I can only say this now, at the end. For real,” he says. “Perhaps because of the lack of these guides, I can practice my job in a way that’s conducive to also being a good dad. If I don’t show up at work for the next two weeks, the food is still going to be very good. Maybe there will be someone special in the dining room that could make or break me, you know? But fuck it—I’m going to my daughter’s recital.”
Michelin does get it right, on occasion, he adds, like with his buddy Hugue Dufour’s place, M. Wells Steakhouse in Queens, which was awarded a star this year. And he doesn’t feel much division within the industry itself, surprisingly. It’s about knowing yourself, and if gunning for stars blows wind up your skirt, awesome. If not, all the more awesome.
“There’s always going to be psychopaths who want to eat in only Michelin-starred restaurants. And there’s always going to be the fat guys who like to drink too much and eat a whole chicken for two in a bistro,” he explains. “So there’s chefs like me who love cooking that bistro food. I love an old duck press. I love checkered tablecloths. I love a pâté en croûte, I love sauces. It’s a totally different thing, but I get it. Some people are into science fiction, and some people are into classics and some are into romance.”
The most appealing facet of this industry, and the takeaway from all this, may as well be: a cook is a cook is a cook. Michelin awards what it perceives as excellence, but it is an outside force looking in.
“The job back in the day was stay behind the doors. You worked in the kitchen with your friends all day, you do your mise en place, you prep, you do a nice good service, you wash it down spotless, have one beer and go home,” he says. “That’s always been the game. There are still pockets of authenticity out there, but not inside of those systems.”