On Monday night I hosted a sold-out City Bites Live event at Urban Element, a celebration of the cookbook The Art of Living According to Joe Beef. The book’s co-authors, Frédéric Morin and David McMillan — also the chef-owners of the restaurant Joe Beef — were the guests of honour. They were charming, irreverent, entertaining, and insightful and their good humour swept through the room, setting the tone for a fabulous night of eating, drinking, and gabbing.
From the food world perspective, it’s no exaggeration to say 2011 was the year of Joe Beef. Montreal’s Little Burgundy neighbourhood bistro is adored by everyone from Lesley Chesterman – the Gazette’s food critic who gave it a rating of 4 out of 4 – to celebrity chefs like Anthony Bourdain and David Chang, who calls Joe Beef his favorite restaurant in the world. The Joe Beef cookbook has topped just about every best cookbook list in North America from Martha Stewart to Bon Appétit and recently even won over Alice Waters, the godmother of the farm to fork ethos.
During the Q&A portion of the evening, Fred and David spoke a lot about their interest in staying connected to the history of the city in which they live and work. It was that desire that led them to resurrect the name Joe Beef, the nickname of the legendary 19th century innkeeper and working class hero Joseph McKiernan, and give it second and third lives in the form of their restaurant and now, as a cookbook of sorts. They have described Joe Beef as a cross between a food temple and Pee Wee’s Playhouse. Anyone who has been there will understand why. There’s a unique playfulness, a sense of whimsy, and an unpretentiousness that permeates everything from its attitude and décor, to its charming service, right down to the food on the round—never square—plates featuring things like truffled beer-can chicken or their version of the KFC double down made with lobes of fried foie gras.
The Art of Living According to Joe Beef is a tribute to the love of the good things in life – seafood, steak and wine, trains, gardens and smoked meat, and most of all, Montreal. It is also a tribute to great storytelling and Fred and David are naturals. They understand and appreciate the importance of putting food in the context of time and place.
“You have to realize where you are and who you are,” explained David. “We’re near Atwater Market in an Irish neighbourhood, near a Jewish neighbourhood. We have French Canadian clientele, WASP clientele, the yuppies condo-nistas living in old Montreal. And then there’s the Greeks, Italians all the other slices of cultures of Montreal. We have to find something that pleases everyone. We’re cooking a style of food that resembles the architecture of the street we’re on.”
“I don’t see us serving yuzu on raw scallops on long rectangular plates inside this old building. You’ve got to show respect to the neighbourhood; respect to the people who live there.”
Fred and David assured us that they have managed to stay humble during their rise to celebrity chef status. “We have each other,” said David. “No one’s ego can get out of hand for more than a second.” The best buddies, who are known to finish each others’ sentences, are grateful for their success, but admit there is something disconcerting about the fact that they can’t get their own mothers a reservation at Joe Beef before 10:45 p.m. anytime before mid-May.
What We Ate:
In this spirit of a truly great kitchen party event, we invited four local chefs to create their own dishes inspired by the Joe Beef cookbook. Guests were invited to roam around the kitchen sampling the dishes and chatting with the chefs and authors. Here’s a roundup of what was served:
- Candice Butler, the urban element
Candice wanted everyone to experience the full “Big Mac Theory” and so she re-created the Éclair Velveeta, choux pastry stuffed with caramelized onions and currants, a slice of seared foie gras, mashed potatoes mixed with a lot of velveeta cheese, crispy bacon and chives. She said, “It’s very decadent and very messy.”
- Steve Mitton, Murray Street
Inspired by a complex dish in the cookbook, Steve made braised lamb neck and pig trotters mixed with a beautiful charcuterie sauce. He decided to leave it loose rather than wrapped in caul fat. He made the Joe Beef potato dinner rolls which David said looked better than the ones he makes.
- Marysol Foucault, Edgar
Marysol made an enormous porchetta that also became the centerpiece for the kitchen party. The porchetta was made with pig cheeks, pork belly, pork shoulder, smoked ham, shallots and herbes salées du bas-St-Laurent. It was served with creamy mashed potatoes (three times passed through a sieve, the secret!) with a veal stock and maple pork gravy and fried celery root. For dessert she made fresh quick rise banana pancakes pan-fried in butter topped with vanilla and butterscotch swirl ice cream and crispy cinnamon chicken skin & maldon salt.
- Matthew Brearley, Castlegarth
The first dish Matthew ordered at Joe Beef was the oeuf en gelee. He said: “It was eye opening experience. I have spent my life studying French food and I have turned my nose up at it. And I came to realize French food can be fun, beautiful, and tasty.” In his version, he used a dainty quail egg in aspic and paired it with wild boar peameal bacon on top of sliced brioche topped with a small sour gherkin to “get all the flavours working together in one bite.”
Click on an image below to view a slideshow of pictures from the event.