Oct 9, 2011

New Joe Beef book: real Montreal, real food, real people, real living

by Alexandra Forbes

I'm lucky enough to have gotten a copy of the new Joe Beef book - The Art of Living According to Joe Beef - in the mail, hot off the presses.

But truth is, I didn't really have to read it.

The publisher sent it because I'm working on a roundup of this season's best food books, for GQ magazine. Each of the chosen books will be written up, but nothing too long or fancy. Five lines, six max.

So skimming through the book would have been fine. And that's what I planned on doing.

I picked it up, had a first good look at the beautifully designed pages, but then something happened that doesn't usually happen: I couldn't stop reading. I caught myself laughing outloud, and wanting to share the best phrases with my friends.

wtf? I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it and that got me thinking. Why?, I wonderered. What's so great about it?

Well, reason number one  why I fell so hard for the book is that being often too honest myself, I appreciate honesty in others. Extreme honesty? Even better!

Often, chefs put out books that are way more polished and tame than their real selves. Too prettied-up, too photoshopped, too edited, too bland. Or, even worse, books that don't tell it like it is, and sugar-coat their recipe descriptions. Not the Joe Beef book...


Canard et Saucisse: "This dish is not surprising in taste."
Mouclade: "We do not have a story for this recipe. Sorry."
Cornflake Ell Nuggets: "All of the eels in the world begin and return to the Sargasso Sea: can you imagine a more disgusting place to swim?"
Baked Common Crab: (Canadian crab) "oddly enough don't make it to Montreal. Instead, they're highjacked somewhere along the way for the Asian Market."
Mackerel Benedict: "When we wrote "mackerel" on the blackboard menu, it didn't sell, so we renamed it silver tail and a star was born".
Spaghetti Homard-Lobster: "Yes, homard and lobster mean the same thing (like "minestrone soup"). Among other things that don't make any sense: this is probably the most popular Joe Beef dish.

I found the paragraphs describing each recipe truthful, entertaining and pretty damn funny.

The second reason the book rocks is that it shows off Montreal as few ever do, as I know and love it. Not the ol' "this is a piece of France in North America" cliché  crap, but as a place inhabited by cool folk who love good food, good wine, good tunes and good fun. The kind of crowd I often see when I go to Joe Beef myself.

In a way, Joe Beef's décor translates those ideas into a certain look that I never tire of, and which is now copied all over town. I seem to have the same love of an aesthetic that Fred Morin, Allison Cunningham and Dave McMillan (the three partners) seem to favour. Which the book describes so succintly:

"a perfect Adirondack chair, a red vynil banquette with brass nails, a pretty oyster-bar counter, old enameled cast-iron sinks, industrial lamps, a banged-up Rancilio coffee-machine. We like wood, old paint, and a simple touch of cottage".

The third and most important reason why this is my favourite food book in years is that I see beauty in the boys' unadulterated and uncompromising love of real food, real people, real wine and living. They love each other, their families and staff, and aren't embarassed to say it (the aknowledgements at the end sound heartfelt, read like a full-on lovefest).

Dave and Fred: partners and best buddies

They haven't fallen, like so many chefs out there, for the siren call of the endless global expan$$ion. They're happy with the way things are, with owning not more than two restaurants side-by-side (the second one being Liverpool House, of course, which they describe as "Joe Beef lite"). They're happy with the hands-on approach, being close to the legion of regulars. They take care of their small suppliers. They succeed in that "old-fashioned" way: by running their two restaurants like family businesses, and following their own instincts, tastes and ethics. Works like a charm.

I try not to be prejudiced, but the truth is I don't like restaurant empires. When a beloved place spawns clones across oceans and countries, the clones, no matter how good, never end up having a soul the way the original does. As we say in Brazil, it's the eye of the owner that fattens the cattle.

Dave Chang, of the Momofuku empire (Big and growing! Branches in Sydney and Toronto coming soon!), ironically enough, agrees with me. He writes in the book's foreword:

"Money, all of it, all the things that as a New York restaurant owner, as a New York chef, I know they have defied - they have defied what it is to be in the business. From the beginning, they have had a totally different agenda. It isn't about anything other than, "You know what? Let's have a good time. If it ever gets to the point where it's not, we'll just stop the whole thing". A lot of people like to talk like that, but very few people can actually do it, and no place on the planet I know does it half as well as Joe Beef."

Long live Joe Beef.

My video interview with them:

And more:

Joe Beef's luncheonette McKiernan shuts down to make room for a new JB oyster bar

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