Why Joe Beef's David McMillan hates food festivals

Photo: David McMillan is co-owner of several Montreal restaurants, including Joe Beef

And why he decided to break his own ban and come to the 2019 Melbourne Food & Wine Festival. Hint: it’s got something to do with Stephanie Alexander.

David McMillan isn’t really into food festivals. The Canadian chef and co-owner of four Montreal restaurants – including acclaimed meat and offal-loving Joe Beef – usually steers clear because they play it too safe.

“We’ve been to a few festivals and everyone is cooking steak and chicken and I don’t need to be there,” he says. “I love to be challenged. I’m used to cooking in a city with a very advanced dining public. We sell kidneys. We sell tongues. We sell ears, brains, tails and all the weird creatures in the ocean. We sell natural wine and all kinds of vegetables. I’m always looking for things outside my area of expertise.”

So what made him say yes when Melbourne Food & Wine Festival came knocking on the door? It turns out we may have a Stephanie Alexander ice-cream recipe to thank for getting him over the line.

“Australia is a place I’ve always wanted to visit and many years ago when I started cooking, one of the first cookbooks I ever had was Stephanie’s Australia,” says McMillan. “And there was this chef doing a chequerboard ice-cream that I thought was the most magnificent thing I’d ever seen. But there were many things inside that cookbook that I didn’t understand – proteins I didn’t have access to, different fish and oysters. It was outside my comfort zone and I thought it was brilliant.”

Joining him on the adventure are business partner and co-chef Frédéric Morin, sommelier Vanya Filipovic, head chef Marc-Olivier Frappier and McKiernan’s Luncheonette collaborator Derek Dammann to talk, cook and pour all things Quebecois at The House of Food and Wine event Kings of Quebec supported by Destination Canada.

Frédéric Morin

Those who love and admire Joe Beef’s work will be familiar with the team’s aversion to the comfort zone. Their 75-seat restaurant – a no-frills shopfront in Montreal’s shabby Little Burgundy neighbourhood –  has always had an uncompromising stance on whole beast cooking, hyper-local ingredients and classic, often complex, French cooking technique. It’s a stance that has attracted the likes of Anthony Bourdain, who profiled McMillan and Morin in an early episode of Parts Unknown, and David Chang, who has proclaimed Joe Beef his favourite restaurant in the world.

And then there are the impressive cookbook sales, remarkable for eccentric works that are as much about philosophy and attitude and people as they are about recipes. The first cookbook, The Art of Living According To Joe Beef, has sold around 100,000 copies and consists of a lot of “ranting and raving and going off on tangents and personal experiences and successes and failures”.

The second book, the recently released Joe Beef: Surviving The Apocalypse, has recipes designed for stocking your bunker and others for spruce cough drops right through to carbonade of deer necks. It’s a fascinating read and a good primer for why, over the past few years, Montreal has increasingly been viewed as one of the great dining cities in the Americas.

David McMillan

“The food scene in Montreal has always been really great, the food’s always been great but people outside of Quebec didn’t know about it,” says McMillan. “Even with Instagram where I can be familiar with Ben Shewry’s cooking even if I’ve never been to Australia, because of the language barrier my French colleagues who are born with the language use social media differently. And because of the language barrier a lot of people in the Anglophone world don’t get to see what’s going on in the Province of Quebec. So it’s still something of an interesting lost cuisine.”

So what is Quebecois cuisine exactly?

“There’s been a lot of popularity in recent years with Nordic cuisine and Quebec is as Nordic a place in terms of climate as anywhere on that side of the world,” McMillan says. “But there’s also the influence of the English who occupied the Province for a long time. There are bacon and eggs and blood sausage for breakfast. There are baked beans and chowders and meat pies – not terrines or pâté en croûte, but hot meat pies.”

“There’s also a big indigenous influence, a big hunting scene and so we do eat a lot of wild meat. Fred [Morin] and I have freezers at home full of moose, of deer, of hare and partridge.

“We also have close ties to our farmers, out cheesemakers and our winemakers. We practice agriculture vicariously through the farmers who surround us.”

At Kings of Quebec, a fierce love for minimal intervention wine will be on display (“you can’t give conventional wine away for free in Montreal at this point”), alongside that Joe Beef custom of stepping out of the comfort zone.

"We just want to walk through the markets with our particular skill set and see what it is that makes us most excited,” says McMillan. “What’s mundane and boring to chefs in Australia might be quite exciting to me.”

David McMillan is appearing at the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival on Saturday 9 March. At The House of Food and Wine, McMillan is speaking at the Theatre of Ideas supported by The New York Times and that evening he’s cooking with the Joe Beef team and Derek Dammann at Kings of Quebec supported by Destination Canada. Tickets are on sale now.

Story by Michael Harden