On a once-barren street that runs parallel to the Lachine Canal in Montreal, in a part of town previously thought of as rough, sits a tiny restaurant that has become notorious — and not just for the famously long lines. Joe Beef is known for serving food that is at once rustic and refined, simple and intricately conceived. For restaurant fans living in Montreal (and the thousands who flock to the city for poutine, bagels and everything in between), it’s become a major dining destination — up there with Martin Picard’s Au Pied de Cochon. And now that the restaurant’s two chef-owners, and a former waitress-writer, have released their first cookbook, its notoriety will surely only spread.
Cookbook is a loose term here. The Art of Living According to Joe Beef: A Cookbook of Sorts is what they smartly called it. It includes a guide to Montreal, a history of the city, a chapter on trains, a guide to building a smoker, a chapter on booze that delves into the restaurant’s excellent wine list and features cocktails like the Sausage Martini. There’s an F-bomb laced foreword by Momofuku’s David Chang. He’s become known for that sort of thing.
It’s a beautiful book, filled with photographs taken right in the restaurant, the food plated just as it would be if you ordered it. Chefs Frédéric Morin and David McMillan, and writer Meredith Erickson are also depicted. The first two look more like burly Canadian woodsmen in their flannel shirts sporting non-chef toques; Erickson the epitome of the effortlessly boho-chic Montreal femme.
Here is where I should probably admit that I, too, am from Montreal. And yes, it makes me totally biased. The restaurant and two sister establishments that flank it, Liverpool House and McKiernan, are just blocks from my mother’s house. Even fuller disclosure: as Chang divulges in the first pages of the book, Joe Beef is probably my favorite restaurant in the world. I try to eat there every time I’m home, including annual trips in January when the cold bites your cheeks like a small animal and the 15-minute walk from my mother’s can take 25. I believe everyone should eat at Joe Beef at least once. And I think everyone should buy this cookbook.
When I spoke to Erickson recently, I told her I felt the book had been written for me or maybe someone just like me: a Montreal expat living in New York. As it turns out, she and her cohorts had a wider audience in mind.
“In a way, I wrote it for myself and, of course, for the people of Montreal,” she says. “It was one of those experiences for me that was completely emotional because of the tie I have with that place. My family doesn’t live in Montreal and these guys are like my brothers. [Joe Beef] was like my home. I just hope that comes through.”
It does. Her favorite recipes from the book include Le Grand Setup de Caviar, which suggests you skimp on the caviar by going for the cheap stuff and use the money you saved to splurge on Champagne — then eat it in bed or on the bus; Cornflake Eel Nuggets, which she craves (“What a nice feeling to crave eel!”); and a multilayered breadless sandwich called Veal Liver Brisket.
“Beyond the recipes, mainly, it’s just a fun read,” says Morin. “When I talk to ex-Montrealers, they tell me the book reminds them of the city. Montreal isn’t just Arcade Fire and The Plateau and Schwartz’s. To me, it’s Mordecai Richler and René Lévesque eating at Au Pied de Cochon. People ask me, ‘why did you put trains in the book?’ I say, it’s like the old joke, why do dogs eat their ass? Because they can.”
Chefs and dishes from Montreal have gained popularity in the major gastronomy centers of this country. Au Pied de Cochon alums are practically guaranteed a job in New York City kitchens and foods from poutine to skinny, sweet Montreal bagels are no longer foreign to Americans. But why the love affair with our neighbors to the North? There’s something exotic and strange about the city, a laissez-faire attitude that permeates it. It’s more than being able to drink at 18 instead of 21 or seeing the full monty at strip clubs, says Morin. It’s being able to lounge at your table for two hours after you’re done eating. In his “Cookbook of Sorts,” this elusive quality comes through, too.