Fred Morin and David McMillan are the chefs and owners of Joe Beef and Liverpool House, two restaurants just a couple storefronts apart in the Little Burgundy neighborhood of Montreal. A restaurant is nothing more than a place to put food in your mouth, as McMillan says, but there’s some black magic in what they do, something that makes their places more than that. There’s something front-loaded about the honesty of Fred’s cooking, a truck barreling down on you. Waiters and waitresses manage a unique brand of conspiratorially roguish warmth. Time stops during meals, liquor runs down like rain, and the swirling bullshit of everyday life is left to cool its heels on rue Notre-Dame while you slurp oysters and eat pig ears inside, warm and swept away.
Where machismo is the default crutch of a million and one chefs, the brutish swagger of the Joe Beef guys is something else: a rejection of all that, a flag planted, a line drawn. It’s not a defense, not a pose. They have families to look after, weary eyes that have seen somewhere between enough and way too much, and no designs on an empire. They took what they needed from great kitchens and fine dining and left the rest behind, bleeding in the alley.
I visited them late last year to ask what it takes to make it in kitchens, and talk about where cooking is today. I asked Fred what he made of the profession’s relatively recent celebritized status, and its possibly fauxhawked future. He said: “It’s laughable for sure. But it’s good to laugh, you know?”
Let’s dive in.
ON WORKING CLEAN
Dave McMillan: Running a restaurant is like running a giant daycare. After twenty-two years in the business, I still run to touch the hands of young cooks coming out of the restroom to see if they’re moist. So often, they’re not. So at forty-one years old I still have to tell kids to wash their hands after they pee-pee.
It eats away at my faith in humanity. Do they wear the same pair of underwear for two days? Do they meticulously change the sheets on their bed like I do?
Cooking is about cleaning, cleaning, and cleaning to make sure nobody’s gonna die. You use soap. You use bleach and cold water (never hot water). The cleanliness of the toilet in your restaurant says everything.
But that’s the basics. If you can’t work clean, keep yourself clean, then you’re fucked in whatever you do.
After that there’s the real test: the grease trap.
A grease trap is a big box that collects all the nasty from your restaurant before the water goes out to the street. It’s a huge box of putrid water covered in a thick layer of the foulest death-grease imaginable. It is the dirtiest thing that exists. It’s an uncleanable thing a person will not understand unless a chef has shown them how to clean one.
Back at another restaurant where Fred and I used to work, there was a grease trap underneath the dish pit. A deep one. A fucking Jacuzzi of a grease trap. One night I was working and I saw water start to spread across the kitchen floor: backed-up toilet out in the hallway. Maybe it’s a simple plumbing problem, I hoped. But then a turd floats in, then a tampon, then toilet paper, and then I noticed the grease trap steaming up. FUCK. This is 7:30 and the dining room is full.
The first option, the win-the-lotto option, was jam a coat hanger down in the grease trap and see if it’s a plastic bag blocking it or something. (One time I found some sorry asshole’s underwear in a situation like that, but that’s a different story.) But it wasn’t. And it was now three minutes later and the restaurant wasn’t any less packed and there was shit water creeping up, so I did what you do if you want to go around calling yourself a chef: I took my shirt off and my friend and cook Alex held me by the ankles as I descended into the grease trap with the top half of my body.
My eyes were closed, and my mouth was closed. It was just muck. Fecal, bilious muck. And I put my hand in the drain and I pulled out who knows what—fucking pasta and flour and a nut of shit. I dug it out and heard the sucking sound of the trap emptying itself out and Alex pulled me out.
It was just like being covered in rotting corpse oil. It’s in your eyes and your mouth and your ears, and it doesn’t come off with just soap. I had to wash down as quick as possible, as best I could, and get back to cooking because the dining room’s full and that’s my fucking job. You’re thinking about how nice your duck is and I’m thinking about the shit that’s still down there deep in my ears.
The thing is: It’s not a command you can pass off; it’s an unpassable command. You can’t tell somebody to do an emergency cleaning of a grease trap. It’s inhuman. So you have to swallow your pride and forget about all the clothes and boots that you’re wearing and about smelling good for the next three days even if you scrub with a brush. You’re gonna smell like vomit. Congratulations, you wanted to be a chef.
Fred Morin: And the guys who have worked for us who have taken the dive on nights when we weren’t around: those are 100 percent of the people who went on to own their own restaurants.
Dave: The guy who is gonna run toward the grease trap to fix it—
I guarantee you that guy will persevere among all the others and become the chef of a kitchen before anyone else.
Fred: There’s a difference between somebody who hesitates for two seconds when you see the grease trap overflowing and the cook who doesn’t. It’s like the guy who runs into the burning house to save the baby and the guy who waits and thinks about it for two seconds.
Dave: If he hesitates, I can tell you right then and there he will take shortcuts. The one who dives in it head first: he’s the dude. To me, it’s about being on the team. If I’m working for you, I will run your gas station as if it was my own. I will have your back implicitly, no matter what. Joe Beef, NASA, Burger King, pumping gas: it doesn’t matter. My mother told me if you’re going to pump gas you better be the best gas-pumper at the station. Working in any business as if it was your own—that’s the way to become the boss, and that’s what being a chef means.
ON STARTING OUT
Dave: If you want to become a cook, certainly do not fall for one of these fucking three-year Culinary Institute of America scams. Tens of thousands of dollars later and you will still have to start off as third appetizer cook. A six-month program might be good to learn some basics, but culinary school can teach all types of bad mannerisms. The honest best thing to do is to be like the Sri Lankans and Mexicans: go to work and start. Find a chef that you like. Offer your services for free.
Fred: You work for free, then you get in. There’s always a hole happening in the kitchen.
Dave: I want somebody who knows who we are and where they’re applying, not somebody who is just dropping off resumes at ten restaurants on any avenue. The best approach is to walk in and say, “I’m yours.” Have a short resume with nothing stupid on it. Fred could tell a kid, “I have nothing for you,” and that’s when the kid should say, “I come in on Fridays. I have that day free and I’ll work here every Friday for free.”
He’ll work maybe two Fridays for free and we’ll end up paying him on the third one because we’re not assholes and we appreciate that he worked super hard for eight hours.
I guarantee you after his second free shift, Fred will give him a check. It’s that commitment: somebody who’s thinking, Whether you like it or not I am coming to work here. If you come to work for free and you’re a loudmouthed asshole and all you do is talk, I’ll enjoy kicking your ass to the curb, but if you walk in here and hustle and you show your intention you’ll be employed quicker than you know.
And they work here as long as it works. There’s a natural turnover after a few years when a kid has learned everything that they’ve got to learn. They know and we know. We aren’t always like, “Yeah, it’s time you go and work in another restaurant” like we should, because it sucks to get rid of a guy who knows how to run the restaurant as well as you do. But kids figure it out eventually. The kids know, and it’s like, ”Either now I go open my own restaurant or I go work for somebody else and learn more.”
Dave: Only a fucking idiot would order fish and beef from the same place he orders bleach and mop heads.
Fred: But their margarine and tampons are to die for!
ON LEVEL-TEN ASSHOLE RESTAURANTS
Dave: You know the big crystal glasses, the tablecloths, the “Madame, the chef suggests…”? I find all that crap disconcerting. I wonder sometimes about what the three-Michelin-star sensibility tries to convey to people.
To me it just conveys the most fucking pretentious form of arrogance, of snobbery, of elitist bullshit imaginable. You know we only drink the finest wines in the world, in the right years. Each wine with the proper stemware. And I only eat with silver on the best tablecloths set with Limoges.
What a fucking joke, man. It’s just steering people to be more awful. I enjoy my fine wines and alcohols and food and conversation. But I don’t need luxury on my table, on my back, in my hand, on my wrists. It’s teaching the wrong lesson.
And who are the kids working in these kitchens? A) They’re working for free. B) If they’re getting paid they are getting paid the least amount of money possible. They’re turning pigs into princes: telling high-school dropouts they should go get cooking degrees from the Culinary Institute of America and learn how to be elitist and pretentious, and that you can only eat off Limoges with linen tablecloths, prissed-up silverware, and Riedel stemware, and you must be into properly old wine.
I don’t understand. Let’s just learn how to cook rabbit first: crisp, hot, cold, gelatinous, soupy, barbecued, roasted. Just get that down. Learning chicken seven ways and a rabbit eight ways will do you a lot better than filling your mind with stemware issues. Figure out the egg. It’ll take you the rest of your life.
I remember working in a restaurant where it was like a crisis, like I’d stabbed someone, when we chipped a plate. It was such a fucking big deal that people would be crying in the kitchen. Insane shit about a waiter being heavy-handed when he was cleaning the burgundy glasses and he snapped the stem. Or if somebody washed the glass in the wrong dishwasher, the chef would go into insane tantrums.
The only time you should tantrum like that is if you caught a kid mixing salmon tartare who didn’t wash his hands after taking a piss. I think that’s an acceptable time to have a tantrum. But, because of crystal, or because the tablecloths weren’t ironed properly? What are you teaching the kids? You’re turning them into monsters. There are a whole bunch of monsters in America right now, and a whole bunch of wannabe monsters.
It’s the wrong lesson. Learn how to cook. It’s going to take you ten years. Just your appetizer work, your cold-cut work, your dessert work, ice-cream work, work behind the stove, and basic kitchen hygiene: This will take up all of your hard drive for the next ten years. Don’t worry about your fucking black pants and Prada shoes in the kitchen and your Egyptian-cotton fucking vest from Bragard with your stupid name written on them. These are things that are not important.
People come to restaurants to put stuff in their mouths. Just focus on that for a second. You have to know about coffee, water, tea, wine, alcohol, beer, and all of the aspects of food and food safety. After that you can worry about what level of asshole you want to run your dining room at. Level one? Level ten?
Me, I don’t look good in a level-ten asshole restaurant. I like to eat in a level-three asshole restaurant with delicious food.
Dave: Fred and I spent more than a decade working in what was then the busiest restaurant in Montreal. While everybody else was “taking time off” or running a thirty-seat restaurant where’d they’d high-five ’cause they did a $2,000 night, we were the guys doing $20,000 a day, $150,000 a week in sales. We were gangsters like that. We used to show up at the fish market, La Mer, and take twenty-five whole salmon. We’d just point: All that tuna! All those oysters! All those lobsters! All those shrimp! All those scallops! If you got there after us, you bought frozen shit.
This started in our twenties, so our lifestyles were different. We were going out a bit, drinking a little bit more than we should’ve, doing a little bit more of this and that than was good for us. But that’s what we ran on.
Then, ever so slowly, it started happening. It starts with your dreams. One night a week, I’d fall asleep and clean lobsters all night. Clean 100 lobsters in my dreams. Then after a while, there’d be a couple nights of lobsters and on the third night I’d bone out ducks. All night, like you’re supposed to count sheep. And then I started having those dreams where I forgot to order the salmon or a halibut or the dishwasher didn’t show. And then it just turned into a steady stream of dreams where I could never get my shit done.
And it went from one night a week to six nights a week. Working in my sleep. Sleep stopped being refreshing. I’d wake up stressed out and then go work in a restaurant again and it all started slowly mining away at me. But I was so busy, I just worked harder in the day so I could be tired enough to sleep well, but then I’d work all night in my sleep.
And then after five years of that I realized that—even when I wasn’t at work—I had anxiety about everything: the interminable lists, the list of fish, whether the supplier would come or not. Did he show up with a rabbit? Is it in the basement? (Or is this a dream?) Did this chef show up? If not, do we have a replacement? Did the dishwasher show up? The grease trap is overflowing; the lights are broken; the hutch is not clean; the owners are harping on my ass about food costs and salary costs. I was just drowning all the time.
Fred: The dishwashers were quitting because they didn’t make enough money, so we went to the owners who didn’t see the need to pay them any extra. In the end I was taking money from my pocket and giving them $250 a week from my own salary.
Dave: Everyone’s personality problems become your problems when you’re the boss. They have girlfriend problems; they don’t have money for rent; they got their money stolen out of their bag downstairs; somebody fucked with their shit; they got beaten up at the bar last night. All of a sudden you’re turning the city upside down trying to find the guy who beat up your chef at the bar so you can put his teeth in the back of his head.
Fred: We did nothing to help ourselves, though. Drinking is how cooks deal with things. It makes hard times feel like good times even when it sometimes just makes them darker. You’re out partying, trying to squeeze in a life in the hours when normal people sleep. And your day off is just a chance to be a zombie, so you’ve got something in the tank to get through the brutal week ahead.
Dave: And God forbid you have a girlfriend who is pregnant on top of it and you start losing your grip, then next thing you know you’re in a panic. I finally went to the doctor and he told me I had PTSD. And I’m like, I’m a cook, not a fucking soldier.
It’s not hard for him to see: You’ve been stressed every day for fifteen years about all these little issues and you have this constant ball of anxiety in your gut and the only way it will go away is if you’re on Wellbutrin. And so then I was waking up every day chewing on Wellbutrin.
The second I went on Wellbutrin, I felt normal for once. I could work more! I think me and him were on Wellbutrin for five years afterward.
Fred: I’m still on it and I don’t want to stop.
Dave: You are? So he’s been on it seven or eight years now.
Fred: Now it’s not as bad as before. I credit it, it did the job. That’s probably how we opened Joe Beef. It worked and it did the job and made me change my perception about mental-health problems. I used to see it as a thing for the weak, and now I see it as a condition along with every other condition.
If you write a book, you’re not confronted right away with the fruits of your labor and the criticism of the fruits of your labor. If you are a cook or restaurateur, people walk in and they will fucking tell you like you raped their daughter that their steak was not cooked properly. They will talk with as much anger about a fucking steak as they would if you stole money from them or keyed their Bentley.
I can say I’m not upset when things like that happen now. I know I shouldn’t be, anyway. I can say that to somebody else, but I can’t say that to myself, nor will I trust David and believe David if he tells me he’s not upset. It seems that being a chef you have to be worried about shit all the time. And it just eats and eats and eats away at you. Or it did at me, at us. And it still does. And the idea of giving up a drug that helped me get it together, to start to feel some normalcy and control over my life—I’m just not there.
ON THE OLD SYSTEM
Dave: I love when I hear people crying into their soup about three-star Michelin places going extinct. Why?
Those restaurants developed all these mannerisms that people think are so amazing. If I had twenty fucking kids to do a job that takes five, I’d probably demand that those idle hands work, too. I’d have all these kids doing mundane shit. Let’s take apart the walk-in at lunch and at dinner every day, let’s take apart the stoves with screwdrivers after lunch and after dinner and clean them with toothbrushes.
Georges Blanc used to have four people putting grease on Génoise molds in the basement all the time. It was nonsensical. They had a guy in a room and all he did was tie chickens. That guy, he went to work and just tied chickens. That was his job.
They were just making up work. And then, ten years later, the whole fucking Michelin system collapsed in France when they started the 35-hour workweek and got rid of stagiaires. So many restaurants fell apart at that time. All the restaurants had to go from twenty-five in the kitchen to the real five they were paying.
And those kitchens didn’t make better cooks. Once in a while there’d be that kid who was the one who didn’t collapse, the hardest little worker ant in the anthill. A kid who’d be there at 5 in the morning and leave at 1 in the morning. If he fucked up the eel, he’d burn his arm with a pan and show it to the chef to prove he was worthy of staying on the hot line. But for every little Lance Armstrong, there were dozens of casualties. It was a system that made broken men who drank too much to cope with it.
ON BEING A CHEF
Fred: I feel sad that I didn’t graduate college sometimes. I have nightmares about it. It’s my most recurring dream aside from the one where I’m about to have sex with a lady and it’s my brother. I know it doesn’t matter that I didn’t graduate, I know people don’t care, but I live with it. And even if you go to the CIA—it’s still a vocational school. When I was in high school the vocational school was the school with ashtrays and guys in tight jeans.
Cooks don’t save lives. We donate to charities in hopes that they save lives, but we—restaurants, chefs, and so on—are as important as a golf course or a tennis club. A restaurant is a hobby for people. We serve a sliver of the population. Add up Noma, El Bulli, and every restaurant like that, or like ours, and even if they are all full, how many dinners do they serve in a year? How many dinners does Joe Beef sell in a year compared to how many burgers McDonald’s sells in a day? It’s peanuts.
Cooks are always trying to be involved in things much higher than they are. They’re always politicizing their trade, like every chef is a fucking Mother Theresa. They all want to change the world. But people don’t follow us. They take their food adages from mass media.
R. Kelly is more important to the food world than any great chef. Kim Kardashian. Justin Bieber has 16 million followers on Twitter. If the most famous chefs in the world tried to hold a press conference to change one little thing about the way people eat, there would maybe be a minute change. But if Justin Bieber tweets, “Hey, guys, try this salad; it’s super cool. That’s my new thing,” you will have 7 million people the next morning eating one salad a day.
I still think the best people I’ve met in the world are cooks, but you can’t put lipstick on a pig. You are what you are. You’re a skilled tradesman, a skilled laborer, and that is a very noble and honorable thing but you’re not a fucking veterinarian. You didn’t go to school for seven years. You don’t have that understanding. People have to be modest.
Find satisfaction in what you are. If you go and see a concert, you dance, you like it, you listen, it’s cool. But sometimes at those chef events there’s a stage and they’re cooking live and it’s like they’re about to do a jam session. Why? It’s fucking stupid. I think chefs get drawn into the lifestyles of our customers, sometimes forgetting that we make $40,000 a year. We get to think we are a part of the elite. But we’re not. I think the thing that’s changed the profession is that kind of crossover.
The nature of the beast is not going on the stage, fucking chopping little egg yolks with a fork in front of 500 people just ’cause they wanna hear you say “fuck.” Dave Chang is a food personality and we are becoming food personalities, but restaurant management is a trade. A guy has to be there all day long to make sure things are ordered, things are cleaned, things are where they need to be. He basically counts boxes, moves them around, makes sure there’s no mess to feed vermin.
So it’s a fucking dilemma: Do you prevent a guy from having aspirations? Is it shitty to be ambitious?
If a kid is willing to do all the steps, to work his ass off, and he says, “One day I’m looking forward to traveling first class,” is that bad? Can a successful chef say a kid is shitty for wanting that? Sit every chef who says that down, flush them with MK-ULTRA-style LSD truth serum, and ask what their true aspirations were fifteen years ago. “Just hustling and trying to make a living” is going to be their answer? Bullshit.
To me, the measure of success isn’t television. It isn’t first-class travel. It’s a little cottage that I built myself on a wooded beach in Quebec. It’s not gonna cost me a lot of money. But that’s my measure, exactly my dream. Having the kids there and having my kids helping me build a fire—not having a massage in my cocoon on Cathay Pacific. That lifestyle isn’t bad, but it isn’t for me.
Looking and seeing what someone else has and saying, “Why don’t I have that? That guy’s not as good of a cook as me”—that’s not healthy.
Chefs need to travel to see new things, to promote their businesses. I understand that. But I think it’s really important to actually sit down and make food. To keep bettering yourself. How many chefs around the world are repeating the same story, doing the same demo, turning into cartoons?
Sometimes you’ve got to go back in the kitchen and cook. Turn artichokes and listen to Neil Young. Have a laugh with your cooks. It’s not always about the perfect, perfect purée made with hydrocolloids by a perfectly disciplined stagiaire, you know?
Perfection lies in things other than what ends up on the plate.
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