“I think there’s some kind of Montreal black magic to it that might only work up there with all those crazy French Canadians,” says New York author and restaurateur David Chang in his introduction to The Art of Living According to Joe Beef. This kind of caricature of Quebec is dangerously right on the money. What makes Joe Beef compelling to Americans and the rest of Canada is the exotic presence of the Quebecer, exemplified in Joe Beef’s chefs: English-speaking Frederic Morin and French-speaking David MacMillan. They are children of this province’s original culture clash.
Joe Beef is the R&D of multiculturalism and hybridity. For example, I work there as a waiter to support musical and literary endeavours. Perhaps as a result, Fred and I constantly make up new lyrics to old tunes while the night’s service tumbles forward like a juggernaut. In turn, Joe Beef turned me into the foodie I’ve always been, and I suspect that it has somehow brought out the poet in Fred and heightened David’s knack for oral history.
For Chang, Montreal has an enticingly dangerous feel; it is a place where traditions are unfamiliar; where the customer, especially the tourist, can live the exotic, devour the Other, and perhaps become something other than themselves. Montreal is a port town, a liminal place on the edge of a continent, and there has always been a mystique surrounding what the tide may bring in, or what the fleuve may take out.
Crevettes de Matane à la Russe, a seasonal staple of Joe Beef’s menu, is a good metaphor for Quebec culture. Here we have a French recipe influenced by Russian taste and made using local ingredients. The phenomenon of francophonie in pre-revolutionary Russian court is widely noted. French language, music, fashion, cuisine, and general sensuality were appropriated by the Russian nobility and then Russified. So let’s deconstruct Crevettes de Matane à la Russe: PEI potatoes, New Brunswick caviar, garden herbs and vegetables from Little Burgundy, Matane shrimp, and B.C. salmon are featured in the dish, bound by a staple of French cuisine – fresh mayonnaise – and conceptualized by vestiges of Russian taste. The menu, which changes daily and is in a constant state of evolution, is full of examples like this.
It’s French market cuisine, everything done from scratch, except of course those things that are full of nostalgia like Spam, Velveeta, and cocktail sausages. These North American working class charms sometimes find themselves alongside elite cousins such as a duck egg, foie-gras, or Chambertin.
The garden patio in the back, complete with hidden Wire Table and Cement Slab (these tables get names not numbers) turns into a post-modern oasis when softly lit and washed in the sound of, say, The Cure’s “A Forest.” The herbs and vegetables sprout out of deep beds of black earth for a surprisingly long time. I write this in May and the backyard salad greens are already finding themselves on the plate. Perhaps there is a greenhouse effect from the three-story brick wall that towers on one side. Late into the fall, the cooks will gather kale and Brussel sprouts to accompany braised or seared meats. Or simply, roasted topinambour (Jerusalem Artichokes in French), perhaps the strangest word in the language, served with ketchup.
There is something about a shared plate. The family style service lends itself well to conversation, interaction, and, of course, the notoriously small and closely-knit tables of Joe Beef. If you’re going to be six in a booth, each with a wine, water, and cocktail glass, cutlery, bread plate, and cell phone, you’re going to want to serve small plates from a platter in the middle of the table. And, since most people want to try everything on the menu, the obvious solution is to share.
While I’m on the subject of conversation and interaction I should mention the chalkboard menu. This is a source of so much anxiety for some people who don’t realize that it’s part of the Joe Beef experience. Yes, you will have to talk to your waiter or, God forbid, your neighbour. The menu is just cryptic enough to provoke conversation. When people stand for a few minutes to look at the menu, sometimes next to a complete stranger, they inevitably begin to discuss what they see. By the end of the night they’re buying each other drinks or sharing a cheese platter. There is something risky and attractive about the street and this is why people dine out, go to bars, or meander aimlessly. Joe Beef is not socially ‘safe’ and therein lays the charm.
The original Joe Beef, Charles McKiernan operated his Canteen in Griffintown near the Lachine Canal. In the context of Victorian temperance, McKiernan carved out a public space for Montreal’s working class and enjoyed — or should I say tolerated — a constantly full house. The social conservatism of the time spawned a vibrant counter-culture. Indeed, the stricter a doctrine, the more severe its counter-identity appears in contrast. Today, although a different crowd for sure, there remains an element of counter-culture to Joe Beef, an allegorical one within the context of restaurant culture. There are no tablecloths, serviettes are dishtowels, plates are mismatched, bathrooms are not gender-specific, and the décor is all over the place. But it works; people feel right at home. This is an anti-restaurant where the only decorative brush-stroke of sauce you will find on a plate is an ironic one.
Growing pains. People constantly walk in asking for a table or a spot at the bar with a familiar query, “any where any way you could squeeze us in?” The kitchen staff has grown from a team of three to a team of seven but the amount of space has stayed the same. Last year McKiernan’s bistro wine bar canteen was closed in order to convert the space into the Joe Beef oyster bar. What has been created, naturally, is a labyrinth. A a small passageway links the two dining rooms and, just to keep things interesting, the door to the wine cellar is tucked in there too.
It’s like Parisian traffic, which is much more interesting than Toronto traffic; it’s hamlet to metropolis instead of planned pasture to planned housing development. There are dead-ends and bottlenecks at every turn but the dysfunctionality of the space is part of its allure. People constantly peek around corners with sheepish looks on their faces, which usually resolve into ones of bewildered surprise. It’s a treat to watch. It’s a treat to work at Joe Beef.