Travel Blog

17 May

Meet a Montrealer: David McMillan

David McMillan is without a doubt one of Montréal’s most famous, larger-than-life personalities. The co-owner of Joe Beef, Le Vin Papillon and Liverpool House has been cooking in Montréal for the past 20 years and is one of the driving forces behind the city’s food renaissance and Little Burgundy’s revival in the past decade. We sat down with him to discuss food, wine and the past, present and future state of the Montréal culinary scene.


Co-owner of Joe Beef restaurant

Favourite pastime:

I spend a lot of time at my house in the Laurentians. I’m into “off-grid” living.

How long have you been a Montrealer?

All my life, born and raised.

David_Mcmillan3What’s the coolest thing you’ve done so far this year?

I got an old wooden boat from 1962 and I’m going to start restoring it tonight in my garage. It’s a 16-foot sloop that needs TLC. It’s going to be my wife’s boat. I have a fishing boat, which is my boat, my bass boat. This is kind of a “status” boat on my lake. Everyone who lives on a lake in the Laurentians has a fancy boat that they take out for special occasions. It’s like having a vintage car in your garage. When we go to someone’s house for dinner, we’ll take the wooden boat.

What’s the next big thing you’re planning?

We put a trout pond at Joe Beef last year. This year will be all about understanding the trout pond and being back in the garden, which turns 10 this year. We’re also going to beautify the entire alley behind Joe Beef. I’m excited about that. I’m excited for the summer! I think winter is super hard in Montréal. We all get a little bit of cabin fever.

Joe_Beef_GardenSo the three restaurants have gardens now?

Yes. We have gardens and perennials and annuals, even old vines. I know everything that’s going on in that alley; I’ve been here for a decade. It’s a huge part of our lives. I never thought that I’d be (somewhat of) a gardener. My partner Fred (chef Frédéric Morin) has a degree in horticulture. As I get older, I guess I am tending towards gardening a little bit more. There’s nothing cooler than being at Joe Beef and grabbing a trout out of the pond and filleting it. Then I pick some turnips and mustard greens and I make a meal. I automatically win best dish of the night in Montréal just because of how fresh the ingredients are. And I can do it 50 times a night. And I just love watching things grow. We have crab apple, cherry trees and tons of other stuff, which are all secret weapons. Any VIP or visiting chefs come into the restaurant, I can go get the tiny mustard greens or the nasturtium and we can always do a good job.

Wilenskys_Light_LunchSo where would you take a visiting chef?

It depends on what they want. When Sean Brock comes to town, he wants to go to Willensky’s and La Binerie. He’s anthropologically minded and he tries to draw parallels between northern and southern cooking. It really depends but the crowd that I usually attract is into classic French cooking. So l’Express or Leméac, wherever there’s a cool wine list. I think Montréal is one of the most progressive wine cities in North America. The small restaurants across Montréal are absolutely incredible with their lists of natural, organic, small producer wines. There’s no better place to drink natural wines. Better than New York City, better than Brooklyn, better than San Francisco, better than anywhere.  As I travel more and visit all these mystical restaurants that I’ve built up in my mind, I realize how lucky I am to be cooking in Montréal. Quebec has the best dining scene in North America. We could never write the Joe Beef menu in New York City, it would freak people out. I don’t put liver on the menu to be cool. We sell liver, we sell kidneys, we sell bison tongue, duck, rabbit, we sell cheeks and ears, we sell weird vegetables that taste bitter… We sell it all and we have an audience for it and an amazing dining public.

So do you think that’s what makes the food scene in Montréal so unique?

It’s our Latin palate.  But even kids who grew up in the country and come to Montréal to study; they’re very open minded about food. There might not be great restaurants in the countryside but there are a lot of great mothers and women who cook great food.

Joe_Beef_625x500What do you think when people say that there are too many restaurants in Montréal?

The scene has never been better! I am one of the oldest guys in the business in Montréal. I cooked in the city when the only restaurants I could cook at were Les Mignardises, Le Caveau, L’Île de France, Les Halles or La Mère Michel. I’m from Chateaubriand Bouquetière days and it’s only been 25 years! There were only French restaurants then. The sad thing is there are almost no French restaurants left in Montréal.

LoicWhere do you like to go for drinks with friends?

Bar Loïc. It’s in an old bank at the western end of Montréal. It’s the last place before the Turcotte Interchange but they have a brilliant wine list and bites, great décor, a knowledgeable staff. It shouldn’t exist out there but it’s thriving and I love it.

Restaurant_l-ExpressWhere do you go on date night?

We always go to L’Express. It’s one of the most important restaurants in North America. To stay true to the game and have a successful 30-year run is such an achievement. If James Beard Awards knew what they were doing, they would give them an award. This restaurant is an achievement in culture, in business practice… I bring chefs there and even the biggest one of them is humbled at L’Express.

Candide What do you think is the future of the food scene in Montréal?

It’s hard to say. I like the way we’ve been going. The food scene has changed so much in the past 20 years. We have to be careful though, because to go all new and loose the old would be very damaging for our culture. There’s a generation of “social media cooking” that I find dangerous. I call it Instagram cooking, or cooking from trends. There are Nordic restaurants now all over North America. There were El Bulli copies a few years ago. But the biggest trend that I see coming is healthier food. We have to be able to get more readily available healthy food. I really like what my colleague John Winter Russell is doing down the street. It’s very brave and that style of cooking would not have worked 5 years ago. It’s working now and that’s very good. It’s kind of the way we have to go, eating 80% or 90% vegetables. It’s not for everybody; it’s a long educational process to believe in eating that way. It’s the future… but a sirloin steak is never going to go away.

Up next: Meet a Montrealer: Lesley Chesterman


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