Unpacking Joe Beef

Photo Courtesy of pocketfork.com

Joe Beef. It is a hook in and of itself. Nothing – not McGill University, not Mount Royal, not even the Montreal Canadiens – has come to globally define Montreal quite like the bite-sized, dimly lit restaurant in Little Burgundy. Joe Beef is a thousand things to the world: the epicenter of the epicurious, the paradigm of the shape-shifting chalkboard menu, the obnoxiously small toque hat on owner David McMillan’s head. To university students, it may be a superb way to gobble up and crap out $50, not that you’d get a table until next term anyways. It’s a waxing and squirming and glutinous, somewhat unsolvable, riddle.

Tony Mathias* is a current McGill student and former Joe Beef busser. He tends “to be particularly afraid of fucking stuff up.” So his job, which entailed knowing who needs the spoon and lobster fork for the lobster spaghetti versus who needs the steak knife; when to clear the setting for the next course; and everything in every dish in case the waiter needs a set of extra hands, was difficult. Still following?

“The whole time I worked there I never really felt like I was on top of everything,” Mathias said. “The whole day before a shift, I was sort of like, ‘Oh God, what am I gonna fuck up tonight.’”

At one point, Mathias was asked to take a week off because he seemed “slow.” By ‘World’s 50 Best Restaurants’ standards, this must mean blurred motion-quick. While it’s a tip industry, Mathias debunked any conception of “a nasty den of snakes where people are sniping and undercutting each other.”

Yet an entire night sky, replete with star sightings, foggy mornings, and undiscovered galaxies, shrouds Joe Beef. It has yet to receive a negative review by any influential food critic. And Anthony Bourdain, the definition of cool, found the Joe Beef masterminds cooler, each “a strange and wonderful kind of mutant” whom you discuss Montreal strip clubs with over endless foie gras and shaved truffles that are eaten off vintage cutlery in the middle of a snowscape while ice fishing.

It has yet to receive a negative review by any influential food critic. And Anthony Bourdain, the definition of cool, found the Joe Beef masterminds cooler.

But so what? Really. You can fulfill your foie gras fantasies at Au Pied de Cochon, drink yourself silly at Le Vin Papillon( Joe Beef’s sister wine bar), or get slapped by a dildo while slurping down oysters at Le Bremner. Montreal is bubbling over with seductive joints, and they’re not all just checks off a Plateau renter’s bucket list. Chuck Hughes, Danny Smiles, Martin Picard… they’re not so different from David McMillan, Frédéric Morin, and Allison Cunningham. They are all winners in Canada’s fine dining arena, and bottomless grand openings of promising-restaurant-buffets feed Montreal. Chef-entrepreneurs are the architects of their restaurants, of course, but fame often weakens their status as the wizard behind the curtain.

On working with Joe Beef’s owners, Mathias was adamant: “Around. Not with.”

Joe Beef is in a Restaurant Hall of Fame of its own construction, shooting out successful sibling restaurants like plates of duck terrine. These restos are generating tremendous applause from diners and critics, but Joe Beef’s spotlight seems singularly bestowed on it by the angels of fatty meats. Mathias actually bussed at Le Vin Papillon for a bit, a period he described as “chill,” reported like a remark on the weather – notable, but distracting from the headliner.

Joe Beef is in a Restaurant Hall of Fame of its own construction, shooting out successful sibling restaurants like plates of duck terrine.

A-listers are frequent clients. While no one wants to bring Aziz Ansari South Lake oysters when he ordered the ones from Sawmill Bay, the staff is largely undazzled by stars. For many, the job is their all-consuming life endeavour; a celebrity’s criticism is a flake of sea salt next to personal admonishment. Despite its renown, Joe Beef is part of the restaurant industry, not showbiz. Most customers, Mathias said, come for the food, not any sort of scene. If diners do expect a performance, they usually come to realize that it is of the participatory audience genre.

“You’re there until like three in the morning: the customers are dancing on the table and ordering shots for the whole staff, and that’s just another Friday,” Mathias said.

To work in such an exhilarating, overbearing environment full-time is a real roughhouse of a lifestyle. To work in that environment, as a McGill student who has yet to hit his 20s, is inconceivable. In the deviantly stimulated world of haute restaurants, there is no end to the evening, regardless of how fueled it was by customer-sponsored drinks. McMillan himself reported in June that he had been dry for just five months.  

“It’s kind of a vacuum of alcoholism,” Mathias said. “You have this blowout of tips that are literally called pour boire, and you go across the street and dish it out, calming down and living this kind of high life.”

Mathias hasn’t quite come down, although he now works at a much quieter food establishment. The adrenal work ethic he absorbed at Joe Beef often leaves him disenchanted by his new coworkers’ half-hearted habits. Joe Beef employees are recherché, more so than the food they author and the aura they shroud their workplace in.  

“It is a place full of Type As, but not at all to the extent that they lack real humanity and groundedness,” Mathias said. “It is a different kind of Type A, perhaps a more ‘European’ one, who recognizes the indispensability of deep connections. I resist how much I’m speaking of ‘types’ though, since the restaurant is far from typical… Maybe something about Montreal, as opposed to more quote unquote American places.”

Maybe something about Montreal…

What about Montreal? Mathias fluently listed off the ingredients necessary for Joe Beef’s emulsification into an empire: the colleagues, the food, the customers, the owners, the close quarters. But if all those elements could be plopped into a colossal pastry bag and exquisitely piped onto any other city, what would be the result? Only a Montreal resident could know that there is no point to such an experiment.

Joe Beef could not have been born in any place but Montreal, and Joe Beef has come to embody everything that Montreal is. We are a cozy city of 1.7 million anglophones, francophones, and allophones. We are exclusive in our inclusivity. We are awake at the periwinkle hour. We are unobservant of that hour’s end and the next’s beginning. We are tireless workers for the sake of self-pleasure to share with others. We are not fully definable, however. We do not want to be.

At one point, Mathias called Joe Beef a “microcosm.” He did not specify what of. I believe he meant of Montreal.  


*name has been changed for anonymity

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