The Humane Experience of Becoming A Restauranteur
Meet David McMillan, he doesn't need an introduction - if you've been to Montreal (or live here) than you're very aware of his newsworthy restaurants, Joe Beef, which appeared as the first Canadian eatery to make the list on the World's 50's Best Restaurants alongside his other ventures Liverpool House and Vin Papillon.
There's no secret recipe here, McMillan and his partners Fred Morin and Allison Cunningham have proven that hard work, customer loyalty and quality food always takes the cake.
I was pleasantly surprised by McMillan's humility and dedication to his roots. He's Canadian born and proud of his heritage, although he has integrated french culture into his culinary masterpieces.
Did you always know you wanted to become a restauranteur?
Yes I think so. I used to skip school, stay home and watch cooking shows. I knew I wanted to work standing up with a knife, I didn’t want to be in an office, I didn’t want to wear a suit, I wanted to say f*ck when I wanted to - I wanted to be free.
I went to ITHQ - it was mediocre, the teachers were all burnouts who hadn't really done anything in their own careers. I was never impressed with any teacher I met in cooking school.
After school I decided to work in some french restaurant in Montreal where I met a lot of mentors. Daniel Schandelmayer - he was an important chef for me - he pushed me to go to work in Europe and that proved to make all the difference between me and other people.
Where did you go?
Why did you think that experience was crucial to your career?
Work ethic. If we work in the North American system [generally] we're pretty lazy, you know the 40 hour work week is not many hours and [when] we work 60 hours we think that's insane. Were as in the French work ethic doing kitchen at that time was 7 am until 1 am, six days a week. You had to be shaved, on time, in the kitchen.
It's hard for a few months to work that way as an American kid - we're pretty soft, fluffy and pudgy so when you get to France and actually get to work like they do - once your spirit is broken - you can enjoy life and you start to enjoy working that many hours.
I enjoyed working that way. When I finished working in Europe, and came back to North America, I was a machine. There's no kitchen when I wasn't the strongest worker in, when I wasn't the fastest worker in, I had the most experience. I worked at a speed that other people weren't used to - I didn't mind the hours - my brain was broken at that time I just loved working - I didn't like going on dates, I didn't like going to the movies I didn't like going for walks, I liked to work.
Having that robotic mind frame got me where I wanted to be within 5-6 years. I went literally from the third garde manger to one of the most in demand chefs when I got back. So that was well worth the time spent getting yelled, kicked and punched at but I learned a lot, I also learned not to kick, not to punch and not to yell. I took the best of my experience in Europe and left the worst of it there.
When did you decide to open your first restaurant?
When I got back from Europe I worked for Nicolas Jongleux in restaurants around the city. I worked at La Cigale, I went to the West Coast and I worked at a restaurant there that served local organic food from the Bay and the gardens.
They were very kind and loving people - there was no yelling or screaming there either - I also learned that you can hug people in the kitchen and to be more humane. If someone is having a hard day, you can make their day harder by being an asshole or you can use compassion, and you can say: come let’s sit down and have a tea by the sea. Are you okay? Is there anything I can do? Don’t worry, what do you need? you need money? What is it that I can do to make you have a better day.
So I learned the french system to destroy everything and everyone and I also learned this other system of kindness, compassion, love for nature. Sustainability, the love of organics, paying attention to what you eat, eating clean not just cooking for the sake of cooking, cooking the best products, trying to only drink organic, drink bio-organic wine, eat really good kitchen from a good farm.
I also learned the difference between a good egg and a bad egg - because you can take a good egg and you can make a beautiful recipe with asparagus and crab meat on it, and the crab meat can be from a can and the asparagus can be from Peru and the egg can be from a factory.
Meanwhile if I take a beautiful farm egg and I cook it in just a bit of farm butter and I put it alone in the plate, my dish is better. You might fool the public with your dish but intellectually my dish is better because it’s an organic farm fresh egg cooked with the butter from that farm.
How do differentiate yourself from the market?
I think what differentiates us from the market, Fred and I and Marco - is that we’ve been cooking the exact same food that we were 20 years ago; we identified a good kitchen dish, we identified a good steak, and we stick to those guns. We played inside of the realm of Dave and Fred’s cooking but we didn't follow trends.
I’ve never made foam when everybody was doing foam. When everybody started plating on the left side of the plate, I never did that, when everybody started putting the line of ash, I never did that. I've always cooked bourgois, french cooking.
The trends I follow is not following trends.
We’re always looking at what we do and making sure that we’re on the same beat: is the food like it was 5 years ago? Yes it is. Is it like it was 10 years ago? Yes it is. Let’s bring out recipes that we haven’t done in 15 years.
When I’m not in the restaurant I’m big into natural wine. When restaurants strive to become “elite” or when they strive to serve the very rich that’s when restaurants lose me. I don’t need chrystal glasses, all I want to do is eat very good food and natural wine in a setting where people are intelligent around me - I don’t care about the living room where the maitre d is wearing a suit. I despise pretence. I think it’s such a flaw in the restaurant business. I just want to eat fresh crab, super beautiful oysters, I don’t care that the plate cost $80. That is all make up on a pig. I just want to eat the pig.
Top 3 chefs you would like to cook for?
I really like the chef Septime in Paris - Clamato, Cave Septime and Septime - I think those guys are brilliant. Then there’s a bistro in Paris called le Bistro Paul Bert - I love those guys the owner is called Bertrand Auboyneau. I would love to find out who’s the greatest seafood chef in China. I’ll cook for him. Nobody does seafood like the asians.
What motivates you?
I enjoy running the restaurants with the kids; talking about food, talking about wine, talking with mushroom pickers, checking out what oysters are available. I just like the every day process - I’ve been doing it for so long I don’t really know anything else. Most of my day is spent talking about bread, talking about cheese, talking about seafood, talking about fish, talking about wine, talking to customers, and then going home.
What advice would you give students/apprentice who would like to start a restaurant at some point?
Pay very little rent, make sure you know 15 very good deserts, 20 very good appetizers, 20 very good fish/meat dishes and be open to cooking vegetarian and allergies with a smile.
Know your sh*t inside out without recipes, know how to make bread, know how to make pasta, then just before you’re ready make sure you spend time in the dining room.
There are a lot of chefs who know nothing about wine and bar service and you can feel it, you go to restaurants sometimes and the food is really good but the waiter isn’t trained properly, the wine list is awful - just because you’re a very good cook and you know how to run a kitchen does it mean that you’re ready to open a restaurant.
There’s also a third part - accounting. They barely even look at that. How much rent should you pay? How many customers should you do? What should the price of your food be? When are you making money, when are you losing money? These are all things to look at - once you’re a good cook you’re not ready yet you have to know wine,you have to know front of the house as well as you know the back of the house and then you have to keep your accounts nice and tight and understand everything. It’s not just about cooking. There are three major components to a restaurant - front of the house, back of the house, and then financial management. Often when things go wrong it's because one of the three is missing.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started?
I’ve spent many years working too hard. I came back a little brainwashed from France and I really did believe for a long time what I was doing - I thought it was more important than it was and I overworked myself. I had a little breakdown before I opened Joe Beef; I used to be at a restaurant called Rosalie and I worked myself to death there. I didn’t have much of a life and I wasn’t a very good dad at the time and I was drinking too much, and I was just working too much.
I realized that I hadn’t seen a hockey game in 15 years, I hadn’t seen a movie in 10 years, I hadn’t swam in a lake in 10 years. I had worked really hard at my apprenticeship and I was a bit dumb, I walked into the kitchen I was 19 years old and when I walked out I was 31 - all I had done was work.
I work three days a week now and I swim in a lake 4-5 times a week.