By Catherine Lefebvre
David McMillan has been part of the Montreal culinary scene for almost 30 years. His restaurants Joe Beef, Liverpool House, Vin Papillon and Vin Mon Lapin, consistently draw praise from restaurant critics (and customers!) from both here and abroad.
What do you think of the culinary scene right now?
I’m really inspired by the Montreal and Quebec culinary scenes. When it comes to natural wine, it's impressive to see the exceptional wine lists that are in a class of their own compared to what’s offered in the rest of Canada. Even Quebec’s vineyards are making great strides. Just look at what Domaine du Nival (Saint-Louis), Les Pervenches (Farnham) and Pinard & Filles (Magog) are doing. But I’m not the only one who's impressed by what we do here. My colleagues around the world are too. And that has a lot to do with the Montreal public.
Our local clientele is the most sophisticated in North America, thanks to our French and Latin backgrounds. We, the restaurateurs of Quebec, wouldn’t be who we are today on the North American culinary scene without the public. Montrealers are the main ingredient in the success of a restaurant. Try to go out and eat tripe in New York for instance, forget it! Lamb kidney brochettes? It would end up in the garbage.
When I see 18-year-old women ordering deer liver at Joe Beef, I say to myself we really have a unique clientele.
Which of your colleagues deserve more recognition?
I really like small restaurants like Régine Café. Fisun Ercan at Su in Verdun impresses me a lot. Maison Publique is a well-known restaurant in Montreal, but Derek Damman really does an amazing job. I also like what Antonin Mousseau-Rivard does at Le Mousso, it's fun to watch.
And it isn’t well known yet but PS Wine Bar, located under Elena in Saint-Henri, is the perfect spot for a pizza and a good bottle of wine to go.
What kind of restaurants would you like to see more of?
I love restaurants with 30 to 40 seats that serve small dishes made with fresh, organic, high-quality products.
I’d really like to see more young chefs open their own restaurant. I’d like to see a good wine bar in the Notre-Dame-de-Grâce neighbourhood and one in the city centre too, an area that needs a little love.
The entire city could definitely have 10 to 15 other wine bars, especially natural wine bars. We have the clientele for that.
What corporate culture do you pass on to your team?
The philosophy has changed enormously since I started working in restaurants. When I was young, the way things worked was archaic, I was treated appallingly, like most of my colleagues elsewhere. Kitchens were sexist environments, as were most workplaces in which men find themselves in a position of authority.
For many years, I glorified overeating and alcohol and I also tended to shout in the kitchen. Fortunately, things have changed since then. But to change, you first have to change yourself. Don’t forget that we do the majority of our business between 6 pm and 9:30 pm. The result is that there is a certain pressure to perform, so we can’t work at a snail’s pace.
In addition, customer expectations are very high. Nevertheless, I try to promote a quieter work atmosphere. I stopped promoting excess. And I'm also at a point in my career where I’ve taken on the role of mentor. I like helping young people start a new business, especially if they worked at one of my restaurants. Sometimes I even encourage them to leave, because I can see that they’re ready. If they need help to move on to something else, I’m happy to help and open doors for them.
What changes have marked the restaurant business in the past few years?
The range of suppliers has completely changed for some time now. Before, we went to La Mer fish market, we bought what they had and used it to develop our fish and seafood dishes.
Now, especially thanks to social media, we know that there is a particular cod fisherman in Newfoundland, another scallop fisherman in Nova Scotia. No fisherman had an Instagram account 3 years ago. There was also a guy who came with a truck full of all kinds of mushrooms and we chose from what he had. Now, there is almost a different supplier for each variety of mushroom. And that's how it is for many products. It's great that it's like that, because we end up with unique, high-quality products and that allows us to show our customers how closely linked we are to our partners.
But, it also means that someone on my team has to take care of the link between the different suppliers, manage delivery logistics and everything else. It takes an enormous amount of time, but we prefer to offer a better price to fishermen and farmers rather than have it end up in the pockets of the middleman. But all of this has a cost and there is a limit to what the customer is willing to pay. We still make the choice to offer quality meats, organic fruits and vegetables, and to have a list of exceptional wines, some of which are exclusive to us, because it fits with our business philosophy.
In the end, our margins remain small, even if our restaurants are always full. The restaurant business verges on philanthropy.
To pre-order Joe Beef's next cookbook, available in November, click here.