Considering how hard it can be to get a reservation at Montreal’s Joe Beef, there’s really no such thing as a bad seat. Yet I’d wager that I’ve got the best in the house, tucked away in a back booth with chef and co-owner (along with Frédéric Morin) David McMillan, wine director Vanya Filipovic and Meredith Erickson, who started as a server the first day the restaurant opened, in 2005, and co-authored the group’s first cookbook, The Art of Living According to Joe Beef, and their latest, Joe Beef: Surviving the Apocalypse.
As the sun sets outside the window and the volume of chatter in the room picks up, I try to start a conversation about how, exactly, they decided to write a cookbook inspired by the end of the world. I also have questions, naturally, about the recipes for moose stew and microwaved foie gras, but before I can get to it, Erickson turns to me and asks, “Have any of these interviews ever gone off the rails for you?”
Seconds later I understand what she means. Filipovic arrives with the first bottle: “A pét-nat from Austria from a guy who loves Champagne, who started doing experiments with all sorts of different things. It’s an easy way to open up your taste buds while we just hang out,” she says. I’m supposed to do my duty and write down the name of the wine, but just as I put my pen to my notebook, I’m blindsided: the oysters arrive. Then a salad. And, finally, crab legs, locally-gown asparagus and a rib eye that looks large enough to be used as a weapon. With every plate comes another bottle of wine: Pinard et Filles’ “Frangine White” from Québec; Jean François Ganevat’s “Les Grandes Teppes” Chardonnay from the Jura; and, finally, a prewar wine from Colares, which sits on the ocean on the coast of Portugal. “Incredible old vines of ramisco kissed by the ocean breeze, planted on sandy soils,” says Vilipovic. “Producer is Viúva Gomes and vintage is 1934.”
When the last person in a cavalcade of staff, regulars and fans finally walks away, I’m handed a piece of meat pie that’s made up mostly of foie gras. McMillan, who’s dressed in a baggy, plain orange T-shirt with a single pocket in the front and what looks like a bone hanging from a long gold chain around his neck, finally gets back to the question of the impending hellscape that motivated their second cookbook.
“Let me ask you a question,” he says, and then pauses for a second to consider exactly how he’d like to ask it. “When you wake up, when you read the papers, do you feel that we’re in a great time?”
I have just enough time to shake my head before McMillan picks back up. “I really believe it’s important that my kids understand how to cook, understand how to make bread, understand how to make sausages, how to put wood inside of a fireplace, that fishing is something that’s inexpensive and can add an extremely high level of quality to your life, and that visiting small farms and being friends with agricultural people is something that will make their lives better,” he says.
In some ways, the only way to follow up The Art of Living, which helped define a new, more narrative, voice-driven genre of cookbook, is to do something completely outside the box. Why not the downfall of humanity as a unifying principle?
Surviving the Apocalypse does not contain recipes for a succulent lamb shoulder to braise in your Le Creuset or even that decadent fried foie gras, bacon and cheddar on a biscuit that was a darling from the first book. But you will find a recipe for how to make horse ceviche if you have to go off the grid; you’ll learn how to make partridge pie or cook esoteric parts of the deer; and, since it’s the apocalypse we’re cooking for, a recipe for cooking (calf’s) brains. It’s all about knowing in advance what you will need to do, and it’s something McMillan thinks about often. “We do have an exit plan,” he says. “I will try to take Meredith, Vanya and as many people as I can away from here.”
One other noticeable differences between the two books is the near-absence of cocktails in the latest release. There are beverages, most notably the Irish Moss Coconut Drink and Vitality Drink, a shake that comes with the disclaimer: “This is not going to get you ripped. This will not erase any wrinkles,” and a number of things that the cashew butter, kelp, ginger and turmeric drink won’t do. But gone are The Art of Living’s quirky, stomach-testing drinks, like the Roman Coke (cheap grappa and a dash of Fernet Branca) or the Sausage Martini, which is exactly as advertised: a vodka Martini with a Vienna sausage with the encased meat juice mixed in. No, there’s none of that during the apocalypse; there are no cocktail parties after everything goes to shit.
“Each of the drinks is anchored to the apocalypse and some sort of healthful living. So this one,” Erickson says as she opens the book to the L’Absorbine Junior (lemon juice, sugar cube, wintergreen and spearmint cordial, dry sparkling wine), “is like if you drink this in the middle of nowhere your body will heal itself in some Marvel Comics sort of way.”
There is, however, one classic cocktail that did sneak in. In the book, McMillan explains how spending time in airport bars with subpar wine lists led him to start ordering Margaritas, and that it’s simply an easy, dependable cocktail that most people can’t screw up. “People are always asking, ‘Did you go to that new cocktail bar,’ and Fred and I seem like the most unhip guys in the world because we never go to those places.” The Joe Beef crew are wine drinkers, after all, but everyone needs at least one backup, especially if the world is ending.
At some point, around the fourth or fifth bottle of wine, I get to wondering about how one finds inspiration for living if they resign themselves to the fact that the end is nigh. It’s clear that the group isn’t short on studiousness or passion. It’s evident in McMillan’s Instagram feed, where he posts bits of obscure Québécois history, or the way Filipovic talks about the natural wines that have come to define her programs at the group’s restaurants. But when you spend more than a year consumed by visions of your own demise, what does inspiration look like?
“I’m inspired that Meredith has some free time, but also now that it’s out there, now that this is in print, now I really want the fucking apocalypse to happen,” says McMillan with a sinister sort of glee splashed across his face. “I look out my window of my apartment every day and I’m so fucking sad. I can’t wait until one day I open my window and I say, ‘Look! Those women are eating that man!’”