Chefs David McMillan and Frédéric Morin

Calling the shots.

It’s your typical Saturday night at Joe Beef, where the foie gras is served “en terrine”, the selection of Loire whites is impressive, and the Glidden Point, Island Creek and Stanley Bridge oysters are shucked at a rapid pace. Celebrating its fourth anniversary this fall and widely acclaimed as one of Montreal’s best and most original restaurants, Joe Beef has generated a buzz that would be the envy of any restaurateur. Yet chances are you won’t find a tie on any diner or fancy presentation on any plate, for a meal here is less an uptight gourmet experience than a night at one heck of a dinner party.

Your host for this soiree is none other than Montreal’s most personable chef, David McMillan, who co-owns the restaurant with his best friend, chef Frédéric (Fred) Morin. While McMillan works the room making menu suggestions and explaining the montage of paintings on the east wall, Morin and his team of four cooks turn out dishes like lobster spaghetti, côte de boeuf, skate frites and that retro Sunday-dinner favourite, Salisbury steak. Not quite mom’s, this steak is topped with slivers of foie gras and oversized onion rings.

Oysters are big at Joe Beef, and a favourite of both chefs. From the restaurant’s early planning stages, an oyster bar was part of their vision. Manned by oyster-shucking champion John Bil, Joe Beef’s oyster bar sells the close to 2,000 East Coast and European oysters that are imported weekly for the restaurant. Looking around the room, you’ll see several diners slurping back a dozen magnificent specimens served with mignonette or cocktail sauce.

Watching McMillan, 37, and Morin, 33, in their element, it’s hard to believe that just a few years ago they were ready to kiss the restaurant life goodbye. Decade-long veterans of some of Montreal’s best restaurants (including Les Caprices de Nicolas and Toqué!), by 2004 these chefs had had their fill.

“Four years ago, I had a breakdown,” says McMillan, who made his name at Globe, Saint-Laurent Boulevard’s trendiest restaurant, and then oversaw the creation of Rosalie downtown, while his sous-chef, Morin, took over at Globe. “I was mentally exhausted, and a year later I wasn’t feeling much better. The last thing I needed was more stress. I knew I had to make a lifestyle change. Cooking wasn’t even in the picture. I had this fantasy about working as a baggage handler at the airport or at Home Depot—only 40 hours a week and I can show you where the drill is.”

But all that changed one day over coffee. “I was at Joe’s Café on Notre-Dame Street with Fred, who, also fed up of the business, was a week away from relocating to PEI or working at his favourite garden centre,” says McMillan. “The owner told us he was closing, and the place was ours for nothing as long as we could keep paying the rent. As we were both pretty broke, it sounded like an interesting idea.”

Eight weeks later, that little café just across from the Corona Theatre near Montreal’s Atwater Market became Joe Beef (the name is a reference to the nickname of Charles McKiernan, a legendary 19th-century Montreal innkeeper). Word soon spread that McMillan and Morin were back in action.

To avoid a repeat burnout, this time there would be strict rules. The restaurant would only be open for dinner five days a week, and would close 10 weeks annually for vacation. The menu would change daily and feature only the dishes they wanted to cook, which meant none of those ubiquitous braised lamb shanks.

“Ultimately all we wanted to do was serve oysters, crab salad, Dover sole and steak Diane, and sell bordeaux, burgundy, chablis and sancerre,” says McMillan. “There wasn’t even talk of dessert. We opened with chocolate eclairs, and they’re still on the menu today.”

Most importantly, they—not the customers—would be calling the shots. Fashionistas be warned, these boys aren’t into the trendy cocktail movement. Says McMillan, “I don’t stock cranberry juice. For martinis, it’s gin or vodka. No apple, no lemon, no lychee. We only have one brand of vodka [SKYY], and people are still astounded by that.”

Loudmouths, troublemakers and egregiously pretentious foodies have been shown the door on occasion. “Our goal is a relaxed atmosphere,” says McMillan, who has been known to turf out unruly customers mid-meal. “We could work at a number of restaurants and do very well, but this place is for us. We want to have a life.”

Yet with such star power behind the stoves, demand for one of Joe Beef’s 30 seats has soared. Bookings were being taken eight weeks in advance. “As cool as that sounds,” says McMillan, “it was a nightmare. We were saying yes only 10 per cent of the time the phone rang. It became unmanageable.”

So the duo, along with third partner—and, as of last year, Morin’s wife—Allison Cunningham, opened two more restaurants: McKiernan’s, a wine bar/lunch counter next door to Joe Beef that offers funky paninis and salads made with vegetables from the potager garden tended by Morin out back; and Liverpool House, just two doors west of Joe Beef.

At Liverpool, the cuisine started out Italianate, but has evolved into Joe Beef light; it’s the bistro to Joe Beef’s restaurant. The crowd is younger and more rambunctious, and the decor is more elegant-Hamptons dining room than Joe Beef’s Kennebunkport-tavern vibe. With paintings by several Canadian artists, including McMillan’s good friend Peter Hoffer, hanging on the walls, diners can sit amidst a gallery’s worth of art in one of the two dining rooms or at the nine-seat bar and soak up the buzzing candlelit atmosphere.

Art is certainly a draw at both restaurants, and in McMillan’s life as well. The chef made his name with dishes like crispy duck and pan-seared halibut, but painting is now his main focus. He picked up the brush 10 years ago, but has only taken his painting seriously for the last four, thanks, he says, to the support of Morin and Cunningham. His studio is a stone’s throw from the restaurants. After three years of partaking in group exhibitions, McMillan’s canvases, which sell for up to $9,000 a pop, were featured in a solo show in February at Montreal’s Galerie Orange.

But despite the strong showing of Canadian art at both Joe Beef and Liverpool House, don’t expect to see McMillan’s paintings adorning those walls any time soon. “I would never go there,” he says. “It’s ridiculous—the tackiest thing ever. I do the paintings for myself, and the galleries take care of them. Even hanging them in my home is taboo.”

Ultimately, have McMillan and Morin finally found the lifestyle change they were craving? “I know how to cook at a high level, still today,” says McMillan. “But it came to a point working with Fred that I was bored with my own food. I was his boss for eight years, but without trying to sound too pompous, I would say the student surpassed the master. Fred’s a great chef, and we work well together. But I enjoy the dining room more, the wine business, shucking oysters, management, even taking reservations.”

With synergy like that, no wonder Joe Beef’s dynamic duo are keeping the great meals—and fabulous restaurants—coming.