Coming to Terms with Joe Beef

I ate at Joe Beef for the third time this summer. As those who’ve read my earlier reviews of dinners at Montreal’s temple to gastronomic excess (here and here) know, Joe Beef is my favourite restaurant in its genre in North America. I refer to “the curse of Joe Beef” often when contemplating the lesser offerings of more expensive restaurants in the Twin Cities. Going to Montreal and not eating at Joe Beef seemed unthinkable to me. And so when a trip to Montreal with colleagues materialized earlier this year making a reservation at Joe Beef was one of the the first things I did—I would be taking along with me a couple of friends who’ve heard me rave about the restaurant for some years now. It would be my first dinner there in the summer. Let me explain why we then almost didn’t go and why we finally did. Bewarned: I am going to spend rather less time talking about the meal than about other things.

In May The New Yorker published a piece by Hannah Goldfield titled “Joe Beef and the Excesses of Restaurant Culture“. It’s a long essay that takes stock of the restaurant’s evolving culture. At the center of the essay, thematically, is the alcoholism of one of the chef-owners, Dave McMillan, the more gregarious face and voice of the restaurant (the Penn to Fred Morin’s Teller). Goldfield connects, sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly, the excess of Joe Beef’s culinary ethos (roughly: take the notion of healthy eating and choke it to death on foie gras) with the excess of high-end restaurant kitchen culture in the period of the restaurant’s rise—a period which we all know now quite differently in the wake of #MeToo era revelations about sexist, exploitative, abusive, criminal behaviour at restaurants run by one-time faces of the industry and sometimes, as in the case of Mario Batali, perpetrated by them.

These revelations should have immediately dispelled any illusions about celebrity chefs who most of us only know through their public “brands”. As #MeToo has made and continues to make clear, many of those who’ve engaged in abusive behaviour against women with less power than them are men who seemed woke, who seemed to be the good guys all the way until it was revealed that they very much are not. This it turned out—unsurprisingly in retrospect—to often be just a matter of brand management. But illusions can be hard to let go of, especially when you make emotional investments in or otherwise over-identify with restaurants.

And so I was not prepared, even though I should have been, for the incidents described in the literal center of Goldfield’s article. It should really not have been a surprise, given the hedonistic excess of the restaurant’s culinary ethos, to discover the frat-boy’ish nature of Joe Beef’s kitchen for most of its existence; a place where homophobic joking and bullying happened, where a culture of excessive drinking was fostered. But it was. What can I say? I’m an idiot. This shock was mitigated, however, by Goldfield’s description of the transformation of the restaurant’s kitchen culture, especially in the wake of McMillan’s sobriety; it is now apparently a place with zero tolerance for that kind of behaviour. I have to say though that I did not and do not find very convincing McMillan’s absolute denial of an ex-employee, Sarah Reid’s statement that he had “slapped her butt on several occasions after he’d been drinking”. This is a statement made in the article without the presence of any rancour and contextualized by Reid herself as part and parcel of a kitchen culture internalized by many in the industry. McMillan’s insistence that this could not have happened and that he would remember if it had, despite his drinking, seems a little too loud to me.

More troubling, and for me the source of the dilemma about keeping this reservation, was the account of an incident that McMillan does acknowledge: the groping of the genitals of a trans employee by a chef de cuisine and the complete lack of accountability and action for this violation after they reported it to a manager. McMillan concedes that he was an inattentive boss—though this again is blamed on alcoholism and not the previous culture of the restaurant. To be clear, I am glad that McMillan has gotten sober and that he is apparently now a strong voice in the industry against alcohol abuse. But it’s too pat to suggest that the problems of the past, whether of commission or omission, were caused by alcohol as opposed to being part of a culture that also included alcohol abuse.

The bigger problem though is that not only was the chef de cuisine not reprimanded at the time, he has since become a partner with McMillan and Morin in another of their restaurants. I have to say that here Goldfield’s essay seems to me to falter. What follows is an account largely of McMillan’s remaking of himself and the restaurant culture as he becomes sober. A few skeptical notes from other quarters are registered but the tenor of the rest of the piece, with its emphasis on the (welcome) changes in the back of the house at the restaurant, suggests that it is finally a piece about redemption. It ends, after all, with McMillan and Morin’s support of a young female chef; the last line of the essay is that chef, Stephanie Cardinal’s appreciation of that support.

I don’t have any reason to doubt the account of McMillan and the restaurant’s transformation and I do not wish to imply that I do. But, as noted above, I don’t want to be as quick either to accept chefs’ (or writers’ or other artists’) narratives of transformation as as I once might have been. And so the fact that McMillan does not elaborate on why he was fine with later making that chef de cuisine a business partner—and also that Goldfield does not press the matter—stuck in my craw and continues to do so. Perhaps there is indeed a good reason but in the times we’re in I think it would be a good thing to get a fuller public accounting than merely McMillan’s word that the chef in question has “proven by his actions that he’s a good man”. Maybe we’re meant to be skeptical about this but I’m not sure why Goldfield does not pursue the point. And I don’t think it’s too late to be given that fuller public accounting.

This, more or less, is what had me pondering in May whether I wanted to keep the reservation. I forwarded the article to the friends who were going to join me at the meal and we discussed it, partly over email, partly in person. We ended up deciding that the seemingly manifest cultural transformation at Joe Beef itself was worth supporting, that the most troubling incident did not appear to have been the norm before that transformation, and that as incomplete as the accounting for its (non)resolution in the article was it wasn’t finally disqualifying. You might view this as a cop-out. Or you might say that if I did decide to eat there and then write about it then all this hand-wringing is unnecessary. And perhaps you’d be right either way. But it seems to me that this is where we are now. The pleasures of eating cannot be separated from more vexed questions. Going out to eat is more complicated than it used to be. But complicated is fine too.

The meal itself was excellent, as my previous meals at Joe Beef were as well. You can get a sense of it below—the descriptions of the dishes are in the captions in the slideshow (my apologies to those reading on phones). I have to say I am still not sure about whether the excessive nature of the food they serve—and it’s still pretty excessive, even though the lobster spaghetti seems to have shrunk—can finally be extricated from the bad-boy ethos that birthed it. Even if behaviour in the kitchen has (happily) improved the food seems to still be “bad boy” food. Maybe that’s going too far. I’ll be curious to see if there’s more to be told yet about the evolution of Joe Beef or of their culinary ethos. Would Joe Beef even make sense as a restaurant without that commitment to excess? I don’t think so.

With two bottles of wine (though only one is pictured above) tax and tip all of this came to just about $515 (USD). There were five of us eating, so $103/head. Yes, it’s still an incredible value. On our next trip to Montreal, however, I think we will probably skip dinner at Joe Beef. On the one hand, Montreal has many other excellent restaurants to explore as well (though who knows what their unreported sins are?); on the other, as I suggested above, it’s good to avoid over-identifying with any restaurant.

I don’t know if I’ll have a restaurant review next week but in January you can expect a bunch of Twin Cities reports of meals eaten this month and a bunch of reports from Delhi where we’ll be for a few weeks.

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