Frederic Morin — one-half of the duo behind Joe Beef, Montreal’s most talked-about funhouse of free-form French cookery — turned up at Marc Vetri’s Osteria, where he was the guest of honor at a dinner celebrating the release of his and partner David McMillan’s new book The Art of Living According to Joe Beef. While there, the self-proclaimed Eminem of the culinary world regaled guests with tales of his latest obsession, ax throwing, and how his formative years as an obsessive ham radio buff helped inspire dishes like his Hot Oysters on the Radio. Grub caught up with him briefly to ask a few questions of our own. Keep reading to see what he had to say.
What have you been doing while in Philly?
The obvious. A strip bar. No, I’m joking. I had to have a cheesesteak. I had to.
Is that something you see in Montreal?
No, but we have hoagies and subs and stuff like that. I’ve been curious about Philadelphia for a while now, because we had [Philadelphia Inquirer critic] Craig LaBan visit Montreal with his family, and we’ve been in touch about the book.
This is your first time here?
Yeah. Is it here that a ship disappeared? You know, where they made a ship disappear?
Yeah, the Philadelphia Experiment. That was down at the Navy Yard. Well, that’s what they say, anyway.
I believe it. That’s part of the reason why I was so fascinated about coming here. Plus, it’s a city a lot like Montreal. There’s New York and then there’s other cities. And we’re both part of the other cities.
I had dinner at Vetri.
How did that go?
Nice. Very nice. You know what? I told him this, like, five times while I was drunk. It’s such an iconic restaurant. It’s such a monumental restaurant for a small restaurant owner. After that article that I think Alan Richman wrote for Bon Appétit, people like me could see that a 30-seat restaurant — a 30-seat restaurant where they took out two seats to make room for the slicer — was feasible, and the magazines can talk about you, and your customers can be happy and you can make a living, you know? You learn that 28 seats isn’t an impossible dream. You also learn that a place like this (Osteria) with 150 seats can be done very nicely too.
What else have you done in Philadelphia?
I had lunch at Le Bec-Fin. That was another nostalgia thing. I bought a Food Arts magazine when I started going to cooking school, and there was an article on Georges Perrier in it. I always wondered what it was like.
How was it?
It’s a nice restaurant, but it’s definitely worn a little around the edges.
What’s the difference between French-Canadian cooking and, say, French-American?
I wouldn’t divide it like that. I’d say it’s more East Coast and West Coast, you know? I’d include West Coast from British Columbia to California. And Montreal and Philadelphia and Boston and New York have more in common than Montreal and Vancouver, you know? The same roots. The same ethnic communities that populated the cities in earlier times.
And when I look at the food, it’s done with the same heart. Oh, and also we suffer from the same hostile government control of alcohol.
What’s trending in Montreal right now?
Montreal’s always been a big food city. And now it’s not as big. People seem to be taking a step back a little. Food is getting more simple now. It’s going toward simple again.
How does that relate to what you’re doing at Joe Beef?
We do French food; peasant French food. It’s not nose to tail, because that’s a bogus term. When people say without flinching that they’re doing nose-to-tail food, it’s such a broad statement about yourself, it’s like going out into public and saying, “I do sodomy and defecation.”
How do you feel about other trendy terms, like farm-to-table?
I like farm-to-table, but in reality, it’s more like farm-to-truck-to-fridge-to-fridge-to-truck-to-sink-to-stove-to-table.
Do you work with local farms near Montreal?
We do. One has to be careful what kind of farms they support, though. A lot of those farms are run by, like, gentleman farmers. They’re like these retired investment bankers that took their retirement, and they’re practically billionaires and they’re farming guinea hens. You don’t need to buy from them. They’re in it only for the romance of it. You need to buy from real farmers, in real countryside places, who need to send their kids to school. Not some dude who wants to re-create the Tuscany farm of his youth.
It goes beyond and above the multicolored eggs from the Catskills. There’s what’s cute and there’s what’s real, and you have to do your best to do what’s real.
Why do you suppose Joe Beef, your book, and what’s going on in Montreal is so popular with Americans right now?
Because in Montreal we always have strippers. I can’t really speak for everyone, but for me it’s because Joe Beef is like Oprah, except those bags under all the seats are full of cocaine and cash.
Really, I think it’s maybe Montreal has the French-Canadian thing of free-for-all. You know, like, I’m going to drink until I vomit on myself and then eat again.
When are you going to open a restaurant in the United States to capitalize on that?
Never! I don’t want to open in the States, because you know the numbers I have in my phone — I have a number for a dishwasher, a number for a vegetable guy, numbers for the writers in Montreal, numbers for my friends? I don’t want to be in a city where I have no numbers. I always want to know who is the kingpin of dishwashers in my city. I don’t want to have to borrow information from my friends.
There’s been something offered for us in New York recently. It’s an impressive thing, but I have two kids and my wife. I love my little life.