I am a follower of recipes. Unlike those cooks who substitute chicken stock for vegetable or cinnamon for nutmeg, I think of each recipe as a test, and if I pay attention and follow the rules exactly as described, everything will taste like it’s supposed to taste. So I was a bit worried when I opened Joe Beef: Surviving the Apocalypse, the second cookbook from Montreal restaurateurs David McMillan and Fred Morin along with co-author Meredith Erickson, and saw instructions for pickling deer necks, frying calf brains, and cooking up crispy frog legs. I had no idea where to begin or even where to shop.
Many of the tome’s 158 recipes are similar to, or based on, the extravagant, decadent, and somewhat outrageous French-inspired meals served at McMillan and Morin’s restaurants: Joe Beef, Liverpool House, Le Vin Papillon (all of which are found along the same street in Montreal’s Little Burgundy), and the two recently opened destinations Mon Lapin and McKiernan Luncheonette. Ever since 2005, the duo’s inventive and unstuffy cuisine—think a bacon-and-cheese sandwich that replaces slices of bread with deep-fried foie gras (it was named the Double Down, after the KFC sandwich) or calf liver stuffed with mushrooms, cognac, and bread, then fried in butter—has elevated their restaurants to bucket-list status for food-obsessed tourists. Anthony Bourdain featured Joe Beef on The Layover and referred to the menu as “wonderful and unapologetically over the top at times,” and Barack Obama and Justin Trudeau once met for a well-publicized meal at Liverpool House, where they had the famous lobster spaghetti.
Meals in the world of Joe Beef tend to be “last meals”—the kind of food you’d eat if there were no tomorrow—and the ones in this book are no different. I scanned the table of contents and settled on one dish that seemed practical enough for someone who had to wake up the next morning: “Buttered Turnip Soup aka Potage Télépathique.” The recipe called for half a pound of butter and three cups of whole milk, and though a note explained that the soup could be adapted for any root vegetable, it said that “big white turnips are the most delicious and proper adult decision.” So turnips it was. I dutifully sweated the vegetables in the fat for forty minutes as the authors dictated, “until they are really soft, as only a European mother could appreciate,” and after blending everything together, I was rewarded with a velvety soup that was sweet, salty, and creamy. The turnips barely resembled their former hard, ground-dwelling selves.
Even though I was in my kitchen in Vancouver, each spoonful transported me back to Le Vin Papillon—McMillan and Morin’s vegetable-forward wine bar—where I last ate in 2014. However, Surviving the Apocalypse does more than share McMillan and Morin’s tried-and-true recipes. “This book is about how to build things for yourself,” Erickson writes in the prologue. “This book is about how to make it on your own.” She’s not being glib. Over its 320 pages, Surviving the Apocalypse contains everything from instructions on how to make your own soap (lye and beef fat) and how to create spruce cough drops from scratch (though good luck finding the tablespoon of slippery elm bark) to how to butcher a chicken (be sure to pick one of a “noble pedigree”!). Closely following all the recipes isn’t exactly practical, but then again, it’s not supposed to be. The book isn’t a guide to crafting a quick weeknight menu; it’s a bible for the Joe Beef lifestyle.
To some extent, all cookbooks are self-help books. Ina Garten promises domestic bliss through elegant bowls of corn chowder, and Nigella Lawson preaches ease and relaxation for dinner-party hosts. McMillan, Morin, and Erickson, however, take that notion to the extreme. Their book’s title—Surviving the Apocalypse—plays out in the first chapter. On the page and in interviews, the authors cite their signs of end times, including, but not limited to, Instagram foodie culture, Donald Trump, climate change, the corruption of Montreal’s municipal government, the difficulty of running a restaurant (even a successful one), their own ever-increasing age, and recent changes to the menu at L’Express, one of Montreal’s most beloved traditional French restaurants. But Surviving the Apocalypse argues that the end of the world doesn’t need to be a bad thing. “When the apocalypse, or the nuclear winter, hits, we don’t want to just survive: we want to live it out in full Burgundy style,” Erickson writes, and it seems clear that this is a fantasy the authors have been nursing for a while.
The first chapter includes a recipe for cardinal peaches—a dessert made with a six-ounce can of Carnation cream, sugar, and lemon juice mixed with fruit and berries—and one short essay explains how Québécois cooks of yore often seasoned their sauces with steeped Five Roses tea when wine was unavailable—a practical bit of advice should civilization suddenly collapse. The chapter also features a poster-like insert showing readers how to properly stock a cellar, which includes instructions on pickling pork butt, fermenting sauerkraut, and preserving other delicacies that ought to last for a Quebec winter, or longer. The dishes in this chapter focus heavily on local fish, game, and produce, though the practicalities of creating them in the aftermath of disaster are suspect (without a photo reference, how does one identify and scrounge up the twenty Labrador tea leaves necessary for “Smallmouth Bass in Birch Bark”?). Nevertheless, the recipes are inventive and are proof that the Joe Beef ethos of eating well can still be done over a camp stove.
The end-of-the-world theme is most overt in the first of the book’s eight chapters, and afterwards, the writers move on to more traditional fare: microwaved foie gras, smoked-meat croquettes, and white tripe with cider. There are chapters devoted to dishes found at Joe Beef and Liverpool House, perfect (and elaborate) family Sunday dinners, and a guide to “camper’s Christmas”—the jubilant secular celebration that takes place in campgrounds across Quebec each July. Photographs—not just of the food but of Montreal, memorabilia, restaurant staff, and the writers’ families—are placed scrapbook-style throughout and are mixed with paintings and illustrations. Aesthetically, the book is reminiscent of Joe Beef: crowded with vintage Canadiana and served with mismatched plates and cutlery.
Then there is the miscellany of non-recipe material, including essays, an excerpt from a book of French Canadian poems, and memoir-like interludes that focus on the authors’ childhoods and early careers. In the chapter “Beyond Roadblocks and Bannock,” the writers turn some pages over to Taiaiake Alfred, who is Kanien’kehá:ka, Mohawk. He tells the story of the Indigenous peoples who have lived in what’s now Montreal and writes about what’s needed for reconciliation to work. All of these bits add up to a cookbook that is more narrative, and more interesting, than those standard collections of recipes modelled after The Joy of Cooking or the works of Julia Child. It’s not that recipes aren’t important to Surviving the Apocalypse, but people can enjoy the cookbook without stepping foot in their kitchen. Morin told me that he hopes to find his book in people’s bathrooms, “being read and reread” and looking worse for wear. I wouldn’t be surprised if that comes to pass.
In many ways, Surviving the Apocalypse is a continuation of the first cookbook that Morin, McMillan, and Erickson wrote together, 2011’s The Art of Living According to Joe Beef. For most of the world, that text served as an introduction to the Joe Beef restaurants and their creators’ joie de vivre. It was filled with recipes for the kinds of dishes that Morin and McMillan are now famous for, like squid stuffed with lobster and Velveeta eclairs, and it also included extracurricular information, such as details on how to skewer a rabbit, build a smoker, and create homemade absinthe. The book was irreverent, brash, and eccentric. Here’s McMillan writing about his obsession with burgundy wine: “If I scrape my knee I immediately consider pouring Burgundy on it. I’m sold on its healing qualities. If I’m at home sick with a cold, I think to drink it. If I see someone with acne, I want to rub it on his or her face.”
When The Art of Living was published, cookbooks were struggling to define their value in the midst of the rising popularity of food blogs. Many people weren’t sure whether physical cookbooks would even survive. But The Art of Living exceeded expectations by becoming wildly popular and critically acclaimed. Anthony Bourdain said that the book’s novel approach “changed forever what a cookbook could be”; chef Alice Waters gave it the highly coveted Piglet award and said, “There is a sense of history to the book. . . . There is richness in detail and usually a lovely idiosyncratic story for each recipe.” Though memoir-heavy cookbooks already existed—1986’s Honey from a Weed by Patience Gray is a classic autobiographical cookbook and travel narrative that mingles recipes with accounts of the author’s life in Italy; The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book from 1954 famously recounts the author’s life with her partner, Gertrude Stein, along with the recipes she cooked for her (including one for hashish fudge)—The Art of Living was, correctly or not, lauded as something new. It helped cement Morin and McMillan’s status as top culinary mad professors and propelled Erickson, who had been one of the first servers at Joe Beef, into a career as an in-demand cookbook author for other chefs.
In the seven years since The Art of Living was released, a lot has changed in the culinary and cookbook worlds. It’s now common for contemporary cookbook authors to experiment with a narrative hybrid of memoir, elaborate photography, and lifestyle advice in order to earn a place on coffee tables and bookshelves. (Erickson says publishers regularly tell her that chefs come in wanting to make books just like the first Joe Beef cookbook.) And much has changed for Morin and McMillan. They are now in their forties; McMillan recently completed a stint in rehab, and Morin now follows a gluten-free diet. Their days are no longer spent as underdog chefs sweating over the stove, as their focus is on managing and maintaining their empire.
Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Surviving the Apocalypse, despite its gluttony and excess, feels like a more mature offering than The Art of Living. While its title suggests a focus on the end times, Morin and McMillan seem more interested in their futures—the book even includes a section devoted entirely to health food. McMillan acknowledges this shift in an essay on wine: “Perhaps in the first book we were a tad bombastic,” he writes. “Indeed, I personally may have gone overboard with the ‘I love red Burgundy so much I want to pour it in my eyes,’ bit.” He later reveals that his taste for burgundy has been replaced with a penchant for natural wine, which is often organic and made without additives—not only for its flavour qualities, he says, but for its simplicity, its sustainability, and its healthfulness.
If Armageddon does occur, any readers who survive will be lucky to have Surviving the Apocalypse on hand as a guidebook. If they can manage to scrounge up all the right ingredients, they can whip up some pot-au-feu, ferment natural wine in a Yeti cooler, and enjoy what’s left of the world.