Even from just reading the abnormally long title of The Art of Living According To Joe Beef : A Cookbook Of Sorts, one gets the inkling that this is no ordinary cookbook. Indeed, it seems that unconventional cookbooks are a natural occurrence in Quebec (see: Au Pied de Cochon Cookbook). Upon flipping through the pages you see photographs of the beautiful old Montreal, memoirs, essays on the history of icons notable to the restaurant and quirky little hand-drawn cartoons that only add to the unique and charming aspects of this restaurant.
And finally you see the recipes, and the photos of the food, and that's when you realize you have something supremely special balanced in your lap (or on your kitchen counter). I have this personal principle when deciding how close a restaurant is to maximizing it's potential. When you survey the menu, evaluate each dish on terms of whether or not it makes you want to eat it. Don't discount anything; the bread basket, the house salad and half-shell oysters are all fair game. The truly great restaurants in the world but as much thought into the simplest dishes on their menus as they do into the expensive, feature dishes and specialties.
Upon seeing the recipes, I honestly was astounded at how creative, whimsical and ridiculously delicious everything sounded. I will say on record, that the only time I have ever felt this way about a cookbook (where I want to cook/eat everything written in it) is with the Momofuku Cookbook. Incidentally, David Chang (the chef/owner of the Momofuku restaurant brand) personally pens the forward to the book. A fitting decision (and there is a whole story behind the selection as well), seeing as envelope pushing is a treasured past-time of his.
Seriously, I can't get over the ridiculosity (is that a word? it is now... see "pushing the envelope") of the food in this book. I feel like to achieve these ideas, they kidnapped a hundred chefs, made them work a 16 hour shift, including a Saturday night dinner service, and asked them after it was all said and done "So, what are you craving right now?" And it's in that adrenaline-juiced, exhausted yet empowered state of mind that the chefs may answer something like...
"Let's make lobster pasta, cram it into a squid and then braise it in lobster juice"
"Let's cut the crust off a loaf of Pullman bread, brown all the sides in butter, hollow it out and fill it with creamy, rich scrambled eggs and top it all off with creme fraiche, chives and caviar!"
It's undoubtedly, and I say this in the best, most respectful and affectionate way possible, aristocratic stoner food. And before I get jumped on by angry fans for that comment, I want to say that as a cook in Toronto, I would do terrible, shameful things to get a Joe Beef outpost in our city.
Unlike conventional cookbooks, TAOLATJB: ACoS (you know a cookbook title is long when the acronym is longer than every word in the proper title, let's just call it the Joe Beef Cookbook from here on in, shall we?) divides it's recipes into groups based upon sources of inspiration. Chapter names include "How to Build a Tiny Restaurant in the Middle of Nowhere" and "Building a Garden in a Crack Den". Drawing on the rich and storied history of Montreal, recipes are derived from classic dishes such as Chicken Jalfrezi while an entire chapter is devoted to recipes featuring the beef that gives the restaurant it's name.
I feel obligated to inform you that amongst the brilliant recipes included in the book, there's a bright light emanating from the page that houses the recipe for "Chicken Skin Jus". The recipe states it as a liquid extraction of "the deliciousness of crispy chicken skin". I immediately scratched it into my notepad of "Things to invent when taking a time machine to the past".
Despite being a Toronto Maple Leafs fan all my life, and being raised to hate everything about Montreal, I can honestly and proudly say that I am ecstatic that the Joe Beef Cookbook is finally making an appearance. A place like Joe Beef is what contributes to Canada's culinary identity. It's something unique and original and hey, if David Chang loves it enough to write the forward, it must be ridiculous, right? In the end, Joe Beef has put out more than just a cookbook, they've presented their food in a way that redefines the light that people will see Canadian food in from here on and into what is shaping up to be a bright future for our culinary scene.
Art of Living According to Joe Beef: A Cookbook Of Sorts
by Frederic Morin, David McMillan & Meredith Erickson
Hardcover, 292pp, $40
Reviewed by Kevin Jeung