I have one job: Get David McMillan to talk about how much he loves moose meat.
So I call him up and ask if there is anything he wants to say about the animal or his love for the meat. It’s an invitation to wax rhapsodic.
I’m met with a long, awkward pause.
Welp. There goes my assignment.
David McMillan and his business partner, Fred Morin, feature in the Newfoundland episode of Parts Unknown. The pair own four Montréal restaurants—Le Vin Papillon, Joe Beef, Liverpool House, and the new Mon Lapin—and we last saw them on-screen with Bourdain in their televised love letter to Québécois cuisine. McMillan and I spoke last year about the hubbub over the Joël Robuchon restaurant in Casino de Montréal.
Since I haven’t planned much beyond, you know, moose meat, I lamely ask what the experience was like shooting the show a second time.
“To see what the people actually eat for real, the traditional foods. You know, they eat seal meat there, they eat moose, they eat cod—lots of cod.”
“It was great. We love doing it. Fred and I are natural homebodies. We’re offered a lot of television opportunities—we turn 95 percent of them down. But we go back quite a long way with Tony,” McMillan laughs. “We go back almost to the Kitchen Confidential book tour, when he was still a writer. So generally if he asks us to do things, we say, ‘Sure.’”
“We went to explore the local food,” he continues. “To see what the people actually eat for real, the traditional foods. You know, they eat seal meat there, they eat moose, they eat cod—lots of cod.”
Newfoundland’s cod moratorium, imposed in 1992, continues today, with minimum commercial exception. The moratorium devastated the local economy, but islanders are hopeful that the recent resurgence of the cod population will mean a return to fishing. In the meantime, cod remains an emblematic dish of the island.
“Head-to-tail cod,” McMillan says. “They eat the whole beast, and it’s really a big deal.”
Since we’re not talking about moose meat, McMillan gives me a quick lesson in Newfoundland cuisine instead.
“They have a rich history,” he explains, “because they’re marooned there in the North Atlantic. Ultimately, it’s been kind of a poor economy, so there is this kind of beautiful, untouched, traditional food that’s very unlike the rest of North America—it’s been preserved in misery. It’s just a stunning place.”
McMillan adds, “Newfoundlanders are incredibly friendly, giving, generous, warm. Us being from Montréal and Tony being from NYC, it’s off-putting, almost, to meet people who welcome you into their homes.”
Sunday @PartsUnknownCNN @Bourdain @Raymondsnl @JeremyBonia @fredmadeit Newfoundland and St Pierre & Miquelon! pic.twitter.com/no8cUQFpuk— David McMillan (@joebeef) May 10, 2018
I persist, determined to get something about moose meat. McMillan kindly relents.
“I do love moose meat—it’s delicious. You know, it’s a big, majestic animal. The interesting thing about moose is that they were introduced to Newfoundland. They are not native. There’s a lot of them there—it’s kind of a staple, a traditional food of the Newfoundlanders. They’ve been there for quite a long time; but they have no predators, so they grow and proliferate on the island.”
How do Newfoundlanders cook it? Like beef?
“Yes,” he says. “Some parts are stewed, some are roasted, some are steaks, some are ground into sausages. There’s wild moose you can actually buy at the grocery store in season. They are allowed to sell wild meats commercially there, so you can go to a regular grocery store—even a down-market grocery store—and there’s an enormous amount of scallops, clam, moose meat, sausages, and, you know, seal meat, even flippers. These are their traditional foods.”
You can buy seal flippers someone just caught and brought to the grocery store? What is this place?
“I don’t condone [eating] seal meat in New York City or Toronto,” McMillan says. “That would just be novelty. I would understand why people would be upset about that in a city like Los Angeles, but they’ve been eating seal meat [in Newfoundland] since before anybody lived in California. So, like, if anybody is allowed to eat seal meat, it’s our First Nations aboriginal people and the wonderful people of Newfoundland.”
The food of Newfoundland, McMillan says, doesn’t bear French influence like the cuisine of his native Québec. “The cuisine, if you really look at it, has a lot to do with Irish cuisine, even Icelandic, Scottish. Even the topography—the land looks like it was split away from Ireland, the way the soil is, the way the rock is, the plants that grow in that climate—[it’s] all very akin to Ireland. It’s a very tough place.”
“You can feel the misery. For sure, planes go there every day. There’s oil now. There is money in St. John’s. But you can tell that not that long ago, like in the ’60s, cod was the main industry. You know, we don’t know a lot of rich fishermen. There’s a kind of underlying humility to the people. Not that long ago they were fishing cod in rowboats by hand.”
We’re winding down. It’s McMillan’s day off, and he’s taking what he calls a “Dave-time day,” which today will involve working in the garden and doing a little work around the restaurant. Last time we spoke, McMillan mentioned that he and Morin were working on a then-untitled book. I ask about it.
“It’s called Joe Beef: Surviving the Apocalypse. It’s insane,” he says.
I ask jokingly if theirs is the zombie apocalypse. Sort of, he says. But we are the zombies—material zombies—chasing tasting menus (McMillan is famously anti) and checking off the 50 best restaurants as we visit them one by one.
He says the book’s timing is perfect.
“Gun laws in America, school shootings, come on—everybody has to honestly take a step back and get ready to get the f*** out. Or to make real serious change. Stop being greedy. Prepare for a f***ing major cataclysm. I’m not a doomsday prepper. I’m just saying we have to take a serious look at how we live.”
An exceedingly fair assessment.
“What’s important is family, conversation, eating, understanding where honey comes from, buying local food, drinking natural wine, eating organic food, growing vegetables in your backyard, understanding, being generous, food security, charitable endeavors. Don’t be a shit person,” he continues.
That seems fair as well.
“Go figure out what’s going on in your neighborhood. Stop wasting all of your money. Give to local charities. Get involved in your community. Turn off f***ing Instagram.”
Where would he go if his predicted apocalypse does come to pass?
“We have a place up north off the grid with solar panels, stored beans, and food, and I can’t f***ing wait!” he laughs.
I’m laughing now, startled that I suddenly feel remarkably lighthearted. I tell McMillan he’s cheered me up.
“It’s a f***ing sh*thole right now. For real. I’m happy—don’t get me wrong. I’m ecstatic. I live my good life. I’m well surrounded by people I love,” he says. “But you’d have to be an idiot to think anything’s going well.”