Renowned chef David McMillan throws in apron after 32 years

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“I never want to shave white truffles on to asparagus for someone from Toronto ever again in my life.”

Bill Brownstein  •  Montreal GazettePublishing date:Nov 24, 2021  •

David McMillan has stuck to his word and walked away from the restaurant business after recently turning 50. PHOTO BY DAVE SIDAWAY /Montreal Gazette

David McMillan is tossing in the towel. And the smock.

“I was burned out. I was angry all the time. I decided I couldn’t live like this any longer,” McMillan said in an exclusive interview with the Montreal Gazette.

McMillan, among the most renowned restaurateurs in the country and, indeed, the continent, has called it quits after 32 years in the kitchen. The co-founder and, until recently, co-owner of Joe Beef, Le Vin Papillon, Liverpool House, McKiernan and Vinette, had long ago pledged to quit the business when he turned 50.

He recently turned 50, and remained true to his word. He has sold his interests in the restaurants to fellow co-founders and co-partners Fred Morin and Allison Cunningham.

McMillan will now spend much of his time communing with nature on his farm in St-Armand and growing all manner of veg as well as grapes for wines to come.

“You can look for perfection all the time, and never find it. The best restaurant in the world is never perfect.”

Apart from tending to his farm and his three daughters — Dylan, Lola and Cecile —  McMillan, who just bought a place in Pointe-Claire to be closer to his kids in Dorval, has some intriguing fantasies — even for him.

“I want to work at Home Depot in the tool or wood section or as an orderly in the emergency department at the Lakeshore General Hospital. I just want a boss and a shift. I’ll work at the hospital for free. I need structure and not to be the boss. My mom has spent a long time working in palliative care and finds it really rewarding. Maybe I should,” he said before quickly musing: “I never want to shave white truffles on to asparagus for someone from Toronto ever again in my life.”

As segues go, the latter is classic McMillan, also the co-author of the bestselling The Art of Living According to Joe Beef: A Cookbook of Sorts and Joe Beef: Surviving the Apocalypse — Another Cookbook of Sorts.

McMillan has always been a maverick, and proud of it. Even his drummer marches to the beat of another drummer.

“I’ve worked for a lot of guys who should have left when they were 50. … There have been some sad ends in the restaurant business. I was preparing my exit when the pandemic hit and then I got sucked back in. It was a shock. Like everybody else, we all have pandemic stories. After this amazing career, I was racking my head against the wall trying to figure out what I could sell online to pack in an aluminum box to deliver or to have picked up. … It was just outside of my set of expertise. … I was trying to figure out a way to make crispy potatoes ride in an Uber. The whole experience was demoralizing.”

What he didn’t expect when the pandemic looked like it was winding down was a labour shortage. Which brought about a new level of stress.

“I just became angry. Angry at the door, angry at the refrigeration technician, angry at the dishwasher machine, angry at the price of meat, angry at the young chefs, angry at the older chefs. I was snapping at a lot of people I shouldn’t have. I became disillusioned and tired. When I woke up in the morning, I didn’t relish coming in to work. And I’m lucky, because 99 per cent of my career, I couldn’t wait to get to work. But I really started hitting the wall. I would wake up in the middle of the night with cold sweats.”

He regrets getting into a skirmish with  ex-Joe Beef chef Gabriel Drapeau, now the executive chef at WeCook.

“In all honesty, I think that’s what brought me to (leaving) at the end. I was fighting with Gab. I was really starting to get angry and see things I didn’t like at Joe Beef, and he is my friend. My training is archaic. I came up in restaurants where you still got punched, where screaming in the kitchen was absolutely fine. We’ve changed a lot over the last decade. Fortunately.”

But not enough for him to stay on.

“Running one restaurant, let alone five — there are just so many moving parts. You lie in bed, knowing that every 14 days you have to pay 140 people. That wears on you. There’s no peace. After leaving the restaurants a month ago, two weeks later I started to feel the innocence I had when I was in high school. My biggest worry when I woke up this morning was making my daughter’s amazing lunch for school.”

McMillan got his start in the kitchen, making breakfast at the classic but now-defunct Le Caveau. “I was cooking for politicians like (Jacques) Parizeau, (Pierre-Marc and Daniel) Johnson and power-businessmen like the Desmarais family. It was the best restaurant I ever worked in. It was surreal, another world. I never saw that again.

“I fell in love with tiny, candle-lit French restaurants with hand-written menus. That’s what attracted me. … Fred and I bonded on old French cooking … kidneys, liver, duck, seafood, market cuisine. I felt that French cooking was in a bad way 20 years ago. I don’t know now six French restaurants in the city. … Hopefully, we’ll see more.”

Among other spots here and in Europe, McMillan worked at the legendary Les Caprices de Nicolas, under the tutelage of the late Nicolas Jongleux, who died by suicide. As did McMillan buddy and mentor Anthony Bourdain.

“There have been a hell of a lot of suicides. Quite a bit of drug overdoses. Lots of drug abuse and alcoholism. I’m pretty damaged, but health-wise I’m good.”

He did a stint in rehab three years ago. Now he will only drink some wine “maybe once a month on special occasions under strict, supervisory conditions.”

“I like waking up at 5 a.m. at the farm. I’m in bed at 7:30, 8 at night, often before my daughters. … We were not working 35, 40 hours a week before. There were 80 hours a week, if not 100. … Seeing the sun rise now is a new thing for me.”

Could he ever be enticed back to the trade?

“Maybe this is an intermission. Maybe I just need 36 months off. Maybe I will open a 12-seat restaurant at the farm one day. … But it’s such a young man’s game now. Part of my brain thinks it’s 16 years old, and I can do it. But the reality is that even when I do cook for five or six people at the farm, my back hurts, my knees hurt, my ankles hurt. I’m not as sharp as I used to be. I’m not in my apex, predator mode.

“When I come into the city now, dread fills my heart. I’m too old to find parking. But my heart fills with joy when I’m driving down a dirt road and I see deer and wild turkeys. And see the horizon. I spent 12 hours a day inside a window-less, white-tiled room with stainless steel and six-burner stoves. Being able to walk away from the restaurant business sometimes feels like walking away from jail.”