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Joe Beef Chef David McMillan On How Sobriety Changed His Life And Businesses


If you know the restaurant scene in Montreal, you probably know Joe Beef, widely regarded as one of Canada's best restaurants. And if you ever ate there, you might have encountered chef-owners David McMillan and Fred Morin and their signature style of excess.

DAVID MCMILLAN: Let's open a magnum of Muscadet with the seafood. Let's drink white burgundy with the appetizers. Let's open another magnum with the main courses. Of course we have to follow up with cheese. Of course we have to follow up with Calvados.

KELLY: After years of extravagant eating and drinking, David McMillan decided to get sober. He writes about it in a piece for Bon Appetit. And he told me that 15 years in, the pressure to deliver the Joe Beef experience to diners was overwhelming.

MCMILLAN: I felt like I had to give it all every night, so did the people around me. And I just couldn't escape from it. The last five years were just unhappy. I hated the customers. I hated owning restaurants. I blamed everything on, you know, this career that I've chosen - when I realized, you know, in my intervention that I was an alcoholic, and my life continued to include alcohol seven days a week - a depressant.

KELLY: So when did you reach that point? What changed?

MCMILLAN: I didn't reach that point of my own. I tried to quit.

KELLY: Yeah.

MCMILLAN: You know, I'd get a couple of days under my belt. I'd get Monday, Tuesday in, and then I'd drink on Wednesday because someone famous was coming to the restaurant. There was a chef coming from out of town. There was a writer coming from out of town. There was always something, right?

KELLY: It's like, next week, I'll get it together.

MCMILLAN: Yeah. But I can't do it this week because the reason they actually come here is to partake in this, like, legendary, epic food meal followed by several magnums of wine. I have three restaurants on one street, so I had a bottle open at one restaurant, a bottle open at the other and a bottle open at the third and. I was trying to touch all the tables.

Generally, by 11 o'clock, I'd be pretty beaten up, you know - never sloppy, never unkempt, just a tired actor, a sad clown that just put on this show. Then I'd go by myself in the alley to smoke a cigarette, and I was just - felt nothing. I just medicated to work.

KELLY: You went to rehab eventually. And you write about how the No. 1 thing they told you was, OK, you got to stay away from bars. Stay away from the wine trade, which is your life. It's your livelihood. How have you navigated that?

MCMILLAN: It was a bit terrifying. Thank God I had one of my friends that was actually five years sober. He called me one day, and he said, what are you doing? He said - I'd just been out of rehab maybe two months - and he said, why don't you come over here and do the pass? You know, where we dispatch food from the kitchen to the dining room. And I came, and I worked with him. I put on my apron. I sent food out. We drank sparkling water and kombucha and got back to working.

KELLY: And how did they react - your staff, your partner with whom you opened the restaurant - when you decided, I'm going to do this, and I'm going to do it sober?

MCMILLAN: Everybody was incredibly supportive. The people - the only people that weren't, I think, have issues themselves. A lot of people lost their drinking buddy. But generally, it's been positive. We saw changes inside the restaurant.

As I changed, as my associate changed, we also realized that people were coming out of the woodwork and saying, you know, David, I don't drink. I've been in the program for five years. Because I wasn't the Viking conqueror of the restaurant, I went back to the farms. I went back to the goat cheese farmer. I went back to the market. I went back to mushroom picking.

And then the people, the kids that would emulate me and do like I did were like, well, I want to go mushroom picking with Dave. And we started realizing that the staff drinking was starting to dissipate. There was just a culture change, really.

KELLY: Talk to me about how your customers have reacted because you've written about people who flew in, who had saved up and come especially to have this big, grand performance and experience at your restaurant, and you have to say, sorry, I don't do that anymore.

MCMILLAN: Well, they still get it.

KELLY: Yeah.

MCMILLAN: But I am more worried about how they're handled. Like, how are they getting back to the hotel? I went to a great rehab. And this man Richard Hoffman, who's been running it forever, said, David, you know, if you passed away, would the restaurant close? And I go. no. You know, there's tons of people there that make amazing food. There's a beautiful, passionate team - wine people and food people.

And he goes, so it wouldn't close? And I go, no. And he goes, so why are you killing yourself? It's like, the show must go on. But it's like a fallacy, right? That's the alcoholism speaking. It's the arrogance. It's the ego. It's all this stuff.

KELLY: It sounds like the decision to get sober was one step and part of your journey and then deciding to talk publicly about it has been another.

MCMILLAN: Yeah. When I was in rehab again, this same gentleman, Richard Hoffman, I said, how do I know - when I leave, what do I tell people? I don't know what to do. I'm really worried about leaving here.

He said, you can do two things. Like many people, live your sobriety quietly, but if you talk about this, there's a lot of young people that are going to listen. And you might and up saving lives without knowing it.

So it was kind of easy put that way, right? And speaking about it, putting it out there publicly, it keeps me sober, really, you know.

KELLY: Keeps you straight, yeah - because now you're on the record.

MCMILLAN: Yeah, exactly. I'll disappoint so many people.

KELLY: David McMillan, pleasure speaking to you. And I'm glad you're in a better place.

MCMILLAN: Thank you kindly.

KELLY: David McMillan. His new book, along with Fred Morin, is "Joe Beef: Surviving The Apocalypse." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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