MONTREAL — Chef and restaurateur David McMillan believes vegetables deserve more respect.
“It’s almost a shame to use a beautiful Japanese radish in a medley of vegetables beside a slice of liver,” says the owner of small, casual restaurants Joe Beef, Liverpool House and McKiernan.
“If you carefully cook a handful, dress it with a mustard vinaigrette and serve it with a few slices of French ham, you have a complete appetizer.”
McMillan said he’s serving more vegetables as appetizers, rather than offering a list of meat appetizers followed by meaty mains with starch.
“I still see local restaurants selling whole duck confit as an appetizer,” he said. “It’s crazy.”
Roasted squash tossed with good oil and grated pecorino makes a fine fall appetizer, he said, “and we can easily sell Swiss chard for $8-9, properly sautéed with a bit of butter and extra virgin olive oil.”
McMillan and partner Fred Morin even grew their own vegetables behind Joe Beef this summer.
“In two big gardens we grew more than enough kale, chard and tomatoes for all three restaurants,” McMillan said.
Quality vegetables and creative menu writing can also help the restaurant’s bottom line, he said.
“We have Swiss chard with duck confit and fresh grapes on the menu,” he said. “You get half a cup of chard in a bowl with a few moist, tender morsels of confit drizzled with red wine sauce. It’s delicious, and I’ve just tricked you into eating more vegetables.”
Baked squash with warm goat cheese is another fall favorite, he said. “I’m giving you baked squash with very little goat cheese, just as it’s written on the menu.”
Morin is also cooking up butternut squash soft-serve ice cream for dessert at Joe Beef, McMillan said, first checking the sugar level of the squash with a refractometer.
Even the most banal vegetables have their place, he said, like a turned potato cooked in well-salted water, or a little steamed broccoli with a drop of olive oil, served on its own beside a plate of meat or fish.
“It makes me enjoy the protein more,” he said, “and it’s getting back to real French cuisine, not piling everything piled on top of each other like we’ve seen for the past 10 years.”
Chef David Ferguson, chef/owner of Le Jolifou in the Montreal borough of Rosemont, also loves fresh produce, and he’s using them in earnest, having recently transformed his restaurant Le Jolifou from fine dining to casual roadhouse.
“I’ve been doing high-end for so long, I’d forgotten how cheap local root vegetables are,” he said, as he prepared another layered potato gratin.
French fries are a big seller, and he’s digging out potato skins and mixing the flesh with creme fraiche, green onions, cheese and a hint of truffle.
A stint in Santa Fe introduced Ferguson to the world of peppers. In fact, his smoky chipotle ketchup and habanero pepper sauce, placed on every table of his “new” restaurant, have been a huge hit.
Ferguson is also known for grilling fruit and serving avocado slices on burgers and steaks, but he said his big push now is to cut costs.
“I’m trying to get away from highly perishable items like delicate greenhouse greens and buy more durable fresh produce that I can preserve, process or freeze to get the most bang for my buck.”
“I think it’s a general trend,” he said. “Restaurants can’t afford to throw around $30 pieces of food anymore.”