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Food & Wine Obituary: Restaurateur and oysterman John Bil believed in good, simple food

John Bil at Honest Weight, a restaurant and fish counter in the Junction neighbourhood of Toronto, in July 2016.

Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

In the spring of 2016, as food lovers from across Canada clamoured for seats at an extraordinary new fine dining spot called Le Pavillon, the scores of top chefs, restaurateurs and food-world leaders attached to the project worked to maintain an open secret.

The restaurant, a two-week-only pop-up for Toronto's Luminato Festival, was a champagne-soaked celebration of high-1950s opulence, set inside the control room of a derelict power station. A culinary time machine of sorts, it was the passion project of two of the brightest stars in Canadian food: Montreal chef Frédéric Morin and Toronto oysterman and restaurateur John Bil.

But unknown outside the industry, Mr. Bil, 48, had nearly died a few months earlier, while being treated for advanced melanoma. Since then, he had poured much of his remaining energy into the project, a long-held dream.

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Friends – a who's-who of restaurant, wine and seafood industry leaders from across the continent – flooded into town to help the restaurant succeed. They bussed tables, washed dishes, poured drinks and worked the door. The project was a resounding success.

"You go from lying in the hospital, near death, to opening the single greatest restaurant ever," said Victoria Bazan, Mr. Bil's friend and business partner. "It's remarkable."

On Jan. 24, after recovering time and again from surgeries and hospitalizations, Mr. Bil died at home, with his wife, Sheila Flaherty, and Mr. Morin beside him. He was 49.

As news of his death spread, stories began to circulate about his unfussy, all-in hospitality and work ethic – the same spirit that inspired so many of his friends to help at Le Pavillon.

His friend Norman Hardie, a winemaker, spoke of how Mr. Bil would often show up at the winery with coolers full of fresh seafood, to cater dinners for the staff. "He'd say, Norm, we're going to blow it out. He did it at cost. He never cared about the money. He just wanted it to be amazing."

Amy Millan, the singer for the indie-rock band Stars, who is also a friend, described the same open-hearted generosity. "He brought celebration to every minute," she said.

Ms. Millan described typical John Bil seafood spreads as "like being inside the belly of a whale."

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Ms. Flaherty spoke of her husband's disdain for pomp and pretension. He revelled in fresh, simple ingredients, prepared without fuss, and even at Le Pavillon, he insisted the service be friendly and fun, instead of haughty.

"He brought humility back to a lot of it. He wanted to bring people back to food and wine at its simplest, at its best."

Mr. Bil's impact on the seafood trade in North America is likely to reverberate for years to come. As a champion oyster shucker and travelling sales manager in the early 2000s for one of Prince Edward Island's largest shellfish companies, Mr. Bil was a high-profile ambassador for the at-the-time burgeoning culture of oyster eating and appreciation. He appeared on The Today Show and Live! with Regis and Kathie Lee, and was a regular in American food magazines such as Bon Appétit.

Mr. Bil also shared his knowledge with chefs and restaurants in Montreal, New York, Boston, Toronto and countless points in between.

"This guy's an icon in Canadian seafood," said David McMillan, a partner, with Mr. Morin, in Montreal's Restaurant Joe Beef. "There's not a single chef who doesn't know who John Bil is."

John Walter Bil was born on Feb. 23, 1968, in Oakville, Ont. Even at a young age, he dove headlong into esoteric projects, always working to understand things most people take for granted. As a teenager, he built his own computer, said his mother, Mary McKeown. Though he achieved straight-A grades in school, he dropped out before graduating.

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"Unknown to me, he started a record business, age 17, 18," Ms. McKeown said. The shop, on Toronto's College Street, was named Sketchy Records. "It didn't succeed, of course, but he just had this ambition."

In his early 20s, Mr. Bil, who had also worked as a bike courier and a barista, found success behind the counter at a booming new restaurant called Rodney's Oyster House.

"In the eighties, you could count on one hand the places in Toronto that served oysters," said John Petcoff, Mr. Bil's long-time friend who today is a partner in Oyster Boy, a restaurant and distributor.

Even in cities that were once well-known oyster centres, the business had little lustre. Shucking knife in hand, Mr. Bil took to it nonetheless.

He became a fixture at the Canadian national oyster shucking championship, which he won three times.

"John would almost go in a state where you're – it's going to sound funny, but – talking to the oyster, you know?" said Rodney Clark, who is Rodney's founder and namesake. "You're opening it, but you're respectful to it and it's yielding to you. John never had a problem talking to oysters."

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Mr. Bil could also simultaneously talk to the people consuming them. He was a natural charmer, with an unparalleled curiosity and depth of knowledge.

"The way he connects with people, it's a beautiful thing to watch," recounted Ms. Bazan, who partnered in 2015 with Mr. Bil at Honest Weight, a seafood counter and 16-seat restaurant in Toronto. (Ms. Bazan will continue running the business, she said.) "It was a masterclass in how to engage another human being."

After moving to Prince Edward Island in the early 1990s, Mr. Bil continued his seafood education, working variously in a mussel-processing plant, in oyster bars, and on an oyster farm.

As a sales manager for Atlantic Shellfish from 2000 to 2005, he drove up and down the Eastern Seaboard, visiting bars and restaurants, attending seafood shows and shucking events – doing whatever he could to promote PEI oysters and the growers who produced them, most of whom were his friends.

In Montreal, Mr. Morin and Mr. McMillan were cooking at a popular restaurant on Boulevard Saint-Laurent, and attempting, without much success, to serve a proper oyster. "For some reason, I had oysters one day that were better than the usual," Mr. Morin said. He tracked down their source, which led him to Mr. Bil.

Montreal's oyster selection was limited at the time; most people didn't know the variety and range of tastes and textures that oysters could offer.

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"John was our secret weapon," said Mr. McMillan. "We had the best seafood program for years, because of John Bil, everywhere we worked."

In 2005, as Mr. Morin and Mr. McMillan were preparing to open Joe Beef, they asked Mr. Bil to work with them. He was hardly your average restaurant employee, though.

Mr. Bil pulled into Montreal in his rusting Dodge Caravan, which bore PEI vanity plates reading OYSTER. He owned few changes of clothes. He slept on couches, or in his van.

At Au Pied de Cochon restaurant's extraordinary sugar shack outside Montreal, Mr. Bil famously slept for much of one season on a storage shelf inside a closet, on a bed roll he travelled with. He was broke for much of his life, spending most of his earnings on food and wine, and saw little need for fancy lodgings.

Yet Mr. Bil could also build furniture and weld kitchen equipment, mix drinks and counsel budding restaurateurs as they struggled with the personal and financial issues that often go with opening new places.

"When we were running around with our heads cut off, John was always the voice of reason," said Joe Beef's Mr. McMillan. "He was the sage, a big brother."

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Chef Hugue Dufour, of the Michelin-starred M. Wells Steakhouse, in Queens, New York, said only Mr. Bil's drive and enthusiasm helped get his restaurant open on time.

"He was a finisher. He was bringing people's dreams to reality."

He had a golden touch. Ship to Shore, a ramshackle oyster house that Mr. Bil opened in 2008 and ran on PEI's Malpeque Bay, was named the following year in enRoute magazine as one of the best new restaurants in Canada.

In 2013, Mr. Bil was diagnosed with Stage 4 melanoma. He moved back to Toronto, and following treatment, the cancer went into remission. He went on with life, and planned to open Honest Weight with Ms. Bazan. He also met Ms. Flaherty, a sommelier and wine agent whom he would marry.

Mr. Bil, who had long resisted the trappings of domesticity, took to settling down.

"We were sitting on the couch and we were talking about life and marriage and all that stuff and I asked him if, you know, he wanted to get married at some point," Ms. Flaherty said. "It was really hard on him, he said, 'Why would you marry a sick man? I can't look after you. You're going to have to look after me.' And then I said, 'If I were to get married to you I'd be the luckiest person in the world. I'd be honoured.'"

They got married on Thanksgiving, 2016. A year later, this past October, as Mr. Bil was about to begin a last-ditch experimental treatment, his doctors said the cancer had spread too much. There was nothing they could do.

Yet even in his last days, Mr. Bil continued sharing his love of seafood. Well into this past fall and winter, he wrote and refined the final chapters on a book he'd been pouring himself into – a compilation of his knowledge and outlook, aided by his love of near-obsessive research.

Called Honest Weight: Straight Talk From Behind The Fish Counter, it's slated to be published by Toronto's House of Anansi Press this fall.

And even to the end, Mr. Bil never lost his love of food or hospitality. He and Ms. Flaherty hosted dinner parties and entertained a steady stream of family and friends. "He still managed to make the most amazing crepes and caviar Christmas morning," Ms. Flaherty recounted. "I don't think it was easy for him, but he did it."

Mr. Bil leaves his wife, Ms. Flaherty; parents, Mary and Howard McKeown; and siblings, Laura Ann Bil, Lynn Ann McKeown and Marc Hugh James McKeown.

There will be a memorial and party in Mr. Bil's honour on Jan. 28 at Terroni, 57 Adelaide St. E. in Toronto, from 1 to 4 p.m.

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