Q&A: John Bil, the in-demand oysterman who’s shucked his way to the top
How do you get to be one of Canada’s most respected seafood experts? If you’re John Bil, owner of the Junction’s new fish counter, Honest Weight, you race mountain bikes and live in a van when you need to. Bil, who the Globe has called “one of the best oystermen on the continent,” has helped open some of the top restaurants in the country, including Montreal’s Joe Beef, but the same nomadic lifestyle that led him down this fishy path has also kept him out of the spotlight. We chatted with Bil about being broke, apocalypse cuisine and his new spot, which focuses on lesser-known tastes of the sea.
In Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain writes about eating his first oyster, and how it was an “a-ha” food moment for him. Did you have any experiences like that?
I grew up in Toronto in a family that was all about food. My grandparents emigrated from Poland, and there was always food around. I loved to help my grandmother cook. I just always wanted to be around the oven. I was never trained to cook. I just kept doing it. Seafood has been the same way. Even though I didn’t always know what I was doing, I was always very curious and always trying things.
So you’ve never had any formal kitchen training?
I failed high school—I’ve never had any training in anything.
How did you end up working in restaurants?
I was racing mountain bikes for a while, and I really needed money. Some of the guys I was riding with had just opened a place called Rodney’s. They needed somebody to help them shuck, so I thought I’d give it a try. I was pretty bad at it, but I just kept going and eventually I got pretty good. I worked at Rodney’s for two or three years, then moved to PEI.
When you say you were bad at shucking, what does that mean?
It means you’re getting a lot of shell in the oyster; it means you’re shredding the meat; it means you’re slow; it means you’re stabbing yourself; it means you haven’t figured it out yet. There’s no right or wrong way, but there’s an end result that should be perfect. It took me about six months to get pretty good. You try to make contact with the meat as little as possible—the more you fuss with the oyster, the worse the result is going to be.
Chris Nuttall-Smith once called you one of the best oystermen on the continent.
There are a lot of good people out there. I’ve been lucky because I’ve farmed oysters, exported them, imported them and shucked them. I don’t think most people have had that all-around experience.
What was it like working on an oyster farm?
Whenever you’re growing anything, it’s super-hard work. It takes three to four years to grow one single oyster, so you take the typical work you do on a farm and multiply it by two or three. I’ve always loved hard, physical labour. It’s always been a passion of mine. The oyster farm gave me a real sense of what true hard work is. I was on the farm for almost 10 years, sometimes working 16 hours a day, seven days a week.
What do you like about physical labour?
It gets you to sleep at night. I’ve always had a lot of energy, so once I stopped farming, I got into athletics and marathons. I would go and run 20 kilometres before my shift at Joe Beef. Then I still had to do the work. I just have to work hard. Some people aren’t into that, and that’s cool.
How did you end up working with the guys from Joe Beef?
After I left the farm and started selling oysters, I started making friends, including Fred Morin and Dave McMillan. I sold to them for a few years, and then they said they wanted to open a restaurant. I told them I’d quit the oyster business and go work with them, so in 2005 they went to open Joe Beef, and I moved to Montreal. Those guys are awesome. There was a connection right away.
What was your role at Joe Beef?
I helped open it: painting the tables, building the floors—everything. I was also bartending and getting seafood, and Fred was heading up the kitchen and Dave was front-of-house. I didn’t know anything about wine, but I knew a lot about seafood. I couldn’t even speak French, but I got better.
You’ve helped open a few restaurants.
Yeah, I helped open M. Wells Steakhouse in New York, which just got a Michelin star. I just came in to help design counters, weld and purchase equipment, and I also dealt with their seafood. I slept in a trailer by the side of the restaurant for a month or so.
So all of these skills, welding and whatnot, you just randomly picked up throughout your life?
Sometimes you just need to do things by hand, because, yeah, you save money, but you also own the place more.
You’ve worked with Martin Picard, too.
Martin wanted more seafood on the menu at the Sugar Shack one year, so I worked with him for that season. The Sugar Shack is a serious place. It’s not a one-man show; it’s a huge machine and I was happy to be a part of it.
When one of the best chefs in the country asks you to take care of the seafood, how do you handle that?
Well, you have to work with the ambiance that’s already in place, and I work with people who share my outlook on things anyway. If a random chef asked me to help out, it probably wouldn’t work out very well. I think instinct also plays a huge role. You have to be good, but you have to be lucky. I can sense things sometimes—we started getting in these little limpets, and I hadn’t worked with them much, but I could tell they’d be good. You just take a chance.
I read that you’ve periodically lived in your van.
Yeah, when I moved to PEI, I didn’t really have a job or a whole lot of money, so I just put a mattress in the back of the van. I had a little cook stove and it was in the middle of winter. It served me well down the road when I helped out at M. Wells and they showed me the trailer. I think living spaces are overrated.
You think houses are overrated?
I’m happy to sleep anywhere at any time. It makes no difference to me. It’s not really helpful for relationships though.
How did you develop that simple lifestyle?
I’ve always been that way. I’ve never really gone shopping, and I don’t buy clothes—I try to get as many free clothes as I can. Some people are just turned off by certain things. It’s like the way we serve our fish at Honest Weight: there are no sauces. I like my house totally unadorned.
Has it been difficult for you?
I’ve been broke for 30 years, and I’m gonna be broke for the next 30. There’s no question about it. I just pay the bills and that’s it.
Let’s talk about Honest Weight. Is this the first place you’ve opened for yourself?
I had a place in PEI called Ship to Shore right on Malpeque Bay. It went well. It was one of En Route’s best new restaurants, and it was in the middle of nowhere.
What was going through your mind conceptually with this restaurant?
I wanted to recreate that casual vibe from Ship to Shore. It’s a very laid back place, lots of friends coming in. We have tables and chairs, but the fish counter really changes things, because all of sudden people don’t know what’s going on, and I’m okay with that. We explain a lot of things here. I don’t have fish and chips on the menu here for a reason. I do really good fish and chips, but if I had it, people would default to it because it’s the easiest thing. I like to get people out of their rut. They think they’re in a groove, but it’s really a rut. Just let me give you something to try. What’s going to happen during the end of days, when you have to survive on limpets? The man who knows how to eat limpets will live.
What’s the most interesting thing you have in stock right now?
We have some nice whelks from Maine, which you don’t see a lot. The labour is so massive on these whelks, but the payoff is so small. But man, it’s whelks: you steam it, you chop it, and you marinate it. They’re so natural and perfect.
That doesn’t sound like a small payoff.
Well, it’s a huge payoff, but from a dollars and cents standpoint, it’s small. People talk about the sustainability of seafood. If we were trying to be truly sustainable, we wouldn’t be eating seafood in Toronto. It’s crazy. We’re, like, flying water through the air because the fish are shipped on ice, and dumping it down the drain. Then you’re saying the fish is sustainable? We’re fooling ourselves. I think if you’re going to use a fish like monkfish, you use everything. We turn its liver into a terrine, and we use the cheeks—everything but the tail, which is what everyone else uses. To me that’s a little more responsible. That’s why I like these kinds of products. They’re out there and they can feed us if we just embrace them. I don’t want fish to be weird.