Confessions of a Rebel Chef

In Toronto in the 1980s, I was cooking in the city’s best restaurants. I got hooked on the fame and the glamour before crashing in a blaze of booze, coke and heroin

I came to Toronto from Winnipeg by train when I was 18. It was August 24, 1971. I remember the date because the CNE was on. I could see it out the window of the train, bright lights and roller coasters. I’d been trading love letters with a hippy-dippy guy who lived in Regent Park, and he invited me to live with him. So like some sort of mail-order bride, I stuffed my clothes, my records and $120 cash into a suitcase, then did the Mary Tyler Moore thing and threw my beret in the air.

To find a job, I set up an interview at Canada Manpower, a Pierre Trudeau program designed to get disaffected youth into the workforce. The guy who interviewed me was a lecherous old queen, and I was a lovely piece of chicken. He asked, “Well, what have you done?” I said I’d been a waiter and a creative dancer and, of course, that piqued his interest, which led to, “Well, what kind of creative dancer?” I had been involved in the Manitoba Theatre School, performing Jesus Christ Superstar in churches. I imagined myself doing Isadora Duncan at the St. Lawrence Centre, but he suggested I take a job dancing at a restaurant called The Blackbird, a kind of low-end Chippendales where the waiters wore next to nothing and shook their money-makers. I declined. He told me there was one other job, working uptown as a cook.

Couillard, during his first Communion, in 1959, while posted with his family at the RCAF base in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu

The restaurant was called Troy’s and it was on Marlborough Avenue in Rosedale in a beautiful old home full of French-Canadian art and antiques, owned by an amazing man named Cecil Troy. I grew up in the white-bread world of the prairie suburbs. Chili con carne and deep-fried wieners. I’d never gone to cooking school. I’d never seen a live fish or a red bell pepper. But Troy was self-taught and figured I could learn, too. He’d hand me copies of Gourmet magazine covered in Post-Its and say, “This is what you’re doing this week.” We did reductions and demi-glaces, tournedos and spinach pasta. Green noodles. Who knew? Truite au bleu, where we’d get a live trout, whack it over the head, slit, gut and marinate it in vinegar, which turned it blue, then poach and serve. Joanne Kates, the pre-eminent critic of the day, thought Troy was a genius. As it turned out, I was kind of a natural, too. I’d always wanted to be an artist of some sort, and food gave me an outlet for creative expression.

Adrienne Clarkson, a CBC TV personality at the time, the film critic Rex Reed, the opera and ballet crowd, they all ate at Troy’s. There were two seatings a night, and it was always packed. It was my first brush with money, and I was smitten.

Halfway through the evening, Troy would go downstairs and bring up an apron full of beer and plow through it. I’d have a beer with Troy once in a while, but booze wasn’t my thing. I had come from the hippie culture of Winnipeg where we smoked hash and pot. After we closed for the night, Troy would go down to Greektown and party until four in the morning, drinking and smashing plates.

I left after two years because I was making barely more than a dollar an hour. Plus, there was always some drama between Troy and his Hungarian boyfriend, and I got tired of it. But Troy taught me so much. He was a madman in the best way. That was my internship in the world of food.

At his “hippie commune” of an apartment on the Danforth, just after he’d left Troy’s

I found work at Beggar’s Banquet, a vegetarian restaurant with communal tables on Queen near John. That’s where I met Andrew Milne-Allan, a brilliant chef from New Zealand and probably one of Joanne Kates’s all-time favourite chefs. He went on to start Trattoria Giancarlo on Clinton Street, and then Zucca on Yonge. Andrew and I bought the restaurant for $12,000 then stripped it down, got rid of the communal tables, re­­-decorated and reopened under a new name. He loved all things Italian and wanted to call the place Pappagallo, which means Parrot. I didn’t think Toronto was ready for a name like that—it didn’t exactly roll off the tongue—so we called it The Parrot. He did the menu and I was kind of the sous chef, handling brunch, soups and sauces.

Second from left, with Andrew Milne-Allan and staff, in 1976, just before they changed the name to The Parrot

Toronto had been a culinary desert. Very Presbyterian. Steak houses and a few traditional French and Italian restaurants. In the mid-’70s, there was a lot of action around Queen and Spadina, Kensington Market, the Art Gallery of Ontario. The punk movement was starting up, and waves of immigrants were arriving and bringing their cuisines with them. Vietnamese, Jamaican, Thai. I discovered lemongrass, Thai basil, exotic spices. I came across an Indian restaurant near the Ontario College of Art (now OCAD) called Babur. Their food was delicious and inspired my most exotic dish, a Salmon Tandoori, and I started playing with multiculti stuff, cherry-picking flavours and mixing them together. I hung out with a lot of Jamaican reggae musicians, like Messenjah, and they inspired my Jump Up soup and jerk chicken. People were starting to treat chefs as celebrities, and Jamie Kennedy, Michael Stadtländer and I were at the epicentre of the new scene.

At The Parrot, we’d do Spanish, Moroccan, southern French, northern Italian, Caribbean. But it was more than a place to eat. We created our own entertainment. All of my staff were artists, dancers, musicians. They were fabulous, wearing front- and back-zipped Fiorucci leathers. We would throw openings for painters and photographers on Queen West, and in exchange they would give us a piece of art. Some of our female servers were in a group called the Clichettes, who lip-synched as both men and women. They’d do 1950s girl band stuff, with three-foot–high wigs, and once did heavy-metal drag, including penises attached with Velcro. When they finished the act, they ripped the penises off and threw them into the audience. Our patrons included Divine, Rough Trade, Gerald Franklin, who was our Jean Paul Gaultier and dressed all the rock stars, photographer George Whiteside, all the cultural “it” people. We attracted people from Rosedale and Forest Hill who were daring enough to leave their rich neighbourhoods and go down to scary Queen Street and hang around with artists in PVC and leather. Even George and Helen Gardiner, the fabulously wealthy philanthropists behind the Gardiner Museum, came by.

I remember we hosted an artist who airbrushed homoerotic paintings of eunuchs playing pool with the Queen’s crown jewels. The Toronto Sun heard about the exhibit and sent in a reporter who, in the middle of dinner, badgered my diners with pushy questions like, “What do you think of this, the way this guy is disrespecting royalty?” I threw him out. And he said, “Why are we upsetting you so much?” I said, “Look, as a gay person—” and he said, “Oh, you’re gay?” So the next day in the paper on page 2, there’s a headline, “Gay Restaurateur Disrespects Queen.” It became a scandal, and we had to take the exhibit down.

I became the chief minister of party—drink, drugs, food, fun on a never-ending loop. The problem was life became 51-per-cent party, 49-per-cent work. My first experience with coke was when a friend who used to send us hash from India brought over a silver box full of it. In those days, you could get really clean cocaine that didn’t have seven per cent ground glass and fentanyl and God-knows-what bathtub drugs people put in it now. I was trying to put the moves on a guy, but we just talked, staying up all night doing lines and solving the world’s problems. It was delicious and euphoric.

I discovered the great marriage between coke and alcohol. If I did too much coke, a drink would balance me out. If I drank too much, a quick line would set me right. I worked seven days a week, round the clock, and my drug and alcohol intake increased. I was running a restaurant, and modelling for Gerald Franklin. I was in two bands, the Time Twins and the Parachute Club, playing percussion, and I was deejaying at Pan Am, spinning music like King Sunny Adé, Grace Jones and Grandmaster Flash.

The moment I knew I was in too far was when I had a gun pulled on me. I was high when it happened. I had been passing along some coke as a favour for my dealer, who was a friend. But the buyer accused me of cutting it, put a pistol in my face and demanded his money back. My guts dropped into my shoes. Fortunately, his girlfriend talked him down. I decided I wouldn’t do favours for anyone—it was too dangerous.

My partner, Andrew, was lots of fun but much tamer than I was, so we parted ways, amicably. We sold The Parrot for $80,000, and I went to Tahiti to get clean. It was like my own self-styled five-star rehab. I did a ton of cocaine before I got on the plane, and by the time we landed, I was doing what I call the hibbity-jibbity fish-out-of-water withdrawal dance: anxiety, edginess, sleeplessness. I went to the hospital in Papeete, the capital, and told the doctor I was coming down off a lot of coke. He gave me Valium, and I started feeling good on it. Then I discovered my friend Mr. Ballantine, of the scotch family, and mixed the two. It was wonderfully calming. What a lovely way to come down off of coke, I thought. I’d have red wine and pepper steaks delivered to this palace I’d rented by the water. Polynesian women were putting tropical flowers in my room. I’d swim with the fish in my little leopard-skin Speedo. But it was all just an hysterical delusion.

I spent a month there, then moved to New York. The city had a dark and ominous feel at the time. The gay bars were like something from a Hieronymus Bosch painting. We’d heard about “killer syphilis”­—some mysterious virus stalking the gay community, but we knew nothing about it. Then my roommate, who was my best friend, started having fevers at night. I watched his body get covered in Kaposi’s sarcoma. He had AIDS, but we didn’t call it that yet.

I moved back to Toronto and got a job at Emilio’s, on Queen East, near the first CityTV building. We were all heavy drinkers there. By three in the morning, the entire staff would be passed out on the bar. The critics applauded my return. I told everyone I didn’t care about celebrity, but the truth is, I loved the attention. I remember when Joanne Kates reviewed Emilio’s and I didn’t have the right change to buy the Globe, so I just kicked in the newspaper box and grabbed a copy. I thought I was hot shit. But I was terrified, too. As a self-taught chef, I found it hard to believe the hype. As each review got more over the top, saying things like I was the most important thing to happen to the Toronto restaurant scene in 20 years, I thought that somebody would call me out as a fraud. Booze helped kill the anxiety. And as more friends kept dropping from AIDS, booze helped kill the pain of that, too.

Eventually, I entered the land of toxic alcohol poisoning, and I couldn’t work any more. I’d blown my body out from the inside. Alcohol is such a nasty drug. I had a room at a friend’s house and was on unemployment insurance, but most of the time I was out on the street, a fifth of Listerine in my back pocket. One night, I was so out of it from drinking that I collapsed in a bus shelter at Queen and Bathurst. My sister, who lived around there, knew I was a mess, saw me and took me to the Addiction Research Foundation on College Street. They hooked me up to a bunch of tubes. I stayed for about a month before checking out. I knew drinking would kill me, but that wasn’t enough to make me stop.

For the next three years, ’86 to ’89, my friends and lovers kept dying, and I thought that if everyone was dying, there was a good chance I was on my way out too. I decided to break out the booze and have a ball. But then I didn’t die.

In the late ’80s, I worked at Stelle, on Queen near Niagara, just as TIFF had reached a certain level of glitz and glam and Toronto was becoming Hollywood North. My partners at Stelle were in the film industry, and we did tons of cast parties. We hosted Robert De Niro, Jane Fonda, Michael Keaton, Susan Sarandon, Kathy Bates, Rod Steiger. They would come straight from the airport, and if we didn’t have a table ready, we’d prepare a silver tray with champagne and some gorgeous appetizer and deliver it to the limo. Curb service, we called it. I once closed the restaurant and De Niro and his girlfriend, Toukie Smith, came in with her bulldog and we all got smashed on Montrachet.

Later, I opened China Blues, at King and Church, with my business partner, Craig Howard, who was also my lover. He was endlessly charming and loved the big life: limos, drugs, fancy hotels, Maseratis, silk suits and recklessness. China Blues was the kind of place where Mila Mulroney and Hilary Weston would come sauntering in, dripping in ermine and pearls and minks. Stars everywhere. Liza Minnelli was on the mend from rehab. She asked for a “cranberry juice” with a wink, so I put a shot of vodka in it. Everyone who worked in the kitchen drank­, and heavily. Probably half the kitchen staff across the city used coke in those days.

I lasted at China Blues for only a year before I started at Notorious on Yonge in Rosedale. Customers would send me martinis, and they’d line up and I’d pound them back, right into blackout. I’d wake up the next morning and not remember a thing. The night in 1992 when the Blue Jays won their first World Series, I had about 10 double martinis and maybe a gram or so of coke. I had the TV on in the restaurant. It was packed. Everybody was watching the game. The drinking continued until I was apparently on Yonge Street pouring Champagne­—the good stuff, not prosecco—down the throats of hot guys. My staff locked me out of the restaurant because I was completely out of control. When they finally let me back in, I poured a bottle of liquor over my hostess’s head.

A glowing 1992 review of Couillard’s stint at New Avec, at Peter and Adelaide

Despite the occasional fun, the work began to make me nasty. I despised clients and the industry. I was angry, the stress mounted, and I worked just to tread water. A friend turned me onto heroin in ’92. It was bliss, better than sex, better than love. When you’re high, you look out the window and feel sorry for anyone who isn’t you. Pain gone, everything gone. It was the best hiding place in the world.

For the next four years, I was using heroin off and on, though mostly on. I didn’t use needles; I’d just snort it. Like cocaine, heroin balanced out the booze. I’d have a bottle of wine in the morning to get me going, sip vodka throughout my shift at work, keep another bottle of vodka beside the bed at night, and do heroin as needed. I was warned—you do three dances with this lady and you’re stuck with her. And I thought yeah, yeah, I can handle this. But after taking a few trips around the dance floor, I was lost. I’d get my junk delivered to the back door of the restaurant, and would run downstairs with a hundred-dollar bill and do a quick line. I did a little every day.

I tried to stop, but the withdrawals were too painful. There’s the heaving, the lack of sleep, the shakes, the shits, the rattling in your head. It was like something living inside me, like in Alien, and I’d do anything to feed it. But I didn’t have to whack an old lady on the subway, thank God, because I could cook.

The last time I did rehab was 1996. Once again, it didn’t take. Then I started working at Sarkis Restaurant, on Richmond near Church. My heroin dealer and I used to do an under-the-table exchange: free drugs for a dinner of Filet Mignon Saigon and Burmese Shrimp, with good wine, followed by some fabulous cognac. We were sitting down, on New Year’s Eve, 1996, and he said, “I can’t sell you shit any more.” I said, “Are you fucking kidding me?” He handed me a piece of paper with a doctor’s name on it and said, “Go see this guy and get on his methadone program.”

He was the darling of Toronto restaurant critics. One called him “the most important thing to happen to the Toronto restaurant scene in 20 years”

It was at frigging Brimley and Sheppard in a strip mall full of housewives hooked on Oxy and criminals fresh out of jail. But methadone was the perfect substitute. It gave me an opioid high, but at least I wasn’t out scoring heroin, grinding myself into dust. By the early 2000s, I had weaned myself from a hundred milligrams a day to three, and then dumped my methadone supply down the drain. I said to my best friend, “I’m about to go through a lot of horrible stuff,” and I locked myself away for 17 days. I’d sleep for maybe 15 seconds at a time, thinking it was an hour. God bless my drug dealer for turning me on to that doctor. I’ve been clean for 10 years now.

In 2004, at Habitat on Queen West during his “Higher the garnish, closer to God” phase

In 2008, I got an offer to spend the winter cooking at a five-star hotel in Mexico in a fishing village by the ocean near San Patricio. Mexico was a gift. The people there aren’t driven by money like they are here. For the past seven years, I’ve been going down there every winter for three months and cooking at a boutique hotel near Manzanilla, and mentoring Mexican kids in the kitchen.

In 2017, the people at Bellwood Health Services, a rehab facility in the ravine south of Sunnybrook hospital, approached me about taking over their kitchen. I thought someone was pulling my leg. Who would want me working at a rehab hospital? They had hospital-style food and wanted something better. I said sure, and tried to make the place more Scaramouche and less jailhouse. I’ve been working at the Bellwood kitchen for nearly a year now. The people who come in have eating disorders, OCD, PTSD, and addictions to gambling, sex, and my two old standbys, drugs and alcohol. When they arrive, they’re poisoned from the inside out: eyes, skin, smell, body. They’ve just been killing themselves. I see myself in every one of them.

Couillard, now 65, is the head chef at Bellwood, a rehab facility in Leaside. Photograph by Dave Gillespie

It’s beautiful at the facility. We’re on six acres of woods. It’s like being up north. Very Bambi. We’ve put in a garden where clients and their families can grow herbs and tomatoes and stuff like that, and we’ve got two huge barbecues to get people interested in cooking. They can help out with peeling and chopping and experience the camaraderie of working in a kitchen. I find cooking therapeutic, and seeing other people go through the shit that I’ve gone through helps keep me straight. Plus, there’s no alcohol on the premises, so if I’m having a bad day, I can’t sneak off and drink the cooking sherry.

I love feeding our clients. I love seeing the look on their faces when they’re immersed in the flavours, the textures of a dish I’ve made, as if they’ve forgotten about their situation for just a few moments. I’ve seen the most amazing things. Often, after clients clean up and sleep and eat well and exercise and get their mental shit together, they leave like new, and I feel some tiny flicker of pride for helping in my small way.

I don’t worry anymore about being called out as a fraud, though to this day, I’m still amazed that the dishes I think up turn out the way they do. I’m still in love with food—the smells, colours, tastes. It’s one of my favourite addictions. Food talks to me. Or maybe I’ve just done too many drugs.

I have no desire to use coke or smack now. It’s grown old on me. People are shocked that at 65, I’m healthy and hale, except for a few little nicks and dents. Maybe it hurts a bit more these days to get out of bed, but everything still works. I look good and feel good. And in the kitchen, I can still dance the dance. At the end of the day, I always know I can cook.

—As told to Edward Kay

This story originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe, for just $29.95 a year, click here.