Greg Couillard’s back in Toronto to cook up a Mexican-Caribbean-Indonesian-Asian menu at the Spice Room
“If chefs are not doing drugs, they’re drinking; and if they’re not doing either, they’re lying,” says Greg Couillard while sipping his morning coffee at his Yorkville restaurant, the Spice Room. “I’ve done enough of both for everyone in the city. I’ve done everything from A to Z. You can leave out ecstasy, though.”
The notorious chef has just flown back to Toronto from the retirement town of Ajijic, Mexico, where his new restaurant—the tapas-style Chili Bang Bar—will soon open its doors. This Thursday, Friday and Saturday at the Spice Room, Torontonians can get a taste of the chef’s new Bang Bar recipes, as well as dishes mentioned in his upcoming cookbook. The five-course menu ($80; $60 for fewer courses) is a curious collision of Mexican, Caribbean, Indonesian and Asian flavours, including jicama tacos stuffed with agave-cooked shrimp, roasted corn and chili-crusted grouper with coconut-chili risotto, and a Mongolian-spiced rabbit baked in a clay pot.
Couillard’s working visit to Toronto is part of an arrangement made with Spice Room–Manyata co-owner and chef David Nganga: the globetrotter returns to the restaurant every three months to cook a few dishes from his new restaurant and his book. The Good, the Bad and the Recovery, out next fall, will be as conceptually strange as Couillard’s dishes. It’s a tell-all biographical cookbook that “covers the decades when I was in the restaurant business, starting from the ’60s, when I was a teenager in Winnipeg working as a busboy.” Asked for an example of each of the book’s title elements, we get this:
• The good: Meeting Robert DeNiro and Tom Cruise during TIFF; getting a big hug from Dennis Quaid; kissing Grace Jones while out dancing in the ’80s.
• The bad: Trying to wake up an intoxicated chef who passed out under a stove at Oceans, the short-lived Richmond Street restaurant associated with Susur Lee and Charles Khabouth. “I was trying to get this person off the floor without the owner seeing what was going on. When the chef woke up, he didn’t know where he was and ran screaming into a packed five-star dining room and locked himself in the bathroom. That was pretty awful.”
• The recovery: Couillard says he’s been drug-free for a decade. “Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll don’t look so good when you’re 56.”
After working in restaurants since the age of 13, Couillard has a been-there-done-that tone when he tells these stories—as if they’re the norm in kitchens despite sounding like opening scenes of a Law and Order episode. The narratives offer a glimpse into Toronto’s recent culinary history while painting pictures of recreational drug use, amazing food and high-intensity kitchens.
“A waiter at Oceans told me to go fuck myself. I jumped the counter and held him over a sink with a knife to his throat while he apologized to the whole kitchen. We became good friends after that. God bless him, he’s dead now, but not by my hand. There’s all kinds of stories about me throwing knives…People don’t want straight-up recipes from me. Scandals sell, even if they’re old scandals.” But in a somewhat anti-climactic manner, he adds that it wasn’t the frenetic kitchen environment that drove him to narcotics: “I was a teenager in the ’60s. It was just our generation.”
Still, there’s a certain restlessness to Couillard, as evidenced by his résumé: he’s cooked at more than two dozen restaurants (Amber, Habitat, The Blue Room, Majic, Avec, Trixie, Sassafraz, etc.) and lasted a year, tops, at most of them.
“That’s Greg,” says Nganga, who met Couillard in 2005 while working at the defunct Irie Food Joint during TIFF. “I don’t think he can stay in the city for an extended period of time. And I see it in him. Before he left, I could see that he got bitter, and I was glad he went. He needed to get out of here. He bounces really well between places, and he always comes back refreshed.”
For now, Couillard is happy bouncing between Mexico’s year-round sunshine and the ethnic food markets and multicultural chefs of Toronto—two things he says keep him coming back. Though he left last year to write his book (leaving behind bewildered Toronto fans who wondered if he’d left Yorkville for good), he soon found himself helping out a restaurateur friend at the upmarket Mexican supper club Number 4 as a co–executive chef.
Now he’s opening his own casual, “no tablecloth” place with a Mexican-Asian fusion menu in Ajijic, a small town he compares to Ontario’s cottage country, where affluent Americans and Canadians (he estimates there are 30,000 snowbirds) own haciendas or go down to retire. “There are only so many games of bingo these people can play,” says Couillard, “so the Chili Bang Bar will bring some excitement.”
Now that he has the expertise, we asked Couillard to recommend a good Mexican spot in Toronto. “I’m not exactly craving Mexican food after being there for months at a time. I ordered curry when I got back.” He settles on Perola’s in Kensington Market and, to a lesser extent, the Chilean food lover’s paradise, Jumbo Empanadas on Augusta.
Couillard won’t have time to find the next best thing to his favourite Mexican haunts. In the upcoming months, he and Nganga are expanding their restaurant into the former Marc Laurent space behind the Spice Room. In addition, Couillard is releasing his own line of chutneys and rubs to coincide with the book launch next year. This should all keep him busy enough, but knowing Couillard’s history and his penchant for international cuisine, he’ll always keep Torontonians guessing what his next move (and location) will be.
“I still love cooking and travelling. I want to travel and cook until I die.”
Greg Couillard at the Spice Room, Nov. 12 to 14. $80; $60. 55 Avenue Rd., 416-935-0000, spiceroommanyata.com.