Above, John Bil. Photo by the author.
John Bil is the guy you call when your restaurant opening is swiftly approaching, you’re hemorrhaging money, and your contractor just walked off the job. He has worked in the restaurant business for decades, inhabiting a lone wolf or Mr. Fix It kind of niche, but it’s hard for most in the restaurant industry to articulate his exact job description. He’s the person who gets called in at the very last minute to slam a restaurant into shape in the final countdown, when the anxiety of opening on time is as high stakes as trying to dismantle a bomb. He's helped open up an impressive list of restaurants like Joe Beef, Liverpool House, Au Pied de Cochon, and M. Wells Steakhouse. A man who has “never had money,” John has lived nomadically in his van at many points during his career, ready to leave on a moment’s notice for the next job. And though he’s helped open some of the most prestigious restaurants in Canada and the US, he’s not letting it go to his head. He claims that he’s not, “good at anything except maybe shucking oysters,” but his stubborn nature and ability to “outwork everybody” is what helps him achieve success.
Oyster shucking was his gateway into the restaurant circuit. After dropping out of high school, he opened a DIY punk record store called Sketchy Records, and also became Toronto’s fastest bike courier. John became part of a Sunday bike ride crew with the restaurant staff from a restaurant called Rodney’s, an oyster bar. After witnessing John’s high tolerance for pain from watching him crash multiple times, Rodney’s staff brought him on board as an oyster shucker. There were no oyster shuckers in Toronto at the time, and John didn’t know anything about restaurants. He was a terrible shucker in his first attempts, but his natural tenacity and competitive nature helped him to become one of the best in Toronto. When it was warm in the summertime, John would pick up work at the Rodney’s location in Prince Edward Island (PEI) to help run the location. He fell in love the island and decided, “Fuck it, that’s it,” packing up his van and living in it until Carr’s Oyster Farm in Stanley Bridge took pity and hired him. Working on an oyster farm isn’t exactly lucrative—John was working 70-hour weeks for seven bucks an hour, with no overtime, making $240 a week. Then his van got repo’d.
He started throwing oyster parties to make more money. In the early 90s on PEI, oysters were not sold in restaurants, a missing income for the island, considering the amount of tourists that flooded in for the seafood. John began to set up pop-up oyster bars inside establishments like the Olde Dublin Pub, Pat & Willy’s, Baba’s Lounge, and the Purple Parrot in Summerside. He worked at the oyster farm during the day, spending his nights at his oyster pop-ups, where his sales were “pretty grim” until he gained popularity at a restaurant called Kensington Club, where he often sold over two thousand oysters a night. His oyster shucking became so popular, even the Canadian government caught on, hiring him to work at government trade shows. He was broke, not paying taxes, and getting paid by the government.
When he realized that he could take his bivalve shucking on the road, he decided to travel and work in New York, Boston, and Montreal, where he met and befriended (now legendary) Canadian restaurateurs Dave McMillan and Fred Morin of Joe Beef, the restaurant that is commonly considered at the epicenter of Montreal’s dining scene. John was living in New York until he received an urgent email from Fred Morin, asking him to come up to Montreal to help open Joe Beef. A simple email was all it took.
He raced up to the restaurant in August and helped to open it by September. He couldn’t speak French, and didn’t know anything about wines—two necessary restaurant skills in Montreal. On his breaks between restaurant shifts, John trained for marathons. A few months into getting Joe Beef up and running, he received a call from a pair of restaurateurs in New York who were aiming to open up their establishment in two weeks' time. He quickly packed up his van and cruised down to New York to help open up Flex, a seafood restaurant. When he arrived for work, it quickly became apparent that it needed a lot more work. “It was a shell,” he said. After a meeting with the owners, John and the team set a longer, more realistic timeline for the opening date that would take place five weeks later. During this period of long, grueling hours he lived in his van in a state park, just a short thirty-minute drive outside of Manhattan. It was a cold October, where he would pay to park overnight and camp inside of the park. He was the only person in the entire place, making use of a small lake with a beach where he would set up a fire at nightfall. When he told New Yorkers about his sleeping arrangements, the responses were always the same. “'Fuckin’ camping? What? This is New York City.'”
Looking back on his impressive roster of restaurants—including Liverpool House, Au Pied de Cochon, Sugar Shack, M. Wells Steakhouse, the Claddagh Room, and Catch—John’s dream projects are the ones that defy all the odds, like the Claddagh Room, which “was a crusty old place that had no customers, Joe Beef was in the ghetto of Montreal, Ship to Shore was in the middle of nowhere. So when I saw Catch, there was nothing around. If it doesn’t make sense and you’ll never make money, I’m in.”