Food by VICE

How Sourcing Seafood Changed John Bil's View of Humanity

We spoke to living legend John Bil about the dark side of seafood and the bright side of converting a derelict power station into a classic French restaurant.

by Nick Rose
Jun 24 2016, 4:58pm

"We all know we're guilty, right? We fucked up the land, we fucked up the air, and now we're fucking up the water."

Your restaurant is in shambles days before opening? Call John Bil. Need to know which beer pairs best with Kelly oysters from Ireland? Call John Bil (the answer is Guinness). Opening a classic French restaurant for two weeks in a derelict power station that is in no way equipped to accommodate a kitchen? Call John Bil. In need of a serious reality check about your choice to buy "sustainable" fish? Definitely call John Bil.

Honest Weight

John Bil. All photos by Johnny CY Lam, except where indicated.

"We're trying to assuage our guilt by being more eco-friendly and all that bullshit, but look around, man. How do you think sustainable fish gets to your fucking fish shop? You think it swims up the river into your fridge?"

Bil's question is a rhetorical one, but it touches on some pretty practical points. "It gets caught on a boat, it gets processed and put in a styrofoam box. Then it gets iced down and put on a plane and flown to your destination and put on a truck and then another truck. It finally ends up in your fridge and the styrofoam is thrown away and the ice is dumped down the drain. Fuck it, man! Buying sustainable fish is not going to help the world, if that's what you're trying to do."

Then, on a dime, the conversation turns from practical to philosophical. "If you're trying to help the world, just don't have kids. That's your best bet to save the world. The world doesn't give a shit whether you're going to be around or not. It actually doesn't care. We're the least important species for the survival of the Earth. If we exited the Earth, everything would be fine. So, who are we doing it for? We're just doing it for ourselves."

Honest Weight

Sure, it's a little bleak, but the scale of this response to "What do you think of 'sustainable' fishing?" is a glimpse into the level of care and expertise that comes along with dedicating your life to the resilient, delicious creatures that inhabit the dark corners of our planet.

After running a DIY punk record store called Sketchy Records in the late 80s and a short stint as a bike courier, Bil ended up shucking oyster at Toronto's legendary Rodney's Oyster House. "Rodney's was doing oysters, and it was as busy as Bar Raval is now. At the time, there was no one who could shuck oysters. I was really bad at it, but I stuck it out and I started going to their farm in PEI in '92."

Honest Weight

Soon enough, it became clear to Bil that shucking oysters in the middle of the city hardly makes one a true seafood man. "I wanted a real job, not a fake job. You get into that restaurant culture and restaurant life, and you see people complaining about how hard they're working and they're crushing beers between shifts or during shifts and doing drugs. That's not a real job. So, I bought a van and went to work on an oyster farm for seven bucks an hour. I went from $1,000 a week cash to like 250 bucks a week, and it was really gruelling."

Though Bil would eventually return the restaurant industry, a decade on the Island allowed him to look at things from an entirely different perspective. "I really enjoyed the ten years I spent on the farm. I think it does make me a more informed merchant and restaurant person now because I can call bullshit on a lot of things and help people understand what they're buying, like why mussels suck in July and so good in May. For me, it's like breathing."

People who work in restaurants love talking shit about other people who work in restaurants. But mention John Bil's name to any service professional who's crossed his path and you will be met with looks of reverence and respect. His reputation as a nomadic fixer is legendary and beneficiaries include the likes of Joe Beef, Liverpool House, Au Pied de Cochon, and M. Wells Steakhouse.

Honest Weight

It's a period in his life which wasn't exactly glamorous, but, then again, neither were the DIY punk bands he idolized when he owned Sketchy Records. And what could be more punk rock than living in a van and helping your buddies build their own restaurants?

"Society is a just bunch of tribes, and there is definitely a restaurant tribe. And when it comes to restaurants, I'm never going to do something for someone I don't know. Fred Morin, Martin Picard, Hugues—none of us had any cash. None of us were born on third base, we all kind of scraped by. There was a real DIY approach to those jobs. I even had my truck re-poed when I was in Montreal and lived at Fred's house."

Today, Bil's life is a little more sedentary. He runs, along with partner Victoria Bazan, Honest Weight, a restaurant and fish counter that synthesizes his approach to the more obscure offerings of the sea. Limpets, cockles, barnacles, razor clams, and whelks all make appearances on the menu or at the fish counter at Honest Weight.

Honest Weight

"The world of shellfish to me is more immersive and much more primal. It's the same shit being eaten the same way it was a million years ago on the shore. It can all be eaten raw pretty much, and there is no transformation. There are very few creatures that you eat whole—guts, shitsack, and all. And that's also a really cool part of what the shellfish world offers. Because not only are you nose-to-tail in the very truest form, but there is more complete nutrition when you eat a whole animal."

Needless to say, when it comes to fish, Honest Weight has more to offer than your run-of-the-mill tilapia and salmon.

"Last summer I was bringing in beautiful, little brown barbottes—these lake catfish with bright red flesh—from Quebec. They look like rabbits because they come skinned. It's a heritage fish from Quebec that some guy is catching and selling tiny amounts of. When that guy comes to my door and says, 'Do you want some barbotte?' I'm obviously gonna say, 'Fuck yeah, give me give me 20 pounds, man!' And then my customers are like, 'What's that weird little fish?' and I tell them it's like a cross between rabbit and mackerel or something.

The fish counter changes the whole ambiance because there's a constant flow of people coming in for retail, it's a real neighbourhood vibe to it, that you wouldn't get at a restaurant. If we did 100 percent of our business at the fish counter, that would be alright with me."

Honest Weight

The name Honest Weight comes from the slogan on old Toledo fish scales, it's a promise of quality and transparency that Bil emobodies. And like many of the restaurants he's worked at, it's off the beaten path, in Toronto's Junction neighbourhood. It's not exactly a hip part of Toronto, but for Bil, ever the pragmatist, there were and are deals to be had in the Junction.

"The Junction is separated by Keele street. On one side of Keele street, everything has been fixed up, and our side is the dirty side. When we told people we were opening on the Indian Grove side of Keele Street, people were like, 'Oh, really?' and just kind of made this face. We thought that reaction was weird. It's not like it's Siberia! But taking up a space on a block that is less aesthetically valuable means you get a better deal than the other side of Keele street. I don't see it as off the beaten path. I just see the potential in a space."

With his feet now firmly planted (on land) in Toronto, Bil is still available for house calls for his old friends. Like Le Pavillion, a pop-up, which, in two short weeks, has already become the stuff of lore among fellow restaurateurs. "When Fred called me to do Le Pavillion, I already know what he wants because we've already talked about it a million times. He was like, 'Let's do Les Copains!''

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Hearn Generating Station. Photo by Jonathan Castellino.

Unless you have a deep knowledge of old New York City restaurants or Gene Hackman films, you're probably not familiar with Les Copains. "Fred and I watch a lot of movies drunk and they're usually bad documentaries or classic movies. One night, I was like, 'Let's watch the French Connection!' And there's this one scene where Gene Hackman is standing in the rain watching the bad guy who's like this dapper gentleman from Marseilles eating at an old New York restaurant called Les Copains.

"Anyways, they're having this wonderful meal on weird leather banquettes and the dessert cart is rolling around and they're eating snails. Meanwhile, Gene Hackman and the cops are outside freezing their asses off, drinking shitty Bodega coffee. And we were like, 'We have to make Les Copains happen!'"

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Hearn Central Command transformed into Le Pavillion for Toronto's Luminato Festival. Photo by Jonathan Castellino.

And while geeking out over old detective movies or turning a the control room of a power plant into a magical place to eat are in line with a personality as strong as Bil's, his thoughts always gravitate back to the sea. "If I had my true choice, I would go back to being on the water, but it's not really an option for me anymore. I don't think it's too bad, it's just the way it's gone. I've built a great life, I have a few select friends, and I've really enjoyed everything and I would never change anything."

Despite, or maybe because of his expertise on fishing, tides, wind, weather patterns, and marine life, Bil is very deferential when it comes to their home. "I would never live near the ocean. It's funny, when you think about the ocean and a sea-side town, well, New York is a sea-side town. Well, Hurricane Sandy fucking crushed New York, right? If you put all of New York against the ocean, and the ocean still says, 'Fuck you!' then imagine when you're a town of 30,000 people. You can't say anything to the ocean. If you have a summer house by the ocean, that's cool, but it's probably going to be wiped out one day."

Honest Weight

Preferring to remain inland, Bil is safe to ponder some of the larger questions about the ocean and, more importantly, offer his customers the best it has to offer. "There's way more going on down there than there is up here. Here, you have a few feet underground and a few feet in the air, so maybe like a hundred feet of edible biosphere. The ocean is miles and miles and miles deep. The only thing we can do to understand it is either to dive down there, watch great programming, or to purchase interesting seafood products because it introduces people to that universe."

And as for the creatures who live below, Bil isn't too worried. "Even if there is a nuclear holocaust, the world would come back. We humans would be gone but the world would come back. The radiation wouldn't even go that deep. We are not going to kill the world, we're going to kill ourselves first."