John Bil, Oyster man, restaurateur, mentor, was the discreet ingredient behind some of the best restaurants this country has ever known.
If you’ve ever eaten at Joe Beef, Martin Picard’s Sugar Shack or Honest Weight, or had the good fortune to secure a reservation at the renowned pop-up Le Pavillon, you’ve benefited from his expertise. While he worked quietly, and usually behind the scenes, his impact was immense: restaurateurs like Joe Beef co-owner David McMillan called him their “secret weapon.” And Bil helped to define an aesthetic—simple, honest and generous to the point of excess—that continues to define our best restaurants.
John Bil passed away earlier this year, too soon at only 48, but not before he finished writing his remarkable book, Ship to Shore, a seafood compendium with recipes that detail the origins, qualities and history of all the best seafood available in North America.
In September, friends and family of the late, great Bil gathered in P.E.I., one of his favourite places on Earth, to celebrate his memory and give an appropriately raucous launch to his posthumous book. The launch coincided with the 20th annual PEI International Shellfish Festival, an event Bil helped organize in its earliest days, and oystermen from around the world flew in to compete in the oyster-shucking competition and pay their respects.
The private party occurred just on the outskirts of Stanley Bridge, where the air was perfumed with the fresh smell of oyster beds. Bottles were popped, oysters were shucked and the sky was bright with stars.
Halfway through a blistering set, Leon Gallant, one of the island’s finest musicians, made an announcement. “This was one of John’s favourite songs,” he said, “and we sang it together many times. If he were here right now, he’d get up and start dancing.” And as the band launched into a blistering version of Springsteen’s “Atlantic City,” that’s exactly what everyone did. — C.J.
Ship to Shore: Straight Talk from the Seafood Counter, John Bil, House of Anansi, $34.95