John Bil was a force in the shellfish business, in life, in bringing so much attention to oysters, in general. John Bil was a force not because of any position or title but because he just was. He always was whatever he wanted to be because he always believed he could be. Like his Toronto seafood restaurant, Honest Weight, his life was simple, fine, full and wonderful. John Bil was one of those who hear limitations as voices they don’t believe, who approach each unknown as just that: only an unknown because they haven’t mastered it yet.
Eight years old with a flour sack cape-Tied all around his neck-He climbed up on the garage-Figurin’ what the heck.
John Bil was a fortunate moment of happenstance when we met, long ago, at a company whose serpentine path to profit was opposite of his. John Bil left the warm confines of a shellfish business in icy Prince Edward Island, Canada for a meeting in Rhode Island but it wasn’t the meeting which mattered for me, it was meeting John Bil.
He screwed his courage up so tight-The whole thing came unwound-He got a runnin’ start and bless his heart-He headed for the ground.
John Bil sold oysters, talked oysters, knew oysters. He knew people. Every meeting started with a handshake matched with a look in the eye and an honest smile. In some ways he was a salesman but we all are, right? For a paycheck, which he never much cared about, he sold shellfish so first, being true to himself, he learned everything he could, worked harder than ten men and embraced every opportunity with that smile and a, “Well, I’ll just go there,” attitude to get the job done.
He’s one of those who knows that life-Is just a leap of faith-Spread your arms and hold your breath-Always trust your cape.
John Bil stayed at our home a few years back when he was in town to run a road race, which was how he rolled. He enjoyed running, so he ran and then he ran more and then, logically, he drove all over anywhere to run even more. He arrived with wine, we had dinner, left us with a small bottle of genuine P.E.I. moonshine, a funny little trinket of sorts he picked up along the way. We stored it safely, understanding it to be more an explosive than spirit.
All grown up with a flour sack cape, Tied around his dreams-He was full of spit and vinegar-He was bustin’ at the seams.
John Bil didn’t seem to have capacity to understand he could not do something. From opening his own recording studio to peddling someone’s whatever from a bicycle to selling seafood on the road, to helping other people design and open beautiful restaurants cheered for their almost immediate successes, to being a three-time national oyster shucking champion, John Bil was memorable because he was all in all the time, without concerns of the details.
He licked his finger and he checked the wind-It was gonna be do or die-He wasn’t scared of nothin’ boys-And he was pretty sure he could fly.
John Bil became well known as a Canadian restaurateur but I suspect that was a moniker he could have done without. That wasn’t his way; he was more loose than that, more about the time than the title. It’s foolish to brand his actions as anything more than simple, logical progression. John Bil could, and did, do anything.
Old and grey with a flour sack cape-Tied all around his head-He’s still jumpin’ off the garage-Will be till he’s dead.
Perhaps it’s not so much what John Bil had as what he didn’t. He’d sleep in a converted closet or his minivan to save commuting time. He’d forgo the trappings of tradition because he was focused differently. In all my years and travels, I never met a person who so easily embraced the idea of “yes”. John Bil didn’t concern himself with the temporary varnish of profit or possessions.
All these years the people said-He’s actin’ like a kid-He did not know he could not fly-So he did.
John Bil developed melanoma. He kept on shuckin’ as he liked to say. He met the love of his life and got a little grey. With a good bottle of wine, an oyster knife and that smile, John Bil had restaurants to open, people to help, roads to travel.
He’s one of those who knows that life-Is just a leap of faith
Speaking with The Globe and Mail’s Chris Nuttal-Smith, Sheila Flaherty said, “We were sitting on the couch and we were talking about life and marriage and all that stuff and I asked him if, you know, he wanted to get married at some point. It was really hard on him, he said, ‘Why would you marry a sick man? I can’t look after you. You’re going to have to look after me.’ And then I said, ‘If I were to get married to you I’dbe the luckiest person in the world. I’d be honoured.'”
Spread your arms and hold your breath-Always trust your cape.
Chefs, farmers, businessmen, lovers of honest seafood, a couple still afraid of a little moonshine; we are all better for having known John Bil, a slight man with a giant love of love, fish, space, work, wine, life, friends, food, his lovely wife and living well.
John Bil passed away at 49.
Words in italics were borrowed with great reverence to the late Guy Clark and his wonderful song, The Cape. You can see Guy play this song on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2-X6gvdiL_Y. He’s the real deal, just like John.
I'm a fisherman, occasional hunter, occasionally sarcastic outdoors writer and father. My weekly outdoors column, Fish Wrap, can be found at www.fishwrapwriter.com, read more at On The Water magazine as well!
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