There are a lot of truly cool people in the County, and no shortage of great and meaningful parties, but it was obvious to everyone that John Bil’s Ship To Shore: Straight Talk from the Seafood Counter cookbook release party and charity sendoff feast at Midtown Brewing Co—an event to which the author could only attend in spirit—would be one for the books.
John didn’t live here, but he was a County regular, in and out for all the events, supporting his County friends over many years. I was introduced to him in 2014. It was early February and we could see our breath billowing out ahead of us as we talked, but the sun was shining and our moods were bright. We hung out while he served up the last scraps of a beautiful pig he’d been smoking on the spit since the previous day. He told me he was planning a summer pop-up BBQ cantina at Hinterland Winery. “I want it to be so relaxed and casual,” he explained, shucking oysters while people filtered in and out, sipping wine. “Like real country stuff.” He lays out his vision: a garage with roll up doors and picnic tables. “BBQ is a community tradition,” he continued, looking up from his task every so often to fix me with a sparkling gaze, “like Martin Picard’s Sugar Shack in Quebec. You understand, it gets lost in translation in the city.”
John was in top form, slinging oysters again, laughing, surrounded by heaping beds of shellfish, beautiful bottles of French and local wine, great friends and grand conversations.
We saw him again that evening at the staff party at Norman Hardie Winery. Everyone was in amazing spirits and John was in top form, slinging oysters again, laughing, surrounded by heaping beds of shellfish, beautiful bottles of French and local wine, great friends and grand conversations. I didn’t know it then, but he had already had his diagnosis: Stage 4 melanoma.
John passed away this January, 49 years young. A loving husband and generous human, champion of Canada’s sustainable fisheries, and great friend to many of the winemakers, brewers, restaurateurs, and aficionados of Prince Edward County and beyond. Cancer didn’t discriminate and John had a little over three years from diagnosis to the day he eventually lost his battle.
County folk remembered the life of John Bil in turns at gatherings small and large, both virtually and in-person at his live-streamed funeral, at the Chef vs Chef Barn Burner Hockey tournament in Wellington, with numerous anecdotes and raised glasses, and most recently, at a feast thrown by his friends at Midtown Brewery in celebration of John’s final public words, printed for posterity in the book “Ship to Shore: Straight Talk from the Seafood Counter”.
Chef Neil Dowson had prepared a number of dishes from John’s recipes—from heaping beds of shellfish, smoked haddock chowder, and smoked mackerel dip, to crispy cod cheeks, stuffies, and shrimp rolls. We shared beautiful bottles of wine, the conversation was loud and joyful, and there was much talk about many things. Friends old and new toasted JB with a taste of spirit from a large golden goblet that was passed around and shared by all.
By all accounts, he would have loved it.
Check out Ship To Shore: Straight Talk from the Seafood Counter” John Bil’s book for basically everything you ever wanted to know about sea fare and throw your own celebratory feast. You could start with his recipe for the right way to throw an old-fashioned backyard clambake, County style…if you must.