Respect the Ingredients: John Bil

John Bil

John Bil is an oysterman. He’s worked oyster farms and oyster bars and holds three national speed-shucking championships. He’s been a seafood wholesaler and a restaurant fixer, helping open Montreal’s Joe Beef and Au Pied de Cochon, among others. Honest Weight is Bil’s current venture, a restaurant and fish shop in the west end of Toronto.

How many oysters have you shucked?

I stopped counting after a million or so. Rough estimate, about 2 million now.

Which shellfish is at its best in summer?

Each oyster has its own season. In February, I recommend West Coast oysters, but in July, oysters from the Maritimes are amazing. Summertime is great for clams—a big pot on the barbecue, get a bit of smoke in, put them out on the picnic table. A little pasta on the side and you have pasta vongole.

Right now, mussels are not at their peak. In May, they’re great, but in June, they spawn out and become less plump. In July and August, go with clams instead. Clams are tough; you can bring them anywhere in a cooler. A layer of ice on the bottom, about a third to half full, and the clams—or oysters or whatever—on top. Don’t put ice on top of the clams; they get watery. They’re good for five, six hours, easy.

What about lobster?

Lobsters are great for the cottage. People love cooking lobsters in the pot, but it’s kind of a pain. Get them cooked when you buy. Most shops will do it for you, and the lobsters keep for three to four days. Reheat them with a quick dip in salted water or, when you get to the cottage, have a lobster-cracking party. Put the meat in containers in the fridge for salads, pastas, omelettes. Make stock with the shells for risotto.

In the second half of July, some lobsters have a soft shell—they’ve just moulted. They’re easy to get into, but they might not be as full. Squeeze the shell; if you can make an indent, the lobster probably won’t have the same meaty quality. It’s still tasty, but I’d pick a hard shell.

Is there a shellfish we don’t eat, but should? Something we’d love once we tried it?

Whelks. They’re a medium-sized sea snail, a bit finicky to prepare, but totally worth it. There’s a classic Italian dish—steam the whelks, pull them from the shell, trim, slice, and marinate. It’s way better than any calamari, using what you find on the shore. Whelks should be on more menus.

What should be on fewer menus?

Let’s move on from scallops. Fill your boots with them if you must, but I just don’t get it.

When a shellfish species, such as spot prawns on the West Coast, has a short season and high demand, is there a risk of overfishing?

For a long time, we tried really hard to fish out the oceans. Almost got there. But spot prawns are a success story. The resource is being looked after responsibly. And it’s a rare case of food costing what it should. We’ve become trained to think shrimp should cost almost nothing, but that is a false price. Cheap shrimp can come from parts unknown, fished by people that are literally slaves or farmed by flooding arable land.

Many home cooks are intimidated by seafood. Why?

Even many of our customers are still scared by whole fish. We sell 80 per cent fillets, 20 per cent whole fish. I’d love to see more cooks use whole fish—it stays moister—but it still is a bridge too far for many. We sell a lot of whole mackerel, which I would never have predicted.

Some shellfish are challenging. Limpets have been hit and miss with customers, for sure. Eel is traditional in English and Japanese culture, but when people see an eel in the fish case, they’re freaked out. They want eel in barbecued form or jellied form; they don’t want to see the eel.

It’s just familiarity. If I launch all these crazy (to other people) shellfish—whelks! limpets! moon snails!—then clams don’t seem so weird. That’s where restaurants come in, because they can push past the comfort zone. People will try a razor clam if someone else cooks it.

People cook steaks, burgers, and chops a lot, and there’s more perceived tolerance for error with them. Overcooked meat doesn’t really stop anyone. It’s also okay to overcook fish once in a while. You figure out not to cook it so much next time.

Is that part of respecting the ingredients?

We need to stop eating cheap food in giant quantities, and start eating the correct amount of well-priced, well-purchased, well-produced food. It’s not more expensive, but it’s crucial to learn to cook. People think restaurants make food better. They don’t. In my restaurant, we cook on an electric stove, not unlike what’s in your home. You can spend $10 on a great piece of fish in our store, go home and cook it, and have a beautiful dinner.

How can we buy better fish?

In most fish shops, if you ask “What’s fresh?” you get the same answer: “Everything.” It’s a dead-end question; freshness is meaningless if a fish hasn’t been handled well. Instead, ask open-ended questions, get into a dialogue: “I like sole, what should I try?”

Really, the question you should ask is, “What’s amazing today?”