In Toronto in the 1980s, I was cook­ing in the city’s best restau­rants. I got hooked on the fame and the glam­our be­fore crash­ing in a blaze of booze, coke and heroin

Toronto Life - - National Treasures - A mem­oir by Greg Couil­lard

I came to Toronto from Win­nipeg by train when I was 18. It was Au­gust 24, 1971. I re­mem­ber the date be­cause the CNE was on. I could see it out the win­dow of the train, bright lights and roller coast­ers. I’d been trad­ing love let­ters with a hippy-dippy guy who lived in Re­gent Park, and he in­vited me to live with him. So like some sort of mail-or­der bride, I stuffed my clothes, my records and $120 cash into a suit­case, then did the Mary Tyler Moore thing and threw my beret in the air.

To find a job, I set up an in­ter­view at Canada Man­power, a Pierre Trudeau pro­gram de­signed to get dis­af­fected youth into the work­force. The guy who in­ter­viewed me was a lech­er­ous old queen, and I was a lovely piece of chicken. He asked, “Well, what have you done?” I

said I’d been a waiter and a creative dancer and, of course, that piqued his in­ter­est, which led to, “Well, what kind of creative dancer?” I had been in­volved in the Man­i­toba Theatre School, per­form­ing Je­sus Christ Su­per­star in churches. I imag­ined my­self do­ing Isadora Dun­can at the St. Lawrence Cen­tre, but he sug­gested I take a job danc­ing at a restau­rant called The Black­bird, a kind of low-end Chip­pen­dales where the wait­ers wore next to noth­ing and shook their money-mak­ers. I de­clined. He told me there was one other job, work­ing up­town as a cook.

The restau­rant was called Troy’s and it was on Marl­bor­ough Av­enue in Rosedale in a beau­ti­ful old home full of FrenchCana­dian art and an­tiques, owned by an amaz­ing man named Ce­cil Troy. I grew up in the white-bread world of the prairie sub­urbs. Chili con carne and deep-fried wieners. I’d never gone to cook­ing school. I’d never seen a live fish or a red bell pep­per. But Troy was self-taught and fig­ured I could learn, too. He’d hand me copies of Gourmet mag­a­zine cov­ered in Post-Its and say, “This is what you’re do­ing this week.” We did re­duc­tions and demi-glaces, tourne­dos and spinach pasta. Green noo­dles. Who knew? Truite au bleu, where we’d get a live trout, whack it over the head, slit, gut and mar­i­nate it in vine­gar, which turned it blue, then poach and serve. Joanne Kates, the pre-em­i­nent critic of the day, thought Troy was a ge­nius. As it turned out, I was kind of a nat­u­ral, too. I’d al­ways wanted to be an artist of some sort, and food gave me an out­let for creative ex­pres­sion.

Adri­enne Clark­son, a CBC TV per­son­al­ity at the time, the film critic Rex Reed, the opera and bal­let crowd, they all ate at Troy’s. There were two seat­ings a night, and it was al­ways packed. It was my first brush with money, and I was smit­ten.

Half­way through the evening, Troy would go down­stairs and bring up an apron full of beer and plow through it. I’d have a beer with Troy once in a while, but booze wasn’t my thing. I had come from the hip­pie cul­ture of Win­nipeg where we smoked hash and pot. Af­ter we closed for the night, Troy would go down to Greek­town and party un­til four in the morn­ing, drink­ing and smash­ing plates.

I left af­ter two years be­cause I was mak­ing barely more than a dol­lar an hour. Plus, there was al­ways some drama be­tween Troy and his Hun­gar­ian boyfriend, and I got tired of it. But Troy taught me so much. He was a mad­man in the best way. That was my in­tern­ship in the world of food.

I found work at Beg­gar’s Ban­quet, a veg­e­tar­ian restau­rant with com­mu­nal tables on Queen near John. That’s where I met An­drew Milne-Al­lan, a bril­liant chef from New Zealand and prob­a­bly one of Joanne Kates’s all-time favourite chefs. He went on to start Trat­to­ria Gian­carlo on Clin­ton Street, and then Zucca on Yonge. An­drew and I bought the restau­rant for $12,000 then stripped it down, got rid of the com­mu­nal tables, re­dec­o­rated and re­opened un­der a new name. He loved all things Ital­ian and wanted to call the place Pap­pa­gallo, which means Par­rot. I didn’t think Toronto was ready for a name like that— it didn’t ex­actly roll off the tongue—so we called it The Par­rot. He did the menu and I was kind of the sous chef, han­dling brunch, soups and sauces.

Toronto had been a culi­nary desert. Very Pres­by­te­rian. Steak houses and a few tra­di­tional French and Ital­ian restau­rants. In the mid-’70s, there was a lot of ac­tion around Queen and Spad­ina, Kens­ing­ton Mar­ket, the Art Gallery of On­tario. The punk move­ment was start­ing up, and waves of im­mi­grants were ar­riv­ing and bring­ing their cuisines with them. Viet­namese, Ja­maican, Thai. I dis­cov­ered lemon­grass, Thai basil, ex­otic spices. I came across an In­dian restau­rant near the On­tario Col­lege of Art (now OCAD) called Babur. Their food was de­li­cious and in­spired my most ex­otic dish, a Salmon Tan­doori, and I started play­ing with mul­ti­c­ulti stuff, cherry-pick­ing flavours and mix­ing them to­gether. I hung out with a lot of Ja­maican reg­gae mu­si­cians, like Messen­jah, and they in­spired my Jump Up soup and jerk chicken. Peo­ple were start­ing to treat chefs as celebri­ties, and Jamie Kennedy, Michael Stadtlän­der and I were at the epi­cen­tre of the new scene.

At The Par­rot, we’d do Span­ish, Moroc­can, south­ern French, north­ern Ital­ian, Caribbean. But it was more than a place to eat. We cre­ated our own en­ter­tain­ment. All of my staff were artists, dancers, mu­si­cians. They were fab­u­lous, wear­ing front- and back-zipped Fiorucci leathers. We would throw open­ings for painters and pho­tog­ra­phers on Queen West, and in ex­change they would give us a piece of art. Some of our fe­male servers were in a group called the Clichettes, who lip-synched as both men and women. They’d do 1950s girl band stuff, with three­foot–high wigs, and once did heavy-metal drag, in­clud­ing penises at­tached with Vel­cro. When they fin­ished the act, they ripped the penises off and threw them into the au­di­ence. Our pa­trons in­cluded Di­vine, Rough Trade, Ger­ald Franklin, who was our Jean Paul Gaultier and dressed all the rock stars, pho­tog­ra­pher Ge­orge White­side, all the cul­tural “it” peo­ple. We at­tracted peo­ple from Rosedale and For­est Hill who were dar­ing enough to leave their rich neigh­bour­hoods and go down to scary Queen Street and hang around with artists in PVC and leather. Even Ge­orge and He­len Gar­diner, the fab­u­lously wealthy phi­lan­thropists be­hind the Gar­diner Mu­seum, came by.

I re­mem­ber we hosted an artist who air­brushed ho­mo­erotic paint­ings of eu­nuchs play­ing pool with the Queen’s crown

“We were pulling in peo­ple who were dar­ing enough to leave their rich neigh­bour­hoods and go down to scary Queen Street to hang with artists in PVC and leather”

jew­els. The Toronto Sun heard about the ex­hibit and sent in a re­porter who, in the mid­dle of din­ner, bad­gered my din­ers with pushy ques­tions like, “What do you think of this, the way this guy is dis­re­spect­ing roy­alty?” I threw him out. And he said, “Why are we up­set­ting you so much?” I said, “Look, as a gay per­son—” and he said, “Oh, you’re gay?” So the next day in the pa­per on page 2, there’s a head­line, “Gay Restau­ra­teur Dis­re­spects Queen.” It be­came a scan­dal, and we had to take the ex­hibit down.

I be­came the chief min­is­ter of party—drink, drugs, food, fun on a never-end­ing loop. The prob­lem was life be­came 51-per-cent party, 49-per-cent work. My first ex­pe­ri­ence with coke was when a friend who used to send us hash from In­dia brought over a sil­ver box full of it. In those days, you could get really clean co­caine that didn’t have seven per cent ground glass and fen­tanyl and God-knows-what bath­tub drugs peo­ple put in it now. I was try­ing to put the moves on a guy, but we just talked, stay­ing up all night do­ing lines and solv­ing the world’s prob­lems. It was de­li­cious and eu­phoric.

I dis­cov­ered the great mar­riage be­tween coke and al­co­hol. If I did too much coke, a drink would bal­ance me out. If I drank too much, a quick line would set me right. I worked seven days a week, round the clock, and my drug and al­co­hol in­take in­creased. I was run­ning a restau­rant, and mod­el­ling for Ger­ald Franklin. I was in two bands, the Time Twins and the Para­chute Club, play­ing per­cus­sion, and I was dee­jay­ing at Pan Am, spin­ning mu­sic like King Sunny Adé, Grace Jones and Grand­mas­ter Flash.

The mo­ment I knew I was in too far was when I had a gun pulled on me. I was high when it hap­pened. I had been pass­ing along some coke as a favour for my dealer, who was a friend. But the buyer ac­cused me of cut­ting it, put a pis­tol in my face and de­manded his money back. My guts dropped into my shoes. For­tu­nately, his girl­friend talked him down. I de­cided I wouldn’t do favours for any­one—it was too dan­ger­ous.

My part­ner, An­drew, was lots of fun but much tamer than I was, so we parted ways, am­i­ca­bly. We sold The Par­rot for $80,000, and I went to Tahiti to get clean. It was like my own self-styled five-star re­hab. I did a ton of co­caine be­fore I got on the plane, and by the time we landed, I was do­ing what I call the hi­b­bity-jib­bity fish-out-of-wa­ter with­drawal dance: anx­i­ety, edgi­ness, sleep­less­ness. I went to the hospi­tal in Papeete, the cap­i­tal, and told the doc­tor I was com­ing down off a lot of coke. He gave me Val­ium, and I started feel­ing good on it. Then I dis­cov­ered my friend Mr. Bal­lan­tine, of the scotch fam­ily, and mixed the two. It was won­der­fully calm­ing. What a lovely way to come down off of coke, I thought. I’d have red wine and pep­per steaks de­liv­ered to this palace I’d rented by the wa­ter. Poly­ne­sian women were putting trop­i­cal flow­ers in my room. I’d swim with the fish in my lit­tle leop­ard-skin Speedo. But it was all just an hys­ter­i­cal delu­sion.

I spent a month there, then moved to New York. The city had a dark and omi­nous feel at the time. The gay bars were like some­thing from a Hierony­mus Bosch paint­ing. We’d heard about “killer syphilis”—some mys­te­ri­ous virus stalk­ing the gay com­mu­nity, but we knew noth­ing about it. Then my room­mate, who was my best friend, started hav­ing fevers at night. I watched his body get cov­ered in Ka­posi’s sar­coma. He had AIDS, but we didn’t call it that yet.

I moved back to Toronto and got a job at Emilio’s, on Queen East, near the first Ci­tyTV build­ing. We were all heavy drinkers there. By three in the morn­ing, the en­tire staff would be passed out on the bar. The crit­ics ap­plauded my re­turn. I told ev­ery­one I didn’t care about celebrity, but the truth is, I loved the at­ten­tion. I re­mem­ber when Joanne Kates re­viewed Emilio’s and I didn’t have the right change to buy the Globe, so I just kicked in the news­pa­per box and grabbed a copy. I thought I was hot shit. But I was ter­ri­fied, too. As a self-taught chef, I found it hard to be­lieve the hype. As each re­view got more over the top, say­ing things like I was the most im­por­tant thing to hap­pen to the Toronto restau­rant scene in 20 years, I thought that some­body would call me out as a fraud. Booze helped kill the anx­i­ety. And as more friends kept drop­ping from AIDS, booze helped kill the pain of that, too.

Even­tu­ally, I en­tered the land of toxic al­co­hol poi­son­ing, and I couldn’t work any more. I’d blown my body out from the in­side. Al­co­hol is such a nasty drug. I had a room at a friend’s house and was on un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance, but most of the time I was out on the street, a fifth of Lis­ter­ine in my back pocket. One night, I was so out of it from drink­ing that I col­lapsed in a bus shel­ter at Queen and Bathurst. My sis­ter, who lived around there, knew I was a mess, saw me and took me to the Ad­dic­tion Re­search Foun­da­tion on Col­lege Street. They hooked me up to a bunch of tubes. I stayed for about a month be­fore check­ing out. I knew drink­ing would kill me, but that wasn’t enough to make me stop.

For the next three years, ’86 to ’89, my friends and lovers kept dy­ing, and I thought that if ev­ery­one was dy­ing, there was a good chance I was on my way out too. I de­cided to break out the booze and have a ball. But then I didn’t die.

In the late ’80s, I worked at Stelle, on Queen near Ni­a­gara, just as TIFF had reached a cer­tain level of glitz and glam and Toronto was be­com­ing Hol­ly­wood North. My part­ners at Stelle were in the film in­dus­try, and we did tons of cast par­ties. We hosted Robert De Niro, Jane Fonda, Michael Keaton, Su­san Saran­don, Kathy Bates, Rod Steiger. They would come straight from the air­port, and if we didn’t have a ta­ble ready, we’d pre­pare a sil­ver tray with cham­pagne and some gor­geous ap­pe­tizer and de­liver it to the limo. Curb ser­vice, we called it. I once closed the restau­rant and De Niro and his girl­friend, Toukie Smith, came in with her bull­dog and we all got smashed on Mon­tra­chet.

“My for­mer lovers were dy­ing of AIDS. I fig­ured I was next, so why not have a ball? But then I didn’t die”

Later, I opened China Blues, at King and Church, with my busi­ness part­ner, Craig Howard, who was also my lover. He was end­lessly charm­ing and loved the big life: li­mos, drugs, fancy ho­tels, Maser­atis, silk suits and reck­less­ness. China Blues was the kind of place where Mila Mul­roney and Hi­lary We­ston would come saun­ter­ing in, drip­ping in er­mine and pearls and minks. Stars every­where. Liza Min­nelli was on the mend from re­hab. She asked for a “cran­berry juice” with a wink, so I put a shot of vodka in it. Ev­ery­one who worked in the kitchen drank, and heav­ily. Prob­a­bly half the kitchen staff across the city used coke in those days.

I lasted at China Blues for only a year be­fore I started at No­to­ri­ous on Yonge in Rosedale. Cus­tomers would send me mar­ti­nis, and they’d line up and I’d pound them back, right into black­out. I’d wake up the next morn­ing and not re­mem­ber a thing. The night in 1992 when the Blue Jays won their first World Se­ries, I had about 10 dou­ble mar­ti­nis and maybe a gram or so of coke. I had the TV on in the restau­rant. It was packed. Ev­ery­body was watch­ing the game. The drink­ing con­tin­ued un­til I was ap­par­ently on Yonge Street pour­ing Cham­pagne—the good stuff, not prosecco—down the throats of hot guys. My staff locked me out of the restau­rant be­cause I was com­pletely out of con­trol. When they fi­nally let me back in, I poured a bot­tle of liquor over my host­ess’s head.

De­spite the oc­ca­sional fun, the work be­gan to make me nasty. I de­spised clients and the in­dus­try. I was an­gry, the stress mounted, and I worked just to tread wa­ter. A friend turned me onto heroin in ’92. It was bliss, bet­ter than sex, bet­ter than love. When you’re high, you look out the win­dow and feel sorry for any­one who isn’t you. Pain gone, ev­ery­thing gone. It was the best hid­ing place in the world.

For the next four years, I was us­ing heroin off and on, though mostly on. I didn’t use nee­dles; I’d just snort it. Like co­caine, heroin bal­anced out the booze. I’d have a bot­tle of wine in the morn­ing to get me go­ing, sip vodka through­out my shift at work, keep an­other bot­tle of vodka be­side the bed at night, and do heroin as needed. I was warned—you do three dances with this lady and you’re stuck with her. And I thought yeah, yeah, I can han­dle this. But af­ter tak­ing a few trips around the dance floor, I was lost. I’d get my junk de­liv­ered to the back door of the restau­rant, and would run down­stairs with a hun­dred-dol­lar bill and do a quick line. I did a lit­tle ev­ery day.

I tried to stop, but the with­drawals were too painful. There’s the heav­ing, the lack of sleep, the shakes, the shits, the rat­tling in your head. It was like some­thing liv­ing in­side me, like in Alien, and I’d do any­thing to feed it. But I didn’t have to whack an old lady on the sub­way, thank God, be­cause I could cook.

The last time I did re­hab was 1996. Once again, it didn’t take. Then I started work­ing at Sarkis Restau­rant, on Rich­mond near Church. My heroin dealer and I used to do an un­der-thetable ex­change: free drugs for a din­ner of Filet Mignon Saigon and Burmese Shrimp, with good wine, fol­lowed by some fab­u­lous cognac. We were sit­ting down, on New Year’s Eve, 1996, and he said, “I can’t sell you shit any more.” I said, “Are you fuck­ing kid­ding me?” He handed me a piece of pa­per with a doc­tor’s name on it and said, “Go see this guy and get on his methadone pro­gram.”

It was at frig­ging Brim­ley and Shep­pard in a strip mall full of house­wives hooked on Oxy and crim­i­nals fresh out of jail. But methadone was the per­fect sub­sti­tute. It gave me an opi­oid high, but at least I wasn’t out scor­ing heroin, grind­ing my­self into dust. By the early 2000s, I had weaned my­self from a hun­dred mil­ligrams a day to three, and then dumped my

“I’d have my heroin de­liv­ered to the back door of the restau­rant, and I’d run down­stairs with a hun­dred-dol­lar bill and do a quick line”

methadone supply down the drain. I said to my best friend, “I’m about to go through a lot of hor­ri­ble stuff,” and I locked my­self away for 17 days. I’d sleep for maybe 15 sec­onds at a time, think­ing it was an hour. God bless my drug dealer for turn­ing me on to that doc­tor. I’ve been clean for 10 years now.

In 2008, I got an of­fer to spend the win­ter cook­ing at a five-star ho­tel in Mex­ico in a fish­ing vil­lage by the ocean near San Pa­tri­cio. Mex­ico was a gift. The peo­ple there aren’t driven by money like they are here. For the past seven years, I’ve been go­ing down there ev­ery win­ter for three months and cook­ing at a bou­tique ho­tel near Man­zanilla, and men­tor­ing Mex­i­can kids in the kitchen.

In 2017, the peo­ple at Bell­wood Health Ser­vices, a re­hab fa­cil­ity in the ravine south of Sun­ny­brook hospi­tal, ap­proached me about tak­ing over their kitchen. I thought some­one was pulling my leg. Who would want me work­ing at a re­hab hospi­tal? They had hospi­tal-style food and wanted some­thing bet­ter. I said sure, and tried to make the place more Scaramouche and less jailhouse. I’ve been work­ing at the Bell­wood kitchen for nearly a year now. The peo­ple who come in have eat­ing dis­or­ders, OCD, PTSD, and ad­dic­tions to gam­bling, sex, and my two old stand­bys, drugs and al­co­hol. When they ar­rive, they’re poi­soned from the in­side out: eyes, skin, smell, body. They’ve just been killing them­selves. I see my­self in ev­ery one of them.

It’s beau­ti­ful at the fa­cil­ity. We’re on six acres of woods. It’s like be­ing up north. Very Bambi. We’ve put in a gar­den where clients and their fam­i­lies can grow herbs and toma­toes and stuff like that, and we’ve got two huge bar­be­cues to get peo­ple in­ter­ested in cook­ing. They can help out with peel­ing and chop­ping and ex­pe­ri­ence the ca­ma­raderie of work­ing in a kitchen. I find cook­ing ther­a­peu­tic, and see­ing other peo­ple go through the shit that I’ve gone through helps keep me straight. Plus, there’s no al­co­hol on the premises, so if I’m hav­ing a bad day, I can’t sneak off and drink the cook­ing sherry.

I love feed­ing our clients. I love see­ing the look on their faces when they’re im­mersed in the flavours, the tex­tures of a dish I’ve made, as if they’ve for­got­ten about their sit­u­a­tion for just a few mo­ments. I’ve seen the most amaz­ing things. Of­ten, af­ter clients clean up and sleep and eat well and ex­er­cise and get their men­tal shit to­gether, they leave like new, and I feel some tiny flicker of pride for help­ing in my small way.

I don’t worry any­more about be­ing called out as a fraud, though to this day, I’m still amazed that the dishes I think up turn out the way they do. I’m still in love with food—the smells, colours, tastes. It’s one of my favourite ad­dic­tions. Food talks to me. Or maybe I’ve just done too many drugs.

I have no de­sire to use coke or smack now. It’s grown old on me. Peo­ple are shocked that at 65, I’m healthy and hale, ex­cept for a few lit­tle nicks and dents. Maybe it hurts a bit more th­ese days to get out of bed, but ev­ery­thing still works. I look good and feel good. And in the kitchen, I can still dance the dance. At the end of the day, I al­ways know I can cook.

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