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 French-Canadian 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, re-decorated 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 three-foot–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 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.From the kitchen pass to your inbox Thanks for signing up! Sign up to get The Dish, a weekly helping of restaurant news and reviews, served with a side of hot gossip Now, check your inbox to complete your subscription We won't ever use your email address for anything else Want even more Toronto Life? Follow us on social media.