The Green Giant: John Bishop, Bishop’s
May 1, 2007
AROUND NOON ON A WINTER'S DAY in 1985, a green 1962 Chrysler Saratoga pulled up outside Umberto Menghi’s iconic Yellow House on Hornby Street. It sat idling for a few minutes, then pulled back out into traffic. John Bishop, the 42-year-old Welshman at the wheel and Menghi’s long-time chef, had just decided to quit the best job he’d ever had.
It was a daring move for someone with few marketable skills other than those performed in a restaurant. Food and service were his life, and had been for as long as he could remember. When he was very young his parents divorced and his mother, Irene, moved John and his siblings from Shrewsbury, near Birmingham, to Newtown in Wales. He remembers his father’s personal setbacks as much as his love of fishing and gardening. Eric Bishop lost his job as a telephone engineer after suffering a nervous breakdown when his son was eight. He sold newspapers and remained, says his son, “a great friend of the river,” contributing angler reports for the BBC that related the conditions on the nearby river Severn. “As a kid,” Bishop remembers, “I often thought I would wake up [and suffer] a nervous breakdown, too.”
Bishop seems to have been born attuned to service. At the age of eight he brought a hot cup of tea to his mother’s bedside (she still wonders how he boiled the water). While she was at work, John’s older brother Adrian and younger sister Cherry would sit at the kitchen table after school and study while John made them syrupy orange drinks and soufflé omelettes (“to avoid doing my homework”). He’d race the omelettes round back of the semi-detached house to show the neighbours, a retired farming couple who always seemed to be sitting by their window. Only after their enthusiastic “Bravo!” did he run back to serve his appreciative siblings.
School was a complete disaster: “Nothing grabbed me at all.” He loathed the sciences, shunned sports, and at age 15 considered joining the Royal Navy. “I wanted to see the world,” he smiles. His mother nixed the idea, recalling that his grandfather had returned from the Navy with tattoos and a drinking habit, “a rolling stone the rest of his life.” He enjoyed art so he tried his hand at watercolours only to discover he had no talent. His mother, at a loss, convinced him to apply at the Llandudno Hotel and Catering College, six hours to the north. He was accepted, but couldn’t begin classes until he was 16. In the intervening year, he worked as a “scullery lad,” filling creamer jugs and shuttling breakfast trays at the Elephant & Castle, a small hotel close to home. British cooking was stuck in the doldrums, the hangover of the rationed war years lingering long into the 1960s. “It was awful,” he recalls. “Everything was overcooked, and seldom was anything seasoned.”
Bishop seems to have been born attuned to service. At the age of eight he brought a hot cup of tea to his mother's bedside.
Despite the hotel’s culinary failings, it was here that Bishop first considered food’s origins. The hotelier, Mrs. Pugh, did her best to source foodstuffs locally and avoid expensive imports. “A lot of the produce in the summertime would come from the walled garden,” he remembers. Fresh, line-caught salmon would arrive from the Severn nearby.
In his first year of school he knew that cooking was his calling; he was enthralled with the idea of instructors handing down a craft. The curriculum included training in service, but his left-handedness made it difficult for him to serve and clear. “Oh, I didn’t like it at all,” he says. “It was much more fun in the kitchen.” The cooking itself was French, of course—fusion had yet to be discovered by the culinary orthodoxy and ingredients now commonplace, like balsamic vinegar and fresh ginger, were either anathema or unknown.
After receiving his certificate, Bishop worked for a year at the Danish Club in London before moving to the south of Ireland. There he cooked on and off in the coastal town of Kinsale for the better part of 10 years, eventually becoming a partner in a restaurant called Man Friday. In the off-season of 1964 (the year The Beatles released A Hard Day’s Night) he went back to England to work as a line cook at the Glyndebourne Opera House in Sussex. On short-term larks he cooked aboard the Queen Mary and the Mauritania (on the former he prepared meals for the skeleton crew at Southampton; the latter took him as far afield as the Caribbean).
He left the U.K. for good in 1973, following a friend from cooking school to Vancouver. Canada held many sources of allure, but it was the landscape that made him stay. “I fell in love with Vancouver right away.” Taking an apartment on Triumph Street on the east side, he toiled at Gastown’s Harp and Heather, a long-forgotten Irish club where, he says with amusement, “they just wanted to sell booze.”
Bishop met a server named Theresa Krause while cooking at the club. She had just moved to Vancouver after graduating from the University of Saskatchewan and the two got to know each other while taking scuba lessons in Deep Cove. After marrying in 1975, they rented a 12-acre farm outside Fort Langley for $150 a month. “It was ‘back to the land’ hippie stuff,” he says, “We had cattle and chickens, and Theresa kept a splendid garden.” They stayed there, enduring the long commute to the city, for nearly three years (a beautiful old farmer’s table still sits in the dining room of their west side home).
By 1975, Bishop was tiring of steak pies and cheese plates. He went to work for Umberto Menghi. The 10 years he spent there constitute the chapter in Bishop’s story on which all those that follow are predicated. He helped with Menghi’s cookbooks and ran the tiny kitchen with only a dishwasher and an assistant. These were fat times for Menghi; he and Bishop starred in well over 100 episodes of a cooking show called The Elegant Appetite. Reservations at Il Giardino were the most sought-after in town and the two men became our first celebrity chefs. “I’d get all the good letters,” Bishop giggles, remembering that Menghi used to remonstrate with him on camera: “‘Giovanni, what are you doing?’” he imitates, hands thrown up in mock frustration. “I was the downtrodden guy, always getting flack.” Bishop had definitely arrived, but a bad moon was rising.
When the economy tanked in the early 1980s, the restaurant tanked with it. It wasn’t long before Bishop had to run the front of house as well as the kitchen. As the stream of customers dwindled to a trickle, Menghi had to tighten further. “We all took a pay cut, ” Bishop remembers. “It was either that or you lost your job.” When Menghi’s new comptroller began to dictate how the place should be run, things got tense. One morning, a disagreement escalated into an argument and the comptroller threw Bishop out. He drove home, unsure what to do next. Menghi asked him to return, but as he sat outside in his green Saratoga, he “just couldn‘t do it. I’d have rather cut my own hand off.”
It was not a promising scenario. The economy was in a shambles, and Bishop had just walked out of the best restaurant in town. He had no idea what lay ahead. He called a good friend, Bud Sipko (a regular at Il Giardino), and confided in him. “What am I going to do?” he asked. Sipko’s response: “Open your own restaurant, John…don’t worry about the money. I’ll take care of that. Just come up with a concept and a menu.” Later that year, in the ramp-up to Expo 86, Bishop’s Restaurant was born, midwifed by a fresh approach to regional cuisine and $80,000 from John’s family and four dentists.
At the time Bishop was driven from Menghi’s organization, the vegetables and berries delivered each morning to Il Giardino had been grown in California and the veal flown in from Montreal. “We weren’t boycotting B.C. products,” he jokes. “It was just that if someone had asked us about ‘local’ back then, we would have laughed and said ‘local?’ The Okanagan and the Fraser Valley as we know them had yet to be invented. In his first year flying solo, Bishop served Norwegian scampi and Dover sole; there was but one B.C. wine on his list. Expo 86 changed everything.
It may have taken the fresh eyes of a Welshman to slowly reveal the worth and potential of our backyard, but it was the rest of the world that showed us how the Continental traditions could cramp our style. Following Expo, Vancouver restaurateurs like Bishop and Janice Lotzkar (of Raintree fame) began to abandon the familiar in favour of new flavours and new techniques. Above all, they embraced menu ideas and sourcing principles that were anchored in our local geography, abandoning their stubborn commitment to ancient recipes. In the 21 years since Vancouver feted the globe, our city has witnessed the complete overhaul of our culinary genome. Bishop’s was at the vanguard of this transformation.
If the Asian influx of the 1990s irreversibly enlivened our food culture, and more recent questions of globalization and sustainability changed the way we think about our restaurants, it was the arrival of Bishop’s that set the table. Much of what Vancouver diners gloat about when they entertain out-of-towners these days can be traced back to its launch. However you describe the fare at Bishop’s (and now at so many other restaurants in the city)—Contemporary West Coast, Pacific Northwest, or West Coast Seasonal—each moniker is a shoot from the same tree. And the roots of that tree can be found under the floor of John Bishop’s small kitchen on West Fourth.
Bishop’s established itself as the model of how a restaurant can thrive by stressing hospitality, cultivating local sources and paying close attention to what’s freshly available and when. Its proprietor was one of the pioneers of an ingredient sourcing and menu development doctrine that has become conventional wisdom. The inspiration came from the regionally focussed cooking of Alice Waters’ famed Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, and the means came from the steady stream of local suppliers dropping by the back door of his kitchen with local mushrooms, pheasant and fresh vegetables. Credit for our now internationally recognized, locally focussed cuisine is, however, more diffuse still. Without farmers like Gary and Natty King, and visionaries like FarmFolk/CityFolk founders Herb Barbolet and Janice Lotzkar, fine dining in Vancouver would not be what it is today.
Like matter emanating from the Big Bang, Bishop’s employees, themselves preaching the gospel according to John, have gone on to shape B.C.’s restaurant industry. His influence can be seen from the nightly line-up at Vij’s to the cool shade of the patio at Parkside: Vikram Vij, Andrey Durbach and Chris Stewart are all alumni, and each came away from the experience the wiser. Stewart recalls that Bishop treated his staff “like family” and looked after his restaurant like a doting father. “If you needed something to do your job better or more efficiently,” he recalls, “it would be there the next day.”
Jeff Van Geest, a sous chef at Bishop’s before he opened Aurora Bistro on Main Street, says Bishop taught him “to go the extra mile” in taking care of guests. Bishop, he recalls, would “send meals to the hospital if someone was sick.” (In Bishop’s house there’s a hand-written letter from the late artist Toni Onley, a long-time friend and customer, thanking him for the “meals on wheels” while Onley was ill.)
Bishop's established itself as the model of how a restaurant can thrive by stressing hospitality, cultivating local sources and paying close attention to what's freshly available and when.
Bishop’s was more culinary university than the soggy boot camps most industry lifers call home. The farthest-flung of his disciples must be Bradlie Goian, who worked the front of the house from 1987 to 1995 and is now food and beverage manager of an exclusive hotel in Borneo. He recalled via email Bishop’s talent for identifying and nurturing creativity and how pleased Bishop was at “helping [his staff members] blossom.”
Goian’s exotic location might show how far Bishop’s influence has spread, but it doesn’t reveal its depth. Michael Allemeier, who runs the food and beverage program at the Mission Hill Family Estate in the Okanagan, was executive chef at Bishop’s from 1993 to 1997. That experience, he says, remains “the foundation of all we do” at the winery’s Terrace Restaurant, where most ingredients are sourced from within a 20-km radius.
Adam Busby, now Director of Continuing Studies at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa, California, honed his craft at Bishop’s until 1993, when he opened his own room, Star Anise on West 12th, to critical acclaim. Like Allemeier, Busby considers his tenure at Bishop’s a defining chapter in his career. The boss “always kept his cool,” he recalls, even on the night they accidentally “set a whole spit-roast lamb on fire in the back parking lot, just before a Chaine de Rotisseurs dinner.”
In 1987, Bishop hired Carol Chow (lately of Gusto di Quattro) fresh out of Vancouver’s Dubrulle culinary school. Her climb to executive chef, remarkably, took only three years. Carol Wallace apprenticed there, too, working all the stations from 1993 to 1999. She and her husband Stephen now run Blue-Eyed Mary’s Bistro on Bowen Island. She remembers Bishop’s humour, relating that he once “delivered a plastic rat under a cloche to a regular customer.” Anne Milne worked for Bishop before she went on to run the kitchen at Yaletown’s Urban Fare, and Judith Knight left Bishop’s in 1992 and later went on to elevate the food program at the Okanagan’s Quails’ Gate Winery. (“Now there is a wonderful cook!” Bishop beams.) In the days when women were scarce at the executive level, his restaurant was a meritocracy, with gender marked only on the bathroom door.
The list goes on. Geoff Kitt worked at Bishop’s before leaving for Sooke Harbour House; James Walt went on to become executive chef at Araxi in Whistler (and at the Canadian Embassy in Rome); Gennaro Iorio opened Yaletown’s La Terrazza; and Scott Kidd is now executive chef at Café de Paris on Denman. Even Iron Chef Rob Feenie put in a brief stint making salads and doing prep work in 1988. “John was the benchmark in pushing food to the next level in Vancouver,” Feenie recalls, adding that Bishop remains “the best host in town.”
Today, dressed in a pressed button down over a new black T-shirt and khaki trousers, Bishop looks younger than 63. His youthful face is kind and scarcely lined; his hazel eyes twinkle with his trademark good humour behind a pair of designer spectacles. The author of four cookbooks (the latest, Fresh, co-written with his old friend, the farmer Gary King), he looks more like a modernist architect than a veteran maitre’d, chef and restaurateur.
Home is a large house on a sleepy block on the west side. Theresa, who teaches fashion design, is baking sugar cookies and brewing us a cup of tea while her husband prepares a family recipe called Very Very Vegetable Beef Stew. Bishop explains that a few years ago their daughter Gemma, now 17, flirted with the idea of becoming a vegetarian. To head her off, he upped the vegetable quotient in the stew and started cutting the beef into tiny pieces in the hopes she won’t notice (it worked). Soon to graduate from high school, Gemma works summers at the restaurant, helping with pastries. Their 19-year-old son David, who helped landscape the beautiful backyard, is an undergrad at UBC and balances a passion for environmental design with the occasional hosting shift at the restaurant.
From the living room of the house, a view of the North Shore mountains is interrupted by drooping cedar branches. There’s an old stand-up piano, topped with heirlooms and books, and a sideboard holding dinner plates from the 1870s. A keen antiquer, Bishop collects hallmark silver. He’s drawn, in particular, to anything to do with food service. He shows off spoons like a schoolboy does hockey cards, and will fastidiously trace an item’s origins, down to its monarch, maker and guild, with only the slightest hint or clue for guidance.
In another room, a framed black and white photo of a long-ago holiday on Hornby Island is slightly askew. “We always had great fun there,” says Bishop as he fixes it. These days, he seldom goes on holiday, save for the rare working trip abroad. With the kids away at school, all is quiet: the picture of serene, west coast domesticity. A pair of old cats (Clive and Cleo) dart about the house when they’re startled from their slumber.
The restaurant has been closed for
What really sets the place apart is the art. There’s really no wall space left between canvases by Gordon Smith and Jack Shadbolt, etchings by Alistair Bell, acrylics by Alan Wood (a longtime friend), and landscapes by Toni Onley. There are ceramics, woodblocks, and a shell given to him by his godmother (tucked inside is a note from her saying that Bishop’s grandmother used to press it against his ear so he could hear the sea). The renovated kitchen has a little tasting bar and a full range of gleaming silver Ultraline appliances. Fittingly, his desk is just off the kitchen—no computer, though, just papers. When I ask if he ever uses one, his reply—“Not really” —provokes a laugh from Theresa.
Like most successful restaurateurs, Bishop has a thousand close friends. But before and immediately after he clocks out, he’s usually at home being a husband and a dad. He goes out, but only on the rare occasion the mood strikes him. He enjoys spending time with his friend Eric Sonner, the esteemed art collector. Now in his nineties, Sonner has been a loyal customer at Bishop’s for many years (they go to gallery openings and shows together). Before he died earlier this year, Bud Sipko—the original angel—was one of Bishop’s closest friends (he fixed all of Bishop’s British teeth). Though he counts other restaurateurs—like Umberto Menghi, Pino Posteraro and Michel Jacob—as confidants, Theresa, he says, is his best friend.
John Bishop stands astride his trade like a benevolent colossus; people call him the Godfather of Vancouver hospitality. White Spot didn’t hire him to appear in their TV spots because he was willing to tout their sourcing of B.C. ingredients or because he remains an exemplary host. They sought him out for the same reason that diners, from here and around the world, continue to book tables in his 22-year-old room: he’s the chef who first sowed the seeds of this city’s culinary transformation.
ON THIS DAY, as we conclude one of our conversations, he’s eager to get back to work. In contrast to his placid home life, Bishop in public is a dynamo. I recently watched him as he judged a culinary competition for the Chef’s Table Society. He marched purposefully from display to display, heaping encouragement upon the students of our culinary schools with infectious enthusiasm.
The restaurant has been closed for almost two weeks for its annual paint job and is due to reopen tonight. Bishop’s anticipation is almost palpable. A leak has been fixed that had dripped in the entrance foyer, intermittently, since his first winter as a restaurateur. He went in yesterday for a peek and came home invigorated by the room’s freshness. The room was ready, the reservation book nearly full. “It was great to be back,” he beams. “I get a little anxious whenever we close."