The media hailed him as a culinary genius, describing the young chef as “fearless“, “iconic” and a “celebrity chef”. Joanne Kates, arguably Canada’s most influential restaurant critic, wrote that she “worshipped at his shrine”. Publications like Toronto Life and Now magazine used fawning adjectives to describe his fusion cuisine, which forever changed Toronto’s formerly bland and provincial food culture. But if you’d happened upon a certain bus shelter in Toronto’s gritty Queen and Bathurst area late one night in the mid 1980s, “fearless”, “iconic” and “celebrity” probably wouldn’t have been the first words to come to mind to describe the slight man passed out on a transit bench after a booze- and drug-fuelled bender.
Fortunately for superstar chef Greg Couillard, his worried sister went out looking for him and, knowing his ‘hood – as well as his self-destructive habits – eventually found him unconscious in the bus shelter and took him home, then to the Addiction Research Foundation for treatment. It was Couillard’s first experience in rehab. But it wouldn’t be his last.
Greg Couillard’s Story
Today, Couillard has a very different relationship with rehab centres. That’s because in addition to being clean and sober for the past ten years, Couillard is the head chef at Bellwood Health Services, the largest treatment facility in the Edgewood Health Network. He and his staff prepare approximately 240 individual meals a day for the patients and employees. It’s a big change from his former haunts in trendy locations like Queen West and Yorkville, but it’s one that he welcomes.
Couillard was born 65 years ago in Trenton, Ontario, one of seven children. His father was a sergeant in the RCAF. Couillard remembers his family’s connection to the Canadian Forces fondly, but not without an awareness that the military culture of the time didn’t exactly promote a healthy relationship with alcohol. “It was an absolutely insane childhood,” he says (Couillard often uses the words “insane” and “fun” interchangeably, which provides some insight into both his charm as well as his eventual substance-abuse problems). “Crazy military father. He did mess, where they’d do theme parties for all the officers. He was a heavy drinker, but it was very de rigueur in the 1950s military. Lots of alcohol involved. Lots of alcohol,” he emphasizes.
Growing up as a military brat, he lived wherever his father was transferred, postings that included St-Jean-Sur-Richelieu and Winnipeg, where Couillard’s culinary career began at the age of 14. In classic restaurant tradition, he was hired as a bus boy, then worked his way up to waiter, at a place called the Prairie Room. “It was near the racetrack and was kind of classy in a country and western way.”
Couillard’s Entry to the World of Fine Cooking
However, his entry into the world of fine cooking came when he moved to Toronto and began working at Troy’s. There, Couillard was exposed not only to haute cuisine, but to culture. In addition to being an extremely knowledgeable gourmand, owner Cecil Troy was an antique collector and artist whose work is included in the National Gallery’s collection. Troy’s was an anomaly in early 1970s Toronto, offering dishes that were sophisticated by mid-century Hogtown standards. Couillard credits Troy’s mentoring as the turning point in his career. “I thank my lucky stars for the experience of working with Cecil Troy.” He says that when he began working at the restaurant as a naïve teenager, “I didn’t have a clue about food. I grew up in a white-bread world. I’d never seen a live fish. Or a red bell pepper. Growing up on chili con carne and deep-fried wieners, and suddenly I’m doing tournedos and spinach pasta. Green noodles. Who knew?” Working at Troy’s also introduced him to a sophisticated social circle. “The clients included Adrienne Clarkson, Rex Reid, all the opera people, the ballet. The bon vivant crowd of early ‘70s Toronto.” For the boy who grew up on military bases loading vending machines for extra money, discovering his talent and meeting celebrities at the same time was a heady experience, one that Couillard revelled in. “I was kind of a natural. I’d always wanted to be an artist of some sort, and food gave me an outlet for my artistic expression.”
Although working at Troy’s provided Couillard with the knowledge and skills for a stellar career, it also drew him into a lifestyle where excess was the norm rather than the exception. “We’d serve 26 people, then half way through the night, we’d go downstairs and bring up an apron load full of beer, and just plow through the booze. I was somewhat innocent. I did come from the hippie culture, but alcohol wasn’t part of it.” For Couillard, that would soon change.
Rise to Stardom
His star really began to rise when he became part of the nascent Queen West arts scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when an explosion of creative energy spawned bands like Rough Trade and Alta Moda, the comedy troupe Kids In The Hall, numerous galleries and indie couture shops, driven by ambitious young entrepreneurs and the creative energy of the nearby Ontario College of Art (now OCAD). The result was a café society the likes of which had never been seen before in staid Toronto, and Couillard soon found himself at the epicentre of it all. He opened Parrot, a restaurant that quickly became associated with the signature style he developed, inspired by his travels, and most of all by the unprecedented diversity of immigrants arriving in the city. It was the era where Toronto finally cast off its staid WASP-y image and became what the United Nations has determined is the most ethnically diverse city on the planet. Couillard embraced it, combining exotic spices and ingredients brought in by the new immigrants, in what became known as fusion cuisine. Besides being a culinary mecca, Parrot was a cultural touchstone. “We were the first people to hang art shows,” says Couillard. “Artists, dancers and musicians were on staff. People took notice. That’s where I started to make my mark.”
But it was also where his partying showed its first hints of becoming excessive. A friend introduced him to cocaine, and he soon was a regular user. He says that drugs and alcohol were part of the restaurant culture of the time. “As Anthony Bourdain pointed out, the hours, the life that people were living had to be fueled by something other than good intentions and love of the business. You were young, and it was Queen street. So after hours, the tendency after you put in your 15-hour days was to lock up and go to the speakeasies. We partied hefty.”
Despite the partying, Couillard was, at least for the moment, still taking care of business in the kitchen. The reviews he garnered were almost reverential, but even with growing media attention, Couillard says he remained humble – for the most part. “For me, it was just very exciting to be cooking this food. Nothing surprised me or delighted me more than the fact that it turned out. I had a knack. That’s all I would call it. According to critics, my food was phenomenal. And it was pretty good.” However, his rising fame as well as his drug- and alcohol-fuelled lifestyle began to take their toll. Cracks began to appear in his persona. He recalls one night when he was told that Globe and Mail food critic Joanne Kates had written a particularly flattering review of his latest culinary efforts. “I kicked in a Globe and Mail newspaper box – even though I said I didn’t care about fame – for a Joanne Kates review, because I didn’t have the right change. So I just kicked it in and grabbed the paper. It was a very sunny review. That’s when I got my first taste of celebrity, and confirmation that I was some kind of hot shit.”
For a self-taught young chef, the acclaim was exhilarating. But there was a dark side to his burgeoning celebrity. “As each review got more and more over the top, I thought that somebody would call me out as a fraud.” Couillard says that as his fame grew, “the media were analyzing my personality and lifestyle more than my work.” His mythos spread, based on what he says were “third- and fourth-person accounts. Whether it was drugs or alcohol or whatever shenanigans, by the time it hit the press, it would go from me reaming out a waiter to throwing knives at him. In all fairness, I thought it was a fun game to be playing, to be this most elegantly wasted Keith Richards type of chef.”
Descent into Drugs and Alcohol
Couillard descended deeper into drug and alcohol use. “I think I was genetically predestined. I was always ‘in for a penny, in for a pound.’ It all escalated. I grew up in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, so pick your poison. From psychedelics, mushrooms, hash, pot, to the speedy days, the cocaine, heroin, all of it was channeled through the entertainment/rock ‘n’ roll restaurant scene. It was part of the whole culture.”
That led to the infamous night where he passed out in the bus shelter, and his first trip to rehab. “My sister took me home and found out about the Addiction Research Foundation, took me there and booked me in. But rehab was new then. It’s not what it is today. It was more like a drunk tank where they detox you. It was an inpatient program where they’d basically throw you in the rubber room and lock the door, and you’d bounce yourself into hysterical insanity until you were good enough to stop shaking. Physically I’d done myself in. My body was a train wreck. My pancreas was out of this world. They had me on all these tubes. It was really nasty. I don’t remember a lot of it, quite honestly. I stayed in there about a month. It was enough to make me realize this is not cool.” But, he adds, “it didn’t stop me from repeating that kind of behaviour.”
Although he now calls it an “excuse”, Couillard says that the AIDS crisis of the 1980s factored into his hard partying. “It was very strange times. There had been a lot of stress because in the gay community, there was a lot of knowledge of HIV and AIDS, even though it didn’t have a name. By late 1982, I’d lost my best friend. We had no idea what it was. It wasn’t until the Rock Hudson thing happened. From 1982 to 1986 was very stressful, the plague starting. I make excuses, but it does have an impact when you see 60 or 70 friends just drop because of this plague. I thought ‘Well, I’ve lost this person and this person. I’m pretty much next. Does it really matter? You just figure your number’s probably going to come up, so why not. So I was right back to it [with the drugs and alcohol]. He was soon at the ARF once again for another month as an inpatient. But even after being discharged a second time, he gradually reverted to his old habits.
The Breaking Point is Finally Met
Couillard says his addiction issues finally reached the breaking point in the early 1990s, at his aptly named restaurant, Notorious. “My sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle kind of overshadowed the food. I was drinking on the job.” His story will have an uncomfortable ring of familiarity to anyone who has experienced addiction. “I was so poisoned. It was just stupid. I’d need a couple of bottles of wine before noon just to straighten out, then a bottle of Stoly before midnight. Which was not fun. You don’t even feel it after a while. It’s just maintenance to keep the bad stuff at bay. I thought it was cool to wake up and do four fingers of vodka and tomato juice, knock it back and then it was fine. There was no hangover.” One morning, he awakened to discover there was no booze in the house. “I realized, ‘Oh my god, this is what happens when you poison your body with alcohol. You’re getting the shakes and all the physical discomfort of not drinking.’”
Couillard says that one of the barriers to sobriety in the 1980s and 1990s was that the treatment programs were primitive and ineffective by contemporary standards. For Couillard, the lowest of the low points was visiting a rehab facility in Winnipeg, an experience he describes as “horrific.” “It was like some kind of nightmare. Like a Guy Madden film, Tales from the Gimli Hospital, except rehab. Being fucked up, semi-famous, gay, and being amongst all these ex-cons who were alcoholics and drug addicts. It was very terrifying. Like jail.”
Despite visits to rehab centres, and several eccentric but unsuccessful attempts at rehab regimens of his own devising on the beaches of Tahiti and Haiti, Couillard’s addictive behaviour escalated to the point where by the mid 1990s, he was using heroin.
Road to Recovery
Couillard’s eventual salvation came from an ironic source. On New Year’s Eve of 1996, his heroin dealer announced that would no longer sell drugs to him, because he felt that Couillard had a chance of recovering and getting back on his feet. So instead, he slipped Couillard a piece of paper with the name and contact information for a doctor who provided methadone treatment. With no other immediate options, Couillard sought out the doctor and began the program. He says that it wasn’t easy. “It took me a good number of years to get off the methadone. I slowly weaned myself off it from a hundred miligrams a day to three. In the early 2000s I finally kicked it. When I was down to 3 milligrams, I dumped my shit down the sink, and I said to my best friend, I’m about to go through a lot of horrible stuff, and I locked myself away and didn’t sleep for 17 days.” Couillard says he’s been clean ever since. “I have no desire to use cocaine or heroin. It’s grown old on me. Plus I know where it ends.”
Although he was not a client of Bellwood, becoming the head chef there was, in his words, “a natural progression.” He says he finds it deeply gratifying to work at a facility where he is helping people who, like him, struggle with addiction. Couillard also says that the regimen at Bellwood, which includes things like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Motivational Interviewing, is far more enlightened and effective than the kind of treatment he received in the ‘80s and ‘90s. “Bellwood is so different than the rehabs years ago. The people are great. The thinking has changed now, so that people realize that it’s not just drugs and alcohol, it’s all kinds of addictive behaviours here. People are much more aware that this is a disability as opposed to a choice. That’s a real learning curve for a lot of people, including addicts. Because mostly, in the past in rehabs, you’re made to feel like shit. Like you choose to be like this. ‘Pull up your bootstraps. You fucked up.’ It’s not like that anymore. There’s so much more research done now.” He says that the rehab facilities he experienced two and three decades ago didn’t equip addicts with the skills and knowledge to stay off drugs and alcohol once they had detoxed. By contrast, he says, the counselling at Bellwood enables its clients to handle the underlying issues behind their addictions. “It gives them a new set of habits and coping skills to deal with problems without using drugs or alcohol. Here, people are in private or semi-private rooms, there’s exercise and yoga, pilates, acupuncture, massage.” He also likes Bellwood’s physical surroundings, at the edge of the forested 147-acre Sunnybrook Park. “The ravine is awesome. It’s very Bambi – animals and chipmunks and rabbits. You don’t see the city. The air is still and quiet. It’s a perfect environment.”
Couillard sees food and cooking as integral to the process of recovery for Bellwood’s clients. “Part of the rehabilitation process is understanding the importance of a healthy diet. Most people with disorders, from eating to PTSD, don’t eat properly. I know how it is when you’ve got a hundred bucks and the choice is, ‘Am I going to put food on the table or am I going to go and get high?’ You’re always going to choose getting high. So your brain-body function breaks down. I’ve experienced it personally. I know how badly you feel when you’re not nourished.”
Because of that, part of Couillard’s mission is to pass on his love of cooking and nutrition to the clients. When he took over the kitchen at Bellwood, Couillard brought his own staff of five with him, and he had definite ideas about what he wanted the menu to be like. And what he didn’t want it to be like. “The reason I wanted to work here is the food that we got in rehab in Toronto and Winnipeg in the ‘80s and ‘90s was just nasty. There wasn’t any thought put into it. It was all empty carbs. It was kind of like, ‘You’re lucky you’re not out on the street.’
Bellwoods Role in Recovery
He credits Bellwood’s Chief Operating Officer Cara Vaccarino and CEO Joe Manget with having an enlightened attitude towards the role of food in the healing process, and being responsive to what Couillard and his culinary team hoped to achieve by joining the staff. “When we met Cara and Joe and the other people at Bellwood, they understood what we could do, taking it from hospital food to great food.” He says that as humans, “one of our greatest sensual pleasures in life is having phenomenal palates for food,” and that exposing clients to nutritious food prepared to a high standard is, in his view, part of the healing process. “It’s more Scaramouche and less jailhouse,” Couillard jokes. He admits that for some of the clients, “the food is a little exotic, but we’re winning them over one meal at a time. I do my Jump-Up soup here, with coconut rice and peas. And jerk chicken. It’s not as extreme as I used to do. We do a really nice brisket with parsnip and mushroom gravy. Also pork loin with rosemary and mushroom sauce, but it’s all from scratch. Honest food. David [Kosicky, his right-hand man in the kitchen] does pastries and savouries as well. So there are all kinds of treats every day.”
Couillard is keen on instilling his love of food and cooking in the clients, not just as consumers, but as creators. “One of the things I’ve learned about rehab from being on both sides of it is that you have to be engaged. Cooking is great therapy. We’re going to put in a garden that we want to get people and their families to work in. I’m going to get a lot of people involved in it. We’ll grow herbs and tomatoes, stuff like that. There’s so much to look forward to. We’ve got two huge barbecues to get people interested in cooking and in the Zen of peeling, chopping, and the camaraderie of the kitchen. It’s a really cool, safe place. And it’s beautiful up here.”
Couillard readily admits that being at Bellwood is a healthy environment for him too. “I used to get home at five in the morning. Now I’m in bed at eight o’clock. I live here Monday to Friday. They let me out for good behaviour on the weekends,” he jokes. “Weekdays, I get up at four in the morning. I’m in the kitchen by five to get ready for a seven o’clock breakfast, usually everything from eggs to waffles to making jams. This is a great vehicle for me. Having somewhat of a normal life.”
Most of all, he loves helping other people get their lives back on track. “Here, after six weeks, people clean up and eat well and sleep well and exercise and get their shit together in their head and are making the effort. It’s all of these things together that make me like this job.”
After a stellar career marked by fame and accolades, but also by the darkness of addiction, Couillard feels that Bellwood is where he belongs. “I’m perfect for this place. Because like Joni Mitchell says, ‘I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now. I’ve had my Andy Warhol 15 minutes of fame, and it was a lot of fun. But this is more important.”