Bishop’s Restaurant celebrates its 30th anniversary

Eons ahead of the localvore trend, restaurateur John Bishop has served everyone from Pierre Trudeau to Robert De Niro.

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      Not many local restaurateurs can say they’ve cooked for several world leaders, never mind dozens of celebrities who have become regular guests and good friends. John Bishop can. With Bishop’s Restaurant celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, the Welsh native could write a book on all the behind-the-scenes stuff that’s transpired during his estimable career.

      “Within six months of opening, we did dinner for Pierre Trudeau, a dinner for 20 people,” Bishop recalls during an interview over mint tea at his West 4th Avenue spot. “He travelled without security. Not long ago, we did dinner for [then] Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The security was unbelievable. There were people with sniffing dogs; I had people in the kitchen standing over my shoulder.”

      Then there was the “Clinton-Yeltsin farce” during the pair’s 1993 summit in Vancouver. Bishop was responsible for a dinner taking place at Queen Elizabeth Park’s Seasons in the Park.

      “I spent months planning this menu for those two boys,” he says. “It started out as a table of 14 that expanded to 75. For months leading up to it, there was security: phones tapped, food tested. Then when the time came, it was like a rock ’n’ roll show: they brought in two jumbo jets. They brought all their own plates and all their own flowers. We were locked in all day because of security.…They needed a special table, so we built a table for them out of plywood.”

      Justin Trudeau visited when he lived in Vancouver; so have Robert De Niro, Sean Penn, Goldie Hawn, and countless other stars. A keen art supporter who decorates the walls of his intimate restaurant with pieces from his own collection, Bishop has forged friendships with artists he’s met there, Robert Davidson, Jack Shadbolt, Toni Onley, and Gordon Smith among them. (“I gave Bill Reid his last meal on earth. Martine [Reid, his wife] came to me and asked, ‘Could you make Bill your fish cakes?’ He loved them. That was his last meal on earth.”)

      And yet despite all the high-profile people he knows by name, Bishop—71 and a father of two who has acted as mentor to several local chefs—treats every guest like a star. He’s earned a reputation as much for his hospitality as for his culinary expertise. “John taught me every single person who comes to your restaurant is important,” says Vikram Vij, who worked at Bishop’s from 1991 to 1994, starting out as a server, before opening the original Vij’s Restaurant on Broadway. “He has a subtle way of making every customer feel like they’re the most important person in the room. I’ve really tried to do that in my restaurants. I love to walk around and talk with the people who’ve paid me the honour of coming to eat at my restaurants, and that’s something I learned from John.”

      Burdock & Co.’s Andrea Carlson worked at Bishop’s for six years before opening her own restaurant. “The most influential lesson that I learned from John was his complete personal dedication to his guests’ experience,” Carlson says. “John has an incredibly nimble memory, which greatly assists him and his team to provide the legendary guest experience. As a chef who tends to be fairly introverted, it was invaluable for me to gain an insight and understanding into the importance of holistic guest service.
      He always strives to exceed expectations.” 

      Perhaps the greatest contribution Bishop has made to the Vancouver food scene is its commitment to local, seasonal food: he pioneered the farm-to-table concept in the Lower Mainland.

      Bishop, who moved to Vancouver in 1973 and worked at Umberto’s for a decade before opening his own restaurant in 1985, says that “fine dining” back then meant showcasing foods from anywhere but Vancouver on a menu of tried-and-true items by chefs who had mostly been trained in Europe.

      “Prior to ’85, you didn’t change your menu; people came to you for a particular dish you had a reputation for,” he says. “The concept of changing your menu was reckless. Fine dining was made up of stuff we wouldn’t have here: New Zealand lamb. Icelandic scampi. Dover sole. There were no local oysters on those menus; it had to be Belon oysters from France. Even mushrooms—this is mushrooms central, but we used to bring in mushrooms from Germany. We would go to Richmond to pick berries with our kids, but you would never see them on local menus; berries all came from one truck from California. Local food was alien. Fresh halibut or cod or cracked crab—you wouldn’t see it on menus very often.”

      Inspired by Alice Waters of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse, Bishop was perplexed by all the attention being directed elsewhere, and from the beginning he was intent on using fresh, local, seasonal ingredients. The idea made sense, but putting it into practice proved challenging: there were no weekly farmers markets, and local producers and artisans who would supply food to restaurants were rare. He sourced much of his locally grown food from Chinatown; over time, he fostered relationships with local farmers, and more products from around here became available.

      “We had one local wine on our menu when we started,” he says. “Now 70 percent of our wine sales are local.…When you look at our menu and menus generally in the city now, we have so many wonderful, locally grown, seasonal ingredients.…Chefs are looking at issues like sustainability, where this stuff comes from, and trying not to be wasteful. I don’t think the food on plates in this city has ever been better. It’s hard to find a bad restaurant in Vancouver, and the choices are endless.”

      Over the years, Bishop has written several cookbooks—he’s now working on another—and travelled the globe leading culinary tours. At the restaurant,
      he spends half of his time expediting food and the other half interacting with guests.

      “If I’m very good, they [the chefs] let me open the oysters, which I love to do,” he says. “An oyster is probably the definition of the freshest thing and the least-prepared thing we do. My obligation as chef is to go buy a fresh oyster that’s in season, fresh, one that the broader audience will really enjoy, then open it perfectly so there aren’t any shells in there and it doesn’t look like it’s been stabbed to death. It’s a perfect picture of freshness. When you put them on a plate of ice, people’s jaws drop. It’s a crowd-pleaser. We serve a lot of oysters for a little place.”

      Ian Tostenson, president and CEO of the B.C. Restaurant and Food Services Association, describes Bishop as “the world’s most gracious host”. “He will be at the front door waiting to make sure you have change for your parking meter or personally escort you around the back to park if necessary,” he says. “My first meal at Bishop’s was with David Foster in 2003. It doesn’t matter if you are a celebrity, the prime minister, or an enthusiastic supporter of the best local food this city has to offer, every guest is treated with discretion and dignity.”

      Being the consummate professional and thoughtful host seems to come naturally to Bishop.

      “I love my relationships with my customers,” he says. “This is an extension of my home, so just like when I’m cooking for friends or family, it’s a giving thing. I really like the idea of shopping for someone, putting a lot of love and care into it, keeping it very simple but beautiful; it’s always something that I’ve loved. I love taking care of people.”

      To celebrate its anniversary, Bishop’s (2183 West 4th Avenue; 604-738-2025) is offering a three-course 30th Anniversary Classics menu for $55.

      Follow Gail Johnson on Twitter @gailjohnsonwork.