Joey's chef

Karl Wells
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George Hillier, 88, reflects on cooking for Father of Confederation

"I suppose you thought I'd be a big fat fella," said the slim octogenarian as he rose to shake my hand. I told him that wasn't the case. Most chefs I've encountered have been quite trim. It's because they're on their feet lifting, chopping, stirring, cooking and cleaning for hours every day.

Nobody burned more energy in the kitchen than George Hillier, the man I was visiting. Hillier cooked professionally for almost 50 years, from assistant's work during the construction of Gander International Airport, to the end of his career cooking for the Salvation Army's Wiseman Centre, at age 71.

Photo by Karl Wells/Special to The Telegram

"I suppose you thought I'd be a big fat fella," said the slim octogenarian as he rose to shake my hand. I told him that wasn't the case. Most chefs I've encountered have been quite trim. It's because they're on their feet lifting, chopping, stirring, cooking and cleaning for hours every day.

Nobody burned more energy in the kitchen than George Hillier, the man I was visiting. Hillier cooked professionally for almost 50 years, from assistant's work during the construction of Gander International Airport, to the end of his career cooking for the Salvation Army's Wiseman Centre, at age 71.

In between there were stints working with the Newfoundland Forestry Unit in wartime Scotland (where he celebrated his 20th birthday in 1940), cooking on the trains of the Newfoundland Railway, evening chef's work at the St. John's Holiday Inn, cooking at Churchill Falls and, finally, at the Health Sciences Centre kitchen.

But of all Hillier's cooking jobs, none was more memorable than the time spent as Premier Joey Smallwood's personal chef at Smallwood's Roaches Line residence.

"I left the railway and went with the Holiday Inn. I was in there for a year and a half. I was the evening chef. In 1966 somebody recommended me to Smallwood. I used to feed Mr. Smallwood when I was working at the Holiday Inn. He'd get a meal off me every now and then, so, he asked me to go to Roaches Line. I wasn't a government employee. He paid me himself."

Live-in-chef

Not only did George Hillier cook for the Father of Confederation, he also lived with Smallwood and Mrs. Smallwood at Roaches Line. Hillier, his wife and teenage daughter, Nancy, were provided with an apartment at the sprawling Smallwood residence. The Smallwood kitchen became his and he was given responsibility for cooking for Joey, his wife and guests. He also made regular grocery runs to St. John's.

While his job description stated duties involved food service, according to Hillier, that didn't stop Mrs. Smallwood from trying to press him into doing other work.

"She'd ask me to go out in the greenhouse. I told her I wouldn't go out. She'd want me to do the weeding and I wouldn't do that. I didn't go there for that. Joey had a cook before me. He had Charlie and Charlie used to go out and weed her greenhouse. I remember she'd say, 'Charlie used to go out and do it,' and I'd say, 'my name's not Charlie.'"

Same breakfast

On a typical day Hillier would rise around 6 a.m. and prepare breakfast for Smallwood.

There wasn't much preparation required since Smallwood didn't want cooked breakfasts. In fact, he ate the same thing every single day: tea, four Graham wafers, two pieces of cheese and a dish of rhubarb jam. The routine was broken on just one morning.

"He had a box of salt fish that came in from New Brunswick and I gave him a bit of that for his breakfast and he enjoyed it. It was beautiful. I never saw salt fish as white before or since. It was really beautiful. He had a 20-pound box."

Hillier said Smallwood was a very easy man to work for. He wasn't a fussy eater, would eat most everything put in front of him and never complained. He rarely had seconds and wouldn't eat between meals, either, with the exception of "an orange, sometimes, before going to bed."

Typically, Smallwood liked chicken and roasts, especially on Sundays. He was also partial to freshly baked, whole wheat bread (never white), shrimp, salads, red wine and occasionally a dessert of cottage pudding (vanilla slab cake with sauce) or rhubarb pie.

"I'd let him know what I was having for dinner that night because he'd leave in the morning around 7:30. He'd leave in the morning and be back for dinner at night."

No local beef

While Smallwood was generally not a picky eater, it's clear he had one dining rule. He refused to eat Newfoundland beef. Hillier has never forgotten that request.

"He wouldn't eat local beef, no; like the cows that they killed down around the bay and that. He just wouldn't eat it. He never said why but he wouldn't have it. He liked beef but it had to come from the mainland."

Being Smallwood's dining room waiter as well as cook, Hillier got to meet many celebrities and high-profile guests over the years. Once or twice he cooked for Pierre Trudeau at Roaches Line.

"That was before Trudeau was prime minister."

He also remembers cooking for folk like businessman Arthur Lundrigan, a young Ed Roberts and O.L (Al) Vardy.

"Al Vardy was Joey's buddy. Vardy would let me know he was there for supper. He'd say, for a joke, 'Put more water in the soup,' and I'd laugh. But in the meantime, I always made enough anyway."

When the Churchill Falls project was under construction, Hillier left Smallwood to head north. He had enjoyed his time at Roaches Line and might have stayed longer, but his wife and daughter didn't like living away from St. John's.

As we concluded our conversation, the 88-year-old former chef reminded me of the realities of politics.

"Yes, he treated me good. I was a Liberal ... always," he said, adding - with a smile and mischievous twinkle in his eye, "He wouldn't have a Tory working for him."

Organizations: Holiday Inn, Gander International Airport, Salvation Army Wiseman Centre Newfoundland Forestry Unit Newfoundland Railway Health Sciences Centre

Geographic location: St. John's, Scotland, New Brunswick Newfoundland

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Recent comments

  • Garry
    July 02, 2010 - 13:34

    I've met George and Charlie and loved their friendly professional service attitude towards Joey and Mrs. Smallwood and all who would visit Newfoundland house. They put a smile on my face with every visit. Thank you for bringing back such wionderful memories.

  • Dale
    July 02, 2010 - 13:22

    Really nice story that shows the human side of JRS - the way we remember him in the family! His breakfasts didn't change - even after his stroke! Local beef: wanted to make sure he wasn't eating some of our beef. Many local butchers bought from Russwood Ranch / Stockyards and would resell to others, so we could never be certain if it was our meat, and we were one of the largest producers in the late-50s and all through the 60s!

  • Debbie
    July 02, 2010 - 13:17

    Well now, Mr. Hillier could very well be a history book...from Smallword to the Newfoundland Railway, to Churchill Falls, to the Newfoundland Forestry Unit in Scotland...I bet he could tell some stories. It's great to see a gentleman like Mr. Hillier willing to share his recollections of things that this generation knows hardly anything about. This is the type of story that everyone will read and want to know more about the characters...Great job!

  • Mary
    July 02, 2010 - 13:09

    Great story !

  • Garry
    July 01, 2010 - 20:23

    I've met George and Charlie and loved their friendly professional service attitude towards Joey and Mrs. Smallwood and all who would visit Newfoundland house. They put a smile on my face with every visit. Thank you for bringing back such wionderful memories.

  • Dale
    July 01, 2010 - 20:07

    Really nice story that shows the human side of JRS - the way we remember him in the family! His breakfasts didn't change - even after his stroke! Local beef: wanted to make sure he wasn't eating some of our beef. Many local butchers bought from Russwood Ranch / Stockyards and would resell to others, so we could never be certain if it was our meat, and we were one of the largest producers in the late-50s and all through the 60s!

  • Debbie
    July 01, 2010 - 19:58

    Well now, Mr. Hillier could very well be a history book...from Smallword to the Newfoundland Railway, to Churchill Falls, to the Newfoundland Forestry Unit in Scotland...I bet he could tell some stories. It's great to see a gentleman like Mr. Hillier willing to share his recollections of things that this generation knows hardly anything about. This is the type of story that everyone will read and want to know more about the characters...Great job!

  • Mary
    July 01, 2010 - 19:45

    Great story !