Taylor Clarke was suspicious of Bengal cats, celery juice, and people with no apparent jobs who were always on vacation. He held up a mirror to Toronto, the unaffordable city he loved, and he called out the most ridiculous, unfair parts. In his corner of the internet, as Chef Grant Soto, he created a community for people to laugh and vent their frustrations.
On March 8, he died of an accidental drug overdose. He was 38.
Taylor Clarke was a screenwriter who had worked in the restaurant industry. He channelled his insights about the ego-driven business into Grant Soto, a “celebrity chef” who served owl meat to his elite customers and even worse meals to his staff. As Clarke described the absurd and fictitious exploits on social media, he skewered Toronto’s restaurant scene.
He used his account to draw attention to injustice in the industry, and when he needed a break from confrontation, he liked to create Toronto personas. A late January post showed a young man in a suit holding a cannabis plant: “What’s good? It’s me the Cannabis investor bro. I’m at the forefront of business because I got money from my father last year to invest in a marijuana company because all of my buddies were doing it and I didn’t want to be the only guy at AMBER lounge left out.”
He loved Toronto, but he split his time between this city and his hometown of Thunder Bay. He had moved back home in 2014 to care for his mother, Pamela, and friends say he’d been having a hard time since her death in 2017. When his sister, Tara Vilas, spoke to him the day before he died, he was in a great mood. A writing project was coming together, and he hoped it might be a big break that would finance a trip to Vancouver, where she lived in the suburbs (which he made fun of). “He was in a happy place,” she says. “Yes, he struggled with depression, but from what I can tell as his sister, I was proud of him.”
His friend, chef Matty Matheson, says Clarke’s death has been “humbling” because “one second you’re there, one second you’re not.”
He asks: “Is Taylor going to be known for tweeting funny things and putting Susur Lee on blast? There’s way more to Taylor than that.”
At 4 years old, Taylor Clarke was already an observer of the human condition. In Thunder Bay, his mother gave him the choice of morning or afternoon kindergarten. He chose the morning, to be home by 1 to watch All My Children.
“He was such a sweet, sensitive little kid,” who became your “typical, average s-t disturbing littler brother,” Vilas says, laughing. “There was no one like him, he was brilliant.”
At 5, Clarke saw An American Tail, and declared he would make movies one day. He taught himself to read in kindergarten, and by 12, his hair was starting to go grey, a genetic quirk from his grandfather. At 16, he won third place in a U.S. screenwriting contest. He studied English and film at Western University, worked as a forest firefighter, and then came to Toronto, where he wrote scripts and worked in the evening at Marben as a server.
In January 2012, Clarke tweeted from his fictional Gravitas restaurant as “culinary legend” Grant Soto for the first time, announcing to the world that “before me, charcuterie was just meat.”
At the outset, Toronto chef and restaurateur Jen Agg saw him as an adversary. “I just remember feeling like it was personal and being very sensitive about it,” she writes in an email. “I was trying so hard to prove I could run a restaurant I probably didn’t have quite the necessary sense of humour about it.” Eventually she realized he was “hilarious,” and they became friends.
He revealed his identity to the Star’s Amy Pataki in June 2012. By then he had an agent and was working on a pilot about his fictional chef. (It was optioned, but didn’t sell.) As Grant Soto, he shone a light on “dark corners of the industry,” Agg writes. When someone posted to social media that a King St. bar had a sign that read “No means yes & yes means a***?” Clarke reposted the sign: “Apparently ‘NO MEANS YES’ at Locals Only. Keep that in mind when you’re looking for a safe space to drink.” (They apologized.)
In 2017, a policy at celebrity chef Susur Lee’s restaurants made the news after employees said their tips were garnisheed for mistakes. When the policy changed, Jen Agg tweeted that it wouldn’t have happened without Clarke. “He posted many anonymous DMs. Eventually people came forward,” she tweeted at the time.
He stood six foot three, but he was all about the little guy. “He just said what was up,” says Matheson, his friend. “Most of the time everything he said was f–ing true, and it was funny, and all of a sudden people could stand behind somebody kind of standing up for other people.”
People often sent Clarke messages, asking him to call somebody out. But he couldn’t always do it. There was a lot going on in his life. Both his Twitter and Instagram accounts were private. “Going up against some big restaurateur or some other powerful person is stressful,” he posted in October 2018. It’s why he needed to make “dumb Yorkville jokes.”
Jen Agg loved Clarke’s Toronto tropes.
“They were filled with biting humour but there was also this layer of sadness, and even, sometimes empathy for his characters,” she writes. “I think a lot of that came from his own struggles with mental health, which he was very open about.”
One recent post about a fictional 27-year-old Aritzia manager described a graduate of Western who lives at CityPlace, goes to SoulCycle when she can afford it, but often stays under the duvet her stepmom bought from Anthropologie. “Therapists are expensive and I couldn’t find one covered under OHIP so I’ve tried to cut back on my drinking,” Clarke wrote, channelling his character.
Clarke included that line on purpose. “I know what it’s like to feel helpless and depressed and not know where to get help and or afford to see someone,” he wrote. “I’m in a lot of these stories in one way or another.”
His followers responded with places to get free counselling, and Clarke posted those resources prominently.
“If you ever had a (direct message) exchange with him, you’d see that kindness,” Agg writes.
“He never left something unread, and he never just left you hanging,” says Shannon Harvey, who never met Clarke, but followed the account. She recommended it to friends, especially if they were going through a hard time.
“He recognized what people would do to get Instagram famous and he’d make fun of it,” she says, recalling his musings about Bengal cats. (“I can’t prove it but I just know it,” Clarke posted. “Everyone who owns this cat is sketchy.”)
Jesse Wilks appreciates the way Clarke exposed that influencer culture, where people post the best versions of their lives online. “His was one of the few accounts, that was like, isn’t this all so ridiculous?”
Once, Clarke posted about a 27-year-old graphic designer who can’t afford a house but lived in a one-bedroom Liberty Village condo overlooking the Metro parking lot with his girlfriend, spent weekends with the in-laws in Oakville, and found incredible joy at Bellwoods brewery until he was wrenched back to reality with a text alerting him to a Cracker Barrel cheese sale.
Wilks worked in advertising in Toronto at the time, loved Bellwoods brewery, had in-laws in Mississauga. But it didn’t feel malicious; the posts were insightful and funny, steeped in love for the city. “I think he articulated what so many people already think,” he says.
After the Grant Soto character received publicity, Clarke had an agent and meetings. In February 2013, he met Raj Panikkar and Chris Szarka of Fifth Ground Entertainment. They were charmed, impressed, and Clarke walked out of the Dundas W. coffee shop with a job. He didn’t have a “big body of work” but they agreed he would write and direct an episode of Reelside, a series they were producing for the The Movie Network about Canadians in the entertainment industry.
Clarke directed an episode about Evan Goldberg, the writing partner of Seth Rogen. Clarke knew him because he had contacted Goldberg for writing advice. He went in “cold” to Los Angeles for a month with a junior producer.
“He did a fantastic job,” Panikkar says. While they were editing the episode in 2014, Clarke moved back to Thunder Bay, where his mother faced a second bout with cancer. She was a hardworker who was funny like Taylor, his sister says. Vilas came when she could and talked to them everyday on FaceTime. “They were always laughing,” she says. He stayed to take care of his mother for a couple of years, with occasional trips to Toronto.
It was “the ultimate selfless thing,” says Matheson.
“He went and did what he had to do, which is extremely pure,” he says. “That’s such a bigger thing than making people laugh.”
After his mother died, Clarke and his basset hound drove back to Toronto, which was more expensive than ever. He couch-surfed a while and often lived paycheque to paycheque. Last summer, he was living in Yorkville for a stretch. “I want to know the rich cultural traditions of this diverse and storied community,” he posted. “Like do the Oakville girls still hang out at Hemingway’s, and is today the day I pass Margaret Atwood and she pretends not to make eye contact with me?”
He eventually settled in with a roommate, his sister says.
“He was working on some new projects to get out into the world,” Amy Stulberg of Vanguarde Artists Management writes. “He had big plans.”
It had been a hard year. He was worried about his sister, who needs a kidney transplant. Online, he encouraged people to be organ donors.
Matheson says the death of Taylor’s mother really broke him. Back when Matheson was “extremely connected” to the party scene, “I never did drugs with him once,” he says, “and I did drugs with everybody. That is the saddest thing, how quick drugs can kind of take you.”
In January, Clarke celebrated his 38th birthday in Chef Grant Soto style by selling naming rights to the festivities, including digital ad space on his dog’s back. “He was so excited,” his sister says. He posted the day on Instagram, including his sponsored haircut in Yorkville and the coat room underwritten by a PR firm. Celebrity Chef Mark McEwan sent a cheese plate.
He had successfully petitioned McEwan to take him for lunch years earlier. (“It’s important for two Canadian culinary giants to come together finally in a symbolic showing of unity,” Clarke had written.) When McEwan posted a photo of himself eating ice cream last summer, Clarke reposted: “When you have money and haven’t held an ice cream cone in 20 years.” McEwan, clearly not offended, sent him video evidence that he’d recently eaten a Popsicle.
Because of her illness, Clarke’s sister couldn’t travel to Toronto when he died.
She did what she could from Vancouver, and his friends took care of everything locally, including his beloved basset hound, Ruby. Matheson and Agg are planning a memorial for April. On the online fundraiser for the memorial, people left notes.
“This past fall, I went through the deepest depression I can remember suffering from in the last 10 years. As silly as it sounds, finding your IG account was a bright spot of sunshine in those dark days.”
“It’s weird to grieve for a person I’ve never met, but I was devastated hear about Taylor’s death.”
That last comment was from Shannon Harvey. She doesn’t live in Toronto anymore, but she messaged Clarke last Tuesday to tell him how funny his post about a fictional married polyamorous couple from Roncesvalles was. He replied, as usual.
The tributes gave comfort to his sister, Tara Vilas.
“He had fun with it, he loved it, but that wasn’t all of him,” she says. “As tragic as his death was, I hope that in some little way that he’s remembered and it makes a difference for someone.”