We want to know you and you to know us. We invite you to get to know us a little better, this time with Drake Commissary’s executive chef, Jonas Grupiljonas.
Like most chefs, I was drawn to working in kitchens for its unmatchable lifestyle. I had finished a year of university and I found the classroom and future I saw in a future in my profession as void of passion and excitement. While I appreciated the value and use of what I was learning, I left every day feeling isolated and disengaged. By chance, I stumbled into a job in the about to launch Distillery District. Becoming part of this massive but tight-knit team, working long demanding hours beside eccentric cooks and loud music cooking delicious food all day, seemed foreign and exciting. I immediately appreciated the comradery and togetherness that built the foundation of the team but also learned to be acutely aware of cooks that would sabotage or take advantage to get themselves ahead. It was a crash course in survival and teamwork, and it was addictive as a profession despite its demands. But as the luster of the kitchen life began to wear off, my interest in the craft took over. Reading, studying and immersing myself in learning the history of dishes, and the techniques used to make them, seemed never-ending and always at your fingertips. There was great potential to continue evolving and learning and sharing in that experience.
I moved to train in fine dining kitchens, increasing my workload, increasing that bond with everyone I worked beside and increasing my focus on the trade. I studied the roots of French and Italian cuisines and worked beside some very talented and passionate chefs at Luce and C5 in Toronto for years. Working beside cooks that brought back new skills and techniques from restaurants across Europe. Mugaritz, El Bulli, Ralae. The new perspectives brought back when looking at the same ingredients inspired me to travel to London. I felt at home in a diverse city, with many authentic cuisines all a tube ride or walk away. Vietnamese on Kingsland Road, Jewish on Brick Lane, Turkish in Hackney. It was an amplified version of Toronto, with rich history and many stories to take in. I spent time in the kitchens as Ottolenghi, The Ledbury, and Square. The intensity and professionalism from young cooks push you to always be focused. Every small detail was important, and every meal depended on each of those details. This level of meticulous detail really helped develop an appreciation for its broader effects. But over time, fine dining cuisine began to feel too formal to me, even in its preparation. The joy of rustic cooking and the informal nature of farmhouse farm to table food held more of my desires going forward. I often felt that when you were lucky enough to dine at an amazing restaurant, and also the ideas and presentation of food was outstanding, that the fresh-baked crusty bread served with fresh churned butter was the most memorable of it all. The world of baking, rustic cuisine and fermentation held the path for the next decade or so of my career. I set out to spend time in one of the most inspirational bakeries at that time, Tartine. Months of follow up just to work for free resulted in spending time in the kitchen at Bar Tartine, under chefs Balla and Burns. Through the better part of a month, I was able to absorb the humble, honest and authentic way Nick and Courtney cooked each day. Inspired by Hungarian and Japanese cuisine as using natural fermentation as the foundation of their cooking methods. Slowly leavened sourdough, pickled herring, fresh churned butter, farmers cheese, lacto fermented pickles. It was all the foods deep in flavour and history, and I knew I would aim to try to recreate the feeling I had visiting them for cooks I would work beside in the future.
Returning to Toronto, I linked up again with my chef of many years, Ted Corrado at the Drake. I helped to bring a new appreciation for food made from scratch. I helped to launch Drake 150 working overnight as the sun was still set, mixing and rounding burger buns, and folding and baking sourdoughs. As the company grew and the success of what we were working on began to show fruition, we aimed to create a workshop of sorts that would help to supply great, healthy and locally made food to our other Drake locations. The Drake Commissary was born in 2017. My intention from the first day was to try to stay respectful and authentic to both the ingredients and cultural history of the food we created, as well as the employees that worked here. A place where cooks and customers would be surrounded by the sights and smells of fresh bread baking, brisket being smoked, pickles being brined and pasta being rolled. Somewhere you could take pride in your work, while aiming to have a work-life balance. And somewhere that everyone felt like a vital contributor to its success. I wanted to instill all of the valuable things I learned throughout the years, a hardworking entrepreneurial culture, and an inclusive one and one that could succeed as a business idea. The road has been difficult, and at times hard to honour all of those aspects simultaneously, but it is the intention that I always try to revert to as a leader in the kitchen.
Throughout the years we have been able to partner our bakery with Spent Grain foods, an initiative that repurposes grain from the beer-making process for use in a sandwich loaf sent out to local Toronto schools. These are the initiatives I’m hoping to expand on going forward. Socially responsible, community-engaged, tasty food. I’m very grateful for the team that makes up the Commissary and am always excited to see what lies ahead for us.