Swim Out, or Drown

Like most chefs, Gedas Pabritsa says it was his mother who inspired him to start cooking – but not for the usual reasons.

“Being honest with you, she sort of did. Because I actually started cooking in self-defence,” he says with a laugh.

His mother, he admits, was “a very smart lady”, a technocrat whose expertise was radio components for both civil and military aircraft in his home country of Lithuania.

“She was an amazing engineer, but the kitchen was not her strongest place, so always the food would be bland, with no seasoning.”

His aunts, on the other hand, were “awesome” cooks, and one was actually a chef.

“I was probably 10 years old when I started playing around with food – learning some recipes from my cousins, doing my own things. I used to burn a lot of pots in those days.”

Pabritsa – his full first name is Gediminas, after the 14th century Grand Duke who founded what is now Lithuania’s capital city, Vilnius – spent most of his early childhood on his grandparents’ farm.

In those post-war days, money was tight in eastern Europe. With both parents having to work, and daycare in limited supply, that was the only option.

As a youngster, camping with friends or attending house parties, “For some strange reason, I always ended up cooking the meal for everybody. I was always good at that.”

When he began his career in the food and beverage industry, however, it wasn’t in the kitchen.

“I started actually at the front of the house. In my country, they didn’t allow you to be waiters or bartenders straight from the street. You had to be a professional.”

So Pabritsa studied the art of waiting and bartending with the Society of Consumers.

“While I was working in the restaurant I took a course, technology of food preparation.” That’s the equivalent of a chef’s certificate from a Canadian college, he explains.

When his parents emigrated to Toronto, Pabritsa stayed behind for a few years to be with his girlfriend (they recently celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary) before following them to Canada.

Armed with his freshly-minted chef’s papers, he arrived ready to work – only to discover his east bloc credentials weren’t recognized here and he would have to start over.

“I said, ‘If that’s what you want, fine.’ So I went through an entire apprenticeship in Toronto again, and I graduated from George Brown College.”

Now, with his red seal certification, “I can go around the planet.”

Pabritsa didn’t waste any time making a name for himself in the kitchen.

“I was sort of growing really fast, because I wanted really badly indeed to become a chef one day. And my very first executive position, I was barely 30 years old.”

Even with a double helping of formal training, he explains, the making of a good chef comes from within.

“Certain things, especially to achieve the flavours, you can teach the individual a lot. OK, you put this and you put that,” he says.

“But there is something inside where you have to develop your own taste palate on your tongue. Nobody can teach that. The finished product needs to taste like bang-on. When you’re searching for flavours, you have to have that within you.”

That sensibility is what separate good chefs from ordinary ones, he believes.

“An ordinary chef just kind of follows the recipe, but he’s not going to do any add-ons there.”

During his time in Toronto, Pabritsa’s stock was rising rapidly. But when a hotel in Niagara-on-the-Lake offered him his first position as an executive chef, he faced a new challenge.

“It was really tough, because I didn’t take over from anybody’s chair. I was hired for a brand new kitchen,” he says.

“It was actually scary. She [the woman behind the venture] had nothing to lose. I had everything to lose. She gave me that position and basically said, ‘You swim out, or you drown. So I swam out.”

The Canadian restaurant industry is a small circle, where word of mouth is “extremely” important. The average time a chef stays in one position is about two years, Pabritsa estimates.

Still, he wasn’t prepared for the reaction when he posted his resume on the internet for a couple of days.

“I came home and my wife said, ‘A guy called you from Vancouver and left you a message.'”

Pabritsa didn’t know anyone in Vancouver. The caller turned out to be a headhunter seeking a chef for the High Country Inn in Whitehorse.

Although he turned it down at first, when the opportunity came up again awhile later, Pabritsa accepted.

“Growing up on the farm, the country has always fascinated me. I don’t really care for big cities at all,” he says.

Nearly six years later, Pabritsa is still at the helm in the High Country kitchen. In fact, he is now corporate chef for the hotel’s new owner, Northern Vision Development, with responsibilities for both the High Country and the Gold Rush Inn.

That role – “unfortunately” – means spending more time in the office than in the kitchen.

“But no matter how busy I am in the office and stuff, I still find time to go in the kitchen and touch the knife. Cooking is a good thing. It relaxes me.”

Pabritsa’s latest challenge – and opportunity – arose when the High Country Inn faced having to close its kitchen for a month.

“We knew that we had to re-do the kitchen from top to bottom,” he says. “No ifs, maybes, perhaps. It had to be done.”

Pabritsa seized the chance to promote an idea he had been nurturing for a long time – to turn the hotel’s struggling Bistro restaurant into a high-venue for local diners and visitors alike.

“We have this gorgeous opportunity, because we don’t have a kitchen anyway,” he told his bosses. “We open the doors to the refurbished dining room and people appreciate that, because now they know why you shut down.”

The result is a cozy, new-look restaurant, designed entirely by Pabritsa, which will seat about 45 people when it opens “sometime” in February.

While it will offer a standard breakfast menu and serve the same fare as hotel’s Deck pub during the day, at night it will be transformed into something befitting its upscale-sounding name – Morels.

With a focus on regional cuisine and the careful pairing of wine and food, Pabritsa says clients can expect a thoroughly urban dining experience.

“When you’re going to come to the Morels restaurant, you’re actually going to feel that you’re sitting in the middle of downtown Vancouver, or Toronto, because it’s nothing less,” he vows.

“Much of the attraction is going to be food. It’s going to be really unique. And you’re going to get atmosphere, no doubt about it. So it’s going to be probably the coziest place in town for what we’re shooting for.”

A pretty lofty promise from a kid who started “playing around with food” out of self-defence.

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