A chef’s upbringing influences hir or her cuisine. Chef Antonio Park, owner and chef of acclaimed Montreal restaurants Park and Lavanderia, is also the newest Chopped Canada judge, and has a unique background that has helped shape his outlook on food.
Park was born in Argentina to Korean parents, and spent his childhood in South American cities like Asunción, Buenos Aires, and Rio. He then attended high school in British Columbia and Quebec, eventually attending culinary school in Japan. Park describes himself up in a sentence that summarizes his eclectic range of experiences.
“[I am really just] a messed-up Latino with kimchi in his blood, who is seriously in love with sashimi,” he joked.
According to Park, each aspect of his life is important to his approach to cooking today.
“Forget the word fusion,” Park said.
Instead, Park aims to express memories of his youth through the form of food. He wants to share with his customers the tastes, aromas, smell, sweetness, and saltiness he grew up with. Park has been bringing fresh flavours from Korea, South America, Brazil, Argentina, and France to the city of Montreal since opening Park Restaurant in February 2012.
As a child, Park developed a passion for cooking from his mother who taught him many culinary skills. According to Park, it was important to his mother to always put the effort in to make everything from scratch, whether it was grinding her own spices with a mortar and pestle or making her own miso and soya sauce. In an interview with the Montreal Gazette, Park lovingly described the strong influence his mother has had on his cooking.
“I grew up with everything local and a mom who is an amazing cook,” Park said. “She’s a wild cook too. Back in the day, all moms cooked, but my mom was beyond that. She used to dry her own red peppers to make her own paprika in a stone grinder.”
Park said he learned discipline from his mother. If he didn’t peel the garlic properly or cut the onion neatly, she would give him grief. Park’s mother also taught him to appreciate ingredients. The family would never go to the market to buy fruits and vegetables; instead, they grew them in their huge 47,000 square foot backyard. Park recognized the importance of fresh, top-quality ingredients, as well as seasonality and sustainability through seeing his mother grow her own ingredients. To this day, Park puts in the effort to source responsibly harvested, fresh ingredients. You will never see the same fish served for more than one or two days at Park’s restaurants. The menus are constantly evolving at both of his restaurants to reflect the ingredients that are available.
Similarly, Park’s father influenced his creative viewpoint on the art of cooking. His father owned a lavanderia, and after a long day at work acid-washing jeans, the hundreds of workers there would have daily staff meals together. Park` saw his father grill entire cows, sausages, sweetbreads, and ribs. These protein-centered meals were served with refreshing sides like kimchi or even ice soaked in Coca-Cola.
These staff get-togethers may have revolved around the food, but a young Park saw how the food helped to create an atmosphere. From this, Park learned that meals served a greater purpose than just nutrition. It made people happy, and that was evident through the workers who were enjoying the rest of their night after a long day of gruelling work.
Although Park moved to Quebec in high school, he said that he never felt like he belonged. He did not speak French, and he was Korean and also Latino. He explained that he didn’t fit in until he found his place in the kitchen. As a teenager, Park got his first job in a restaurant as a dishwasher while simultaneously working in his parents’ dépanneur. Through this experience, Park said that he also learned the care that goes into running a restaurant, a trait that follows him into the kitchen today.
Park also said he believes that you have to respect the ingredients and never make a dish haphazardly. According to Mayssam Samaha, the woman behind Montreal food blog Will Travel for Food, Park’s respectful nature goes beyond his cooking.
“[Park’s] passion for the job and his respect for the ingredients is immediately obvious in every single one of his gestures, but especially in his words,” Samaha wrote.
Park also learned further appreciation of food in his sister’s restaurants. Park’s first kitchen job was prepping and mixing rice for his sister at a restaurant called Takara. He made rice for three years. He also apprenticed at Tomo, his sister’s other restauranta in Montreal, learning how to make North-Americanized Japanese cuisine such as California rolls, beef teriyaki, spicy mayo, and maki rolls. Park says his time at Tomo marked the turning point for when he truly became serious about cooking, deciding it was something he wanted to do for the rest of his life.
Park decided to move to Toronto to train in other kitchens, but realized the cooking was very much the same as in Montreal. He loved Japanese food and wanted to learn the proper techniques and authentic dishes from the Japanese themselves. He packed up everything he owned and moved to Japan to attend culinary school. Park trained under both sushi and Japanese food masters and learned what their philosophies were on food.
According to Park, it was tough to learn to cook authentic Japanese food.
“Japanese people will never teach you why they do things,” Park said. “It’s a personal secret.”
This made training more difficult for Park, but he said it also made him a better chef. He had to uncover why the masters he learned from cut fish in a particular way, or cooked a vegetable differently in one dish than another. Park was very committed to learning a cuisine that he considers counter to his upbringing. According to Park, Korean food is complicated, while Japanese food is beautiful in its simplicity.
Today, Park owns two restaurants in Montreal, both on Avenue Victoria in Westmount. Park is a sushi- and Japanese-focused restaurant, whereas Lavanderia is a restaurant paying homage to his upbringing in South America. He is widely considered one of the best chefs in Montreal, and can be seen Saturdays on Food Network judging Chopped Canada.
Park and Lavanderia Restaurants—378 Avenue Victoria, Westmount, QC.