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This is the fifth instalment in the monthly series Beyond the Plate, looking at the motivations and passions of local chefs. This month: Antonio Park.

Antonio Park:
Multicultural in life and in food

August 30, 2018

After a day spent with Antonio Park, and hearing about his upbringing, his personal hardships and the rebuilding of his flagship restaurants Park and Lavanderia after a devastating fire, a Bob Marley quote comes to mind: “You never know how strong you are until being strong is your only choice.”

Park said his mother recently revealed some facts about his youth that shook his foundations. He always thought he was born in South Korea, where his parents were born and raised, but in fact he was born in Argentina. “My mom said, ‘We didn’t want to tell you because we wanted you to grow up thinking you were Korean.’ 

“My mom was from a very poor family. My dad was from a very wealthy family and went to university, was in the navy and played for the national baseball league,” Park recounted. “One of the reasons they left South Korea was because my father’s family would not accept my mom.”

In the early ’70s there was an exodus among his parents’ circle of friends. Developing countries offered unique business opportunities, so it was decided that Park’s family would follow suit and immigrate to South America.

Arriving in Argentina, the family quickly realized there was a niche market in Paraguay, where friends had set up a thriving blue jean manufacturing business. Uprooting anew (Park was three at the time, his sister five), their parents opened an acid stone washing company — a lavanderia — where new garments were given a worn-in appearance. Wrangler and Levi’s would become their largest clients.

“My parents had two acres of land, with a little house in front. We had mango trees, pomegranate trees, 10 dogs guarding the perimeter — there were no alarms back then,” Park said with a grin. “Fifteen employees at a time would live with us in their own small hut on the property, all helping run this empire.”

Park could hardly contain his excitement as he told this story, tearing a sheet from my notebook to draw a map. He recalled the topography of what seemed like every square inch of their land.

“Imagine at every meal, both lunch and dinner, sitting like in a restaurant, a bunch of men and women, some even finding love and marriage. All used to cook asado with my mom, which is South American barbecue, with chipa and yuca. It was a feast!”

© Photos by Ezra Soiferman

This formative time might sound idyllic, but it wasn’t without difficulties. Park’s father was guided by stern rules of conduct.

“My dad was just a very strict person, and very Korean,” Park said. “He would never speak to me in Spanish — always Korean.

“I was beat up almost every single day for misbehaving, especially if I came home 30 minutes late past curfew. At some point, you start thinking this is normal life.”

Park’s mom played a pivotal role when he was an energetic boy running freely in the outdoors while a deep and soulful being was taking shape internally. He speaks fondly about their closeness.

“She was the brains behind the family business, but she was still very much a Korean mom, making sure the house is clean, laundry is done, meals cooked. And I was that boy that used to help her with everything.”

In 1990 Park’s mother and father were looking for new business opportunities, and decided to move to Vancouver. At 15, Park quickly picked up English. However, within nine months it was clear the weather was an issue for the family. Park smiled as he recalled his mother saying, “Why does it rain every day?”

“That’s my mom,” he said. “She was going to find a better way, and hopped on a plane to Montreal with my father in tow, in search of a contingency plan.”

Park found himself alone for the first time with his older sister. In a sign of his desire to be active, and his budding entrepreneurial skill, he landed his first job.

“I can’t stand in one place and do nothing. I got myself a job delivering papers. I woke up at 4:30 a.m. and finished in time to return my neighbour’s bike by 9:30 a.m.”

He recalled his mother’s stunned reaction to his job upon his parents’ return: “Stop that!” And, he said, “My father was pissed that I went out and got myself a job.”

Little did they know Park actually had two jobs; he also picked up extra work rummaging for and selling worms as bait. And little did Park know at the time that his mother was inwardly proud of the ambition shown at such a young age, revealing this to her son only recently.

While in Montreal sourcing a new business, Park’s parents settled upon operating a dépanneur. “My dad bought a Pontiac van and we drove all throughout Canada until we arrived a month later in Montreal.”

With a business to set up and the start of a new life, the family settled into a second-floor home above their dépanneur on Mont-Royal Ave., as Park faced a new school, a new language and making new friends.

“Growing up in the Plateau, it was very cultural, very mixed. Asians, blacks, Latinos, Québécois always fighting each other. It was very aggressive in many different ways. If you didn’t speak English or French really well, you were bullied.”

Considering his Latin and South Korean background, Park said, “I identified with Latinos and the Asians” as he grew up in the Plateau.  “There was a very close Latino crew, and obviously I look like an Asian, and so Asians took comfort in accepting me.”

Transitioning into one’s teenage years is often difficult, and Park carried the extra weight of a background filled with both sudden travel and deep roots in Argentine and South Korean cultures.

“It’s a very complex and complicated life,” he said. “Because of the different cultures — being South Korean, moving to South America, moving to North America, having all these changes, learning all different languages playing in my brain.”

© Photos by Ezra Soiferman

Along with fitting in with other kids at a new school, Park was involved with his parents’ business, since they didn’t speak or read English.

“I had a lot of responsibility for a 15-year-old. I was in charge of inventory for the store and had to learn how to read and understand all the contracts and leases — and if you didn’t do it well, you get beat up.”

Park’s 17-year-old sister started working in a Chinese restaurant and got him a job in the dish pit, while the 15-year-old was still juggling school and the dépanneur.

“I loved everything,” he said of the new job. “Cleaning, washing, mopping, the service — there was nothing I didn’t love in the whole restaurant. For me, it was exactly the same thing as watching my mother run and operate the lavanderia and later on the dépanneur.”

After graduating from computer programming at Champlain College, Park made the brave decision to focus on cooking. In 1999 he left for a short visit to Korea and then went to culinary school in Tokyo.

“My dad, he never accepted the work that I was doing, because what are cooks at the end of the day? Cooks are cooks, the bottom of the barrel,” Park said. “For my dad, when you don’t know what to do with your life, you become a cook.”

Culinary school “was a difficult time,” he remembered. “In the kitchen, it’s a real army. A place of intense competition, a lot of jealousy, pots and pans flying, a kick in the shin while cooking.

“The Japanese are really tough,” he said. “They are amazing at what they do, because they devote their life to their craft.”

After a year abroad, Park returned to Montreal with culinary degree in hand. He accumulated many chef posts from 1999 to 2003, from opening up Tomo (now closed) with his sister to working at the sushi restaurant Takara in Cours Mont-Royal.

In the mid-2000s he met his future wife while “working like a mad dog” at the Ichiban sushi house in Toronto, where he moved to learn about franchising. Five years later, he was back in Montreal with his wife and baby boy. After executive chef posts in and around the city, most notably his revered time at Kaizen Sushi Bar and Restaurant, it was time for Park to open his own establishment.

Restaurant Park opened in March 2012 and was named for his father. Less than three years later, Park opened Lavanderia next door, as an homage to his mother and their days in South America.

“In 2014 my dad passed away,” Park said. “I hadn’t spoken to him in 10 years.

“I was childish to have not approached him — he was an old Korean, a generation of men that don’t change. (But) how can I expect him to change if I wasn’t willing to change?

“I wish I had spoken to him before he passed away, at least once before letting him go like that,” said Park, who now has two children of his own. “As a father, I don’t want to have that kind of relationship with my own kids.

“Do I tell them I love them? Yes, all the time.”

Park shares his heritage in his kitchens, whether at Park, Lavanderia or the more recently opened Jatoba and Kampai Garden. All his restaurants are governed by lessons learned from his childhood.

Park’s Korean and South American backgrounds made him passionate about understanding a food’s culture before delving into its cooking. But, he said, “You don’t have to understand the culture to make the food. Just opening yourself up to other cultures and trying something different, that’s where we will find unity with all human beings.”

In November 2016, Park and Lavanderia restaurants were engulfed in flames. In a testament to the restaurateur’s character and strength, within five weeks he reopened Park’s doors.

“It was the impossible, but we pushed it.”

With his staff counting on him, Park leaned on the support of family and friends for the rebuild, intent on having at least one of the two kitchens operating so he could keep his employees afloat. (Lavanderia reopened in late 2017. The cause of the fire remains unknown.)

“I had broken out with shingles from stress, and with major pain all over, I went in and started the renovations, painting, tearing down walls — it all got done. I cooked the first month with excruciating pain, until slowly it went away.”

A rooftop garden was set up during the rebuild, with an array of fresh herbs and vegetables set against the city’s skyline.

It was no surprise Park chose to stay close to home for our Beyond the Plate food adventure. Before collecting his garden’s bounty, we retraced his childhood steps and revisited his family home in the Plateau, his old school and the site of the dépanneur where it all began.

Park says his story is in some ways a cautionary tale. Speaking of the difficult end of his marriage and sacrifices required by being a chef, he said: “There is no life in the kitchen — it’s not a secret.”

Still, it’s clear that Park persevered and has come out stronger.

“There is nothing I can’t do. If I fail, I will get up and do it again,” he said. “The fire didn’t kill me — I am a survivor, one way or another.”

This essay originally appeared in the Montreal Gazette on August 8, 2018

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