My life starts in South America: Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil. That’s where I spent my childhood. My mom doesn’t want me to say that I’m born in Argentina; she wants me to say I’m Korean. So I’m a Korean Montrealer who grew up in Asunción, Buenos Aires, and Rio. What I really am is a messed-up Latino with kimchi in his blood who is seriously in love with sashimi. The food I make at Park is who I am as a person—a blend of the countries I’ve lived in and the cultures that formed me.
I learned how to cook from my mom, watching her make things from scratch. The simplest things ever: milling your own spices at home on a stone, drying your own gochugaru peppers, fermenting your own miso, making your own soya sauce. She opened my eyes to everything. How to skin apples. How to cut green onion, napa cabbage, daikon. She gave me so much grief if I wouldn’t peel garlic properly.
We wouldn’t go to the market to buy fruits and vegetables; they were all in the garden. Pomegranates, yucca, mandarins, zucchinis, grapes, watermelons, eggplants, pumpkins: you name it, you can grow anything you want there. We had a massive backyard; 47,000 square feet. Full of produce. To this day, the importance of freshness and top-quality ingredients defines what I do. I grew up around small farmers, sustainable fishermen, and local food before anyone used those terms to describe them.
My father owned a factory and our family lived there. It was a lavanderia that did acid-wash and stone-wash jeans for Wrangler, Lee, Levis and others. We did tens of thousands of them a day. Everybody worked so hard, but we were happy. We’d have staff meal together everyday, a hundred people at a time. We had a huge mango tree in the yard, and we’d always have a parillada beneath it: the grill rested on the tree’s gnarled roots. We’d clean it with fat chunks of beef fat. We’d grill entire butterflied cows. We’d have loads of sweetbreads, ribs, kalbi, bone-in striploins, white chorizo, spicy red chorizo, and blood sausage. All of it with huge bowls of salad and kimchi, and coca-cola on ice or maté. Everybody was dancing, tango, merengue, salsa. Us kids played with fireworks all the time. We had thirty dogs. They had their own room. My favorite was called Shampoo.
In 1990 my family moved to British Columbia. I was in the ESL program at Burnaby High. It rained so much that we moved to Montreal within a year. I’ll never forget how we drove across the whole country. I hated how long it took, but I learned a lot of things. Especially about Canada.
I didn’t speak French. On my first day at school in Montreal, someone threw a chair at me. There was a big fight between Koreans and the Latinos. I was in the middle, getting beat up by both sides. And that was my introduction to life in Quebec.
Twelve years went by.
While still a teenager, I got a job as a dishwasher at a Chinese buffet. At the same time, I worked at my parent’s dépanneur—doing inventory, organizing the shelves, checking food and labor costs, and always working on cleanliness. I learned about the importance of care.
When my sister opened a restaurant called Takara, I did dishes, prep, and mixed rice for three years. That was my first kitchen job. After that I apprenticed at her other restaurant, Tomo, a North Americanized Japanese restaurant. California rolls, beef teriyaki with chop suey, spicy scallop tempura—that sort of thing. In the Japanese restaurant scene in Montreal, everyone around me was doing spicy mayo and maki rolls. I decided to get serious about cooking. I went to Toronto and realized it was the same as here. All of North America, it turns out. So I packed my shit and went to Japan to learn proper technique from the source.
I love Japanese food – it’s like Korean food, but lighter and more delicate. The miso soup in Korea is boiled for a long time, whereas the Japanese one is done quickly to emphasize the aroma. Japan is zen, it’s simple. Korean is complicated and complex. I love them both. At the end of the day, they use the same ingredients—the ones I grew up with.
I went to culinary school in Japan. I trained under masters. I learned to understand what they were looking for in their dishes. Japanese people will never teach you why they do things. It’s their personal secret. It’s something that you have to figure out yourself. At the end of the day, you only arrive at it by figuring out how to do it. They’re impeccable in what they do. My goal was to understand their philosophy. How you cut the fish, how you treat the fish, why things are done a certain way.
Twelve years went by.
So this is who I am, whatever this mix is. Forget the word fusion. I make sushi, I ferment kimchi, I love asado. I’ve been a chef in Tokyo, Osaka, New York, Toronto, and Montreal. Now I’m doing Park. People think it’s a sushi place, or a Korean restaurant, but it’s also the South American flavors of my youth. I wanted to do something different here, something personal, something that’s all about who I really am. Park is my background. It’s my roots. It’s me: Antonio Park.