Arts, Culture & Media

In Canada, a multicultural chef puts his complex history on every plate

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Credit: Riccardo Cellere
Chef Antonio Park is the owner and head chef at Park Restaurant in Montreal.

Antonio Park, and his food, are hard to pin down. The chef was born to Korean parents, grew up in Latin America, went to culinary school in Japan, and now runs a restaurant, called Park, in Montreal.

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As he chops away in his kitchen, Chef Park says, "A lot of the time, people ask me this question: 'So your food is fusion, right?'" His answer: "That’s not exactly what I do."

"My mom is the biggest inspiration that I have. She used to cook at home everything from scratch, making her own miso, her own soya sauce, her own gochujang, pickling her own peppers, making her own paprika from peppers. I used to help her, peeling the onion, peeling the garlic, when I was five, six, seven years old."

That begs the question, though. What is Chef Park's cooking all about?

"I try to remember the memories that I had, the first bites, the aroma, the smell, the taste, the saltiness, the sweetness, that I had growing up," Park says. "All I’m doing is bringing back flavors from my childhood. Korean flavors, South American flavors, Brazilian flavors, Argentinian flavors, the first French bite that I had. So it’s not fusion. It’s exactly myself, my identity — putting it on a plate.”

Park was raised in Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil, and his parents used to run a large company that employed close to 250 people.

“Having so many people working,” he says, “we all have to eat! So imagine how many people are cooking in there. We used to eat probably more than a whole cow in a day, on a grill. They call it asado parrillada. It’s the influence why I have chimichurri in my cooking. I never thought chimichurri would go very well with fish, but it actually does.”

As economic and political strife mounted in South America, Park’s family moved to Canada. Ultimately, they wound up in Montreal. Park began doing the dishes at a Chinese buffet.

"It was the best job I had in my whole life,” he remembers. Later, he began working at a Japanese restaurant. There, he fell in love with Japanese cuisine, and was encouraged to head to the source. He donned a backpack and went to culinary school in Japan.

“I got totally killed there,” he laughs.

His sleek, perpetually packed Montreal restaurant, Park, opened its doors in 2012.

In a city whose sushi houses are uninspiringly similar, word spread quickly. The fish at Park is sustainably caught and privately imported. It arrives alive or else killed according to traditional Japanese methods that lessen suffering. Some of it has been treated with acupuncture, a technique that renders the fish comatose for its overseas voyage and maximizes freshness. And all of it is dressed on the plate in the most flavorsome and unexpected ways.

But the restaurant’s focus isn’t squarely on the sea. One of Chef Park’s favorite dishes is meat-centered. “I love beef,” he says. “I love fish, but I love beef.”

He takes an 1855 Brand Black Angus filet mignon and makes it into a long filet, “like a fish,” he says. “We sear it only on one side, crust it with spices, finish it in the oven very lightly, so it’s actually blue. I’ll cut it like sushi, make nigiri out of it. I make a soya sauce, half soya sauce and half maple syrup. I brush it on top of those nigiris. I torch them, to caramelize on top. I put a Korean-style pickled jalapeño. I put a chimichurri on top. I put a kimchi brunoise on top. And I finish it with a little bit of sweet, type of a yakiniku Korean sauce and I brush it with soya sauce at the end."

"You have the South American influence from the beef, the chimichurri; the Korean, which is the kimchi that goes in there with the pickled jalapeño; and then the Japanese, which is the sushi with the rice and everything. That’s exactly who I am.”

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