Antonio Park has packed so many life experiences into his forty-nine years that they would occupy a few lifetimes for many people. Following his parents and sister, young Antonio experienced life in his home country of South Korea, followed by living in Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil before coming to Canada. The Park family tried Vancouver, but couldn’t deal with the near-constant rain in the winters. They bought a van, and made their way east – eventually settling in Montreal. “In a way, it’s a sad story, because my father and mother tried different businesses, and they moved on because they didn’t work out. My Mom was the better business mind, but as a traditional Koren family, she deferred to my father.”

“I’m a guy who loves life!” Antonio jumps right into our conversation while seated in a booth at his signature restaurant Park on Victoria in Montreal’s tony Westmount. “I want to set a positive example for my four children and the people who work in my restaurants. I like to motivate people and help them push themselves to be better.” Continuing, Antonio adds; “I tell my staff that they may think they’re working for the boss – but they should be working for themselves, to be better every day.”

Antonio’s father was from a wealthy South Korean family and his mother from a poorer family. “My dad went to university, served in the navy and played for the national baseball league. My father’s family never accepted my mother”; he stated. Partly because of this, they decided to move to Argentina. In fact, Antonio was born in Argentina, although his parents didn’t tell him that because they wanted him to consider himself as Korean.

The Parks soon learned from other friends that there was a good business opportunity in Paraugay. Friends had set up a successful blue-jean manufacturing business and the Parks added the process of acid-washing blue jeans to give a pre-worn look with Wrangler and Levi jeans being their major clients.

I’m a son of the world. I don’t consider myself Korean, Argentinean, Paraguayan or even Canadian. I see myself a son of the world.”

Antonio Park

Ever since he was a youngster helping his mother cook, Antonio Park is happiest when he’s preparing
food for others to enjoy

The Park family had a two-acre plot of land and employed fifteen people in the labour intensive business. It was simultaneously demanding and rewarding. We had orange, mango and pomegranate trees. If you were hungry, you just picked something off the tree. We didn’t have phones or computers. We played soccer, baseball and swam. Because we didn’t have extra money – I didn’t have any wants. We couldn’t afford them. Life in a Third World country made me what I am today. I’m grateful for that life. If I didn’t have that life – I wouldn’t know what I have today.”

Antonio helped his mother with the cooking while the family was in Paraguay. “The family and our employees would all eat together at the same big table – and I was happy to help my mother.”

Antonio’s father was a strict disciplinarian, and as someone with a free spirit, the young boy was often late coming home and paid for it with a beating.  “It wasn’t that my Dad didn’t love me; it’s just that he was old school.” Later in life that ‘old school’ style of parenting would cause a rift between father and son.

By 1990 the Antonio’s parents were looking for another business opportunity and Canada beckoned. The family moved to Vancouver, but soon discovered that they did not like the near-daily rainfall. Antonio’s parents flew to Montreal and decided to buy a dépanneur (corner store) with living quarters above the story.

While their parents were away in Montreal, Antonio and his sister looked after themselves. In a prelude to his entrepreneurship, Antonio got a job delivering papers, starting at 4:30am and using a friend’s borrowed bicycle. His parents were shocked when they returned – and his father was especially angry.

Taking advantage of their relocation, Antonio’s parents bought a van and the Park family made a month-long cross-Canada trek to their new home in Montreal’s Plateau neighbourhood.

Antonio had quickly learned English during the family’s nine months in Vancouver; but now he needed to add French to his fluency in Korean, Spanish and English. “The Plateau was and still is diverse community of Asians, Latinos, Blacks, and Quebecois; and we were always bullied if you didn’t speak English or French.”

“I’m a son of the world. I don’t consider myself Korean, Argentinean, Paraguayan or even Canadian – I see myself a son of the world.”

Antonio was just 15 when the family moved to Montreal, and because he spoke and read English, he took on a lot of responsibility for the family business, such as ordering the inventory. He went on to graduate from Champlain College in Computer Programming. But a career in the digital world wasn’t in his future.

While attending high school, Antonio’s sister (two years older) arranged for him to start as a dishwasher in the Chinese restaurant where she worked. He loved everything about the restaurant business – he was smitten! And so after graduating from Champlain, Antonio enrolled in a cooking school in Tokyo. “My dad couldn’t accept this decision. Coming from a wealthy family, cooks were low in the social order. As my dad said, ‘When you don’t know what to do in your life – you become a cook.’ That was before chefs became television stars, media celebrities and many became successful and wealthy restaurateurs.

For his own children, Antonio advises; “I want you to do anything you want, as long as it doesn’t harm others… and please graduate from university!”

Antonio ParkAfter a year learning in the highly competitive Japanese kitchens, Antonio returned to Canada with a culinary degree. “I worked in multiple places and gained twenty years of experience before I opened Park thirteen years ago. I learned from so many mentors. I learned to dial out the negativity. “

In the mid 2000s Antonio moved to Toronto to work and also to learn about franchising. The best part was that he met his wife, and five years later they moved back to Montreal with the first of their four children.  Antonio continued to work in a variety of restaurants, including a long stint at the popular Kaizen Sushi Bar and Restaurant.

In March 2012, Antonio Park opened the now famous Park restaurant, named after his father. The elder Park passed away in 2014, and sadly, the father and son had not spoken for ten years; a situation that bothers Antonio to this day. “I wish I had spoken to him before he passed away – at least once before letting him go like that.”

Lavanderia opened two years later in the same building on Victoria Avenue, the name a dedication to his mother and the name of the family business in Paraguay.

Disaster struck when the restaurants were engulfed in flames in November 2016. True to his optimistic nature, Antonio took off his chef’s apron and put on a tool belt to join the workers and rebuild his beloved restaurants. The stress and intense physical work caused Antonio to break out in shingles.

Today, Antonio Park counts several Montreal-area restaurants in his culinary empire. Most recently, Antonio has opened YAMA in the tony Hotel Vogue, after a multimillion dollar renovation. Hotel Vogue is part of the Hilton boutique Curio Collection. Antonio and his team have also developed a sophisticated Banquet menu for the hotel and its patrons.

After a couple of forays into the Toronto market that were thwarted by the pandemic, Antonio has taken on one the city’s most sophisticated restaurant locations; Park on the 51st Floor of The Manulife Centre on Bloor Street, also referred to as The Mink Mile. With spectacular views, outdoor terraces during the spring and summer, this is perhaps Antonio’s most ambitious project to date.

As our conversation concludes, Antonio repeats what believe is his personal mantra; “Do your best today, try to do better tomorrow and don’t harm others.” Bon Appetite!

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