Antonio Park dishes on Montreal’s culinary scene

We spoke to the #3 Best Chef in the Best of MTL readers poll about his new café, the izakaya craze and the under-the-radar chefs we should be championing.

Antonio Park

Since Cult MTL introduced the Best Chef category to the Best of MTL readers poll in 2014, Antonio Park has ascended the ranks every year, now sitting at #3. Park’s background in South American and East Asian cuisines bore delicious fruit with the opening of his namesake flagship in Westmount four years ago. The momentum continued with the opening of Lavanderia in 2014 — a restaurant for “Elevated Argentine Cuisine,” located right next door to Park — as well a judging position on Chopped Canada. I caught up with the chef, who’s about to open yet another establishment on the same block (a café), to speak about his Best of MTL win, what he credits his success to and what he thinks about Montreal’s current culinary terrain.

J.P. Karwacki: How does it feel to be voted in as one of the best chefs in Montreal? You were 5th Best in 2014, 4th in 2015, and now you’re #3. What do you accredit your success  to?

Antonio Park: Thank you very much. What can I say? Thank you Montreal — I’m blessed. Thank you for all your support. The thing I’m trying to do now is to bring visitors to Montreal so we can unite as one city, become stronger as a destination to rule the world.

I’m humbly honoured to be a part of this and to be a part of the city when it comes to the food scene. I don’t think there’s (such a thing) as cutting corners, just straight-forward and hard work, being consistent and always trying to improve what you know. No more, no less. You go in every day and you try to do your best. That should never change. Always give it 100 per cent.

You will never fail if you always try to present quality, as opposed to using cheap products and trying to make money. That should be priority #2. You’re a cook — you should be putting the best into the dish and providing the best service to customers. If I don’t do this, how can my team learn from me?

I don’t sleep a lot, I work a lot, but I love being in my kitchen and cooking. That’s my passion. Success comes with hard work.

JPK: Are customers less quick to call you food “fusion” these days?

AP: I don’t think people are calling it fusion anymore and I don’t think it should be called fusion. I don’t touch food if I don’t understand the culture behind it. First of all, you don’t go visit a country and start loving a culture and food of any destination and bring those flavours into your own recipes. I’m not “against” it (necessarily), people can do what they wish, but I believe you really have to understand the culture. You have to understand where that food is coming from in depth, to understand the base of the food you’re making. Sushi isn’t sushi until you understand where the rice is coming from, the wasabi, why a fish has to be a certain temperature, how it has to be preserved in a way that tastes better. There’s so many little details that count towards making good food.

JPK: It’s been four years since Park has opened, and less than two for Lavanderia — where do you see each operation headed from here?

AP: I’m opening a pastry/coffee shop with Bertrand Bazin and barista Jerome Grenier-Desbiens. I worked with him at 357C, and he’s probably the best pastry chef I know in the world. I’ve been wanting to work with him for a very long time. He decided to come on board and work with me on this new project which will be located where Park Market used to be, and PM is now Sous Chef. We’re opening a central kitchen, and other operations like our catering company have been doing really well.

JPK: I understand you’re pretty excited for the Morel mushroom season. Any dishes we can expect?

AP: We use everything that’s in season; I don’t only work with seasonal products here in Quebec. I do use a lot of local produce, that’s my forte, but we’re using a lot of sustainable, local farm-to-table products from everywhere in Canada, and the Morel is from B.C. With one dish we sauté them very lightly, the other we pickle them for, and in another dish we marinate them.

JPK: And this must help in building a sense of community among providers and suppliers.

AP: Yeah, it’s great. You have to support them. Always respect where your ingredients are coming from, but you also have to respect the farmers, all the people who are foraging those mushrooms and vegetables that we can get here in Montreal.

JPK: The fishing industry is increasingly precarious, month by month, particularly due to exploitation. What do you find yourself doing to weather this shifting environment? What does it require of chefs?

AP: We have a lot of problems with the fish industry because there’s a lot of endangered species. People are saying there will be nothing left if we keep eating fish at this rate in next 5, 10 years. But Park is a sustainable restaurant using sustainable products. We do aquaculture that costs more, but it’s the right price in order to keep it sustainable.

Always know what you’re buying. This doesn’t fall on just me or restaurants in general; the major buyers are the public that goes to the supermarket. Be attentive and ask questions: Where’s the tuna coming from? The flounder? The halibut? The salmon? If you don’t get an answer, they’re cutting corners. You don’t want to buy fish, meat or vegetables from places where they don’t even know where it comes from.

JPK: What’re your thoughts on the rise of Japanese cuisine in Montreal? You had stated in an interview in 2014 that there was too much of this, and it could be considered odd, seeing as the Japanese community of Montreal isn’t that large.

AP: No, there aren’t many Japanese in Montreal.

There are a lot of people who do it for the money, they don’t do it because they want to create the best and healthiest food. Japanese cuisine is not as simple as it seems, and there are certain products that we use like konbu and bonito flakes that have been aged, smoked and dried for over a year. There’s a lot of work that goes into these ingredients. Take comparing French and Japanese cuisine, for example: French cuisine takes a long time to cook, but they start from fresh ingredients. A lot of Japanese ingredients have a lot of love in them, and we use them to create better flavours. Do people understand that, the time that goes into Japanese cuisine? I doubt it. I think most people are copying and pasting with izakayas, trying to jump on the hype… I wish people were more creative and served something from their hearts.

JPK: Given your Latino background, do you have any thoughts about the boom in Montreal’s taco industry? And is there a South American national cuisine we’re missing out on in this city?

AP: Tacos aren’t really my thing, but I will say as much as we have high-end and amazing chefs doing different cultures and foods, nothing compares to mom and pop shops. They put their love, their culture, their history into their work. That speaks for itself. If you compare it to Japanese restaurants, they’re (sometimes) opened by non-Japanese people that just don’t understand the food and culture.

Never open a place to make money — it has to be because you love doing what you do. You also want to show people that your cuisine is coming from somewhere, from your mother, your father, your grandparents. This is what the smaller shops are doing — they’re showcasing their family.

JPK: True. On that note, what about South American cuisine in general, is there anything you think we’re missing out on here in Montreal?

AP: I think there’s a lot, but there still isn’t a full representation of it in this city. It’s such a variety of cultures and none of them taste the same. Peruvian and Colombian food have their similarities, but they’re totally distinct, too. Argentinian and Brazilian food are also totally different.

There’s still a lot of room in Montreal to showcase these flavours, and that’s what’s happening right now, to the world. The reason why all of this “fusion” cuisine is happening is because we started accepting other flavours.

JPK: Who would you give your ranking in the Best of MTL to, if you could hand it away?

AP: I’ll give it to this little place in the Faubourg called Cuisine Bangkok. Mama-san’s been working there for 30 years and has been cooking for over 40. These are the people who should be taking these awards and not people like me. We only have half of the knowledge she has, the hard work she’s put in. She’s a great humanitarian, too, having built temples and schools in Thailand — we don’t see what people like her do. It breaks my heart. I think we should start looking to the older generation who have built what we have today. 

Park Restaurant is located at 378 Victoria.

Lavanderia is located at 374 Victoria.