If you follow our players on social media, you’ll notice that when they’re looking to grab a snack in town, they often turn to the culinary creations of chef Antonio Park for a good meal. Proud of both his city and his team, Park, who owns several restaurants and also acts as a judge on Chopped Canada, always keeps an eye on how the Canadiens are faring in the standings, and also takes the time to make sure they’re eating well every day. We recently caught up with the talented restaurateur to learn more about his love for the CH.
You were born in Argentina and you spent time in Brazil, Paraguay and Vancouver before settling down in Montreal a few years ago. How did you become a Habs fan?
ANTONIO PARK: At first, I started liking hockey because of Patrick Roy. He was one of my biggest heroes. I actually got to meet him a few years ago. But, the real reason why I started liking hockey is because when I was younger, my parents used to own a few dépanneurs and we had those Loto-Quebec machines and I used to play Mise-o-jeu all the time. So, I started watching hockey not because I wanted to watch the Canadiens, but because I wanted to see if I’d won my bets! (laughs) I became more and more passionate about the team and I really fell in love with hockey. Plus, that all began right around the time when the Habs won the Stanley Cup in 1993, so the timing was perfect to jump on board.
Did you ever play hockey growing up?
AP: I grew up playing soccer, but I’m very good at street hockey. Being born and raised in South America, there was no ice there, so skating wasn’t my forte! Eventually, I learned how to skate, but skating while playing hockey at the same time is a different story for me.
What’s your best Canadiens memory?
AP: Of course the ’93 Cup is up there, but the past two seasons have been very special to watch. I’ve been fortunate to see and connect with the players. That’s helped me to understand them a little bit more.
Your restaurant, Park, has been known for a few years as a go-to spot for Canadiens players. How did that all start?
AP: Before I owned my own restaurant, I used to work elsewhere and some of the players were regular customers there. But, everything really started because of P.K. Subban. I met him during his first season in Montreal. We became close friends. I was a cook and he was a hockey player, so we didn’t necessarily have anything in common there. A lot of guys eat meat and potatoes or chicken and pasta. Many of them aren’t willing to try new things. It’s not that I wanted to start something specific for the Canadiens, though. It just came along. Every year, I just got to know more guys.
We heard that you’ve started helping some of the players with their nutrition programs. Is that true?
AP: When they feel that they need to power up, guys like P.K., Lars Eller, Max Pacioretty and Alexei Emelin come and see me and I give them a big load of fish. Yes, meat is good because you need those carbs to give you energy, but there are much healthier ways to do the same thing. By eating fish, you keep the good vitamins and the Omega-3s and you let go of the carbs that you don’t need. After learning more about them, I got to see what athletes need in order to be successful. Now, I try to balance what they eat and figure out what they need more of. One of my closest friends, Petr Svoboda, once told me that hockey players often don’t know if they’ll manage to be in peak physical shape after retiring. Obviously, athletes need to exercise, but nutrition is important, too. It will play a huge role in their careers and their lives, too. I’m a Montrealer and a die-hard Habs fan. The Canadiens are the soul of Montreal. It’s an honor to be able to use some of my knowledge to make them better meals and improve their overall health.
It seems like P.K. comes by pretty much every day! Are we just imagining things?
AP: Last year and the year before, P.K. ate lunch and dinner at the restaurant every day. As soon as he finishes practicing, he comes here in the early afternoon. He goes home for a nap, goes to his game and comes back here after. He’s on a strict diet when he’s in Montreal during the season.
You guys were roommates in Toronto while you were filming Chopped. Did you cook or prepare any meals for him while he was training?
AP: I cooked a little bit, but we went to different restaurants that I was familiar with. I was still looking after him, though. He was only allowed to eat steak, fish, greens and salads. But, I did cook for the whole Subban family when we went to their place. I feel at home with them.
Which other players are regulars at Park Restaurant?
AP: Honestly, all of the guys on the team come by often. They don’t live around here, but when they need a little push, they’ll come and see me. They’ll even come by more often during the playoffs.
Your restaurant closes around 11 p.m. at night at the latest. Did you ever keep it open longer after a big win so the guys could come and celebrate?
AP: (laughs) They’ll usually text me in advance saying they’ll come for a quick bite or some take out. I’ll keep the restaurant open for an extra hour for them. I don’t mind doing it for my friends.
When Habs players come to your restaurant, what do you like to prepare for them? Do you tend to go off-menu and prepare something different?
AP: I always go off-menu. You can’t go with the menu because you have to consider the fact that they’re eating very late and they have to digest their food. I have to remove all of the fatty ingredients from the dishes. I have to prepare them something that will make them full, but it also needs to be easily digestible.
Being a hard-worker like you are, do you ever have time to attend games at the Bell Centre during the season?
AP: I don’t go often, because every time I go they lose. (laughs) It seems that when I make them food, they win. But, when I go see them play, they lose. They lost all three games I saw last year. I love taking my eight-year-old son, Alex, to some games. It’s a different kind of excitement. It’s fun getting out of my kitchen sometimes!
What’s the best food to eat while watching a hockey game?
AP: People should eat different things at games at every sporting venue. There should be healthier food options than pizza, poutine, popcorn or fries. I’m willing to help change the menu. The best thing you could eat would be sushi or small maki rolls. It’s quick to do and quick to eat. Maybe we’ll see a Park kiosque at the Bell Centre in the near future. I’ll ask P.K. to help me. (laughs)
From players on other NHL teams to Aaron Rodgers and Andy Murray, why do you think superstars from around the sports world always stop by your place when they’re in town?
AP: It’s really cool to have these guys coming here. I know a lot of agents and they talk to their clients. From there, athletes just talk to each other. You don’t need marketing at some point. If you serve quality food, people will know about it and they’ll spread the word. It’s an honor for me to have them in my establishment.
Interview conducted by Hugo Fontaine.
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