Q: Last year was your first year with OC Chef’s Table and you didn’t even have a restaurant at the time …
Chef John Park: Yeah, that was a little crazy. I was prepping all of the food for the dinner out my little apartment with our two boys running around. It was kind of hysterical. I was so honored that Illumination Foundation asked me to be a part of it, even sans restaurant, that I couldn’t turn it down.
We finally got Toast open on July 24th last year.
Q: For a guy who never expected to be a chef, you have quite the interesting business partner.
It’s funny how things work sometimes. I never even expected to be a chef, much less have Ed Lee from Wahoo’s as my business partner. When I was 20, I had never cooked before in my life. I’d never even held a knife in my hand. Up until that time, I was a math major. I was going to be an engineer, maybe coach water polo at a high school somewhere. But certain events happened in my life and I felt called to be a chef.
I tried culinary school, but it wasn’t moving along fast enough. I dropped out so that I could get a job in the industry. That was 18 years ago. I trained as a pastry chef and then worked every station in every kitchen. I just had this sense that this path would lead to the real work I wanted to do – that is, seeking out and helping and hiring vets and homeless individuals and kids who’ve grown up in foster care.
As a restaurant, you can do so much more … you can build this whole aspect of community into your business, of breaking bread together and nourishing people and giving them hope. Owning a restaurant was my means to this end.
Q: Why make the move from L.A. to the O.C.?
I kind of asked the same question, but it was just something I felt led to do. My wife and I had three businesses in L.A. and we were doing well – but I just knew it was time to sell the businesses and move to the O.C. We didn’t have any friends or family down here, and I spent 16 months unemployed, just trying to find the right restaurant. But in that timeframe, I got to know all the issues around homelessness, especially in the nearby riverbed in Santa Ana.
So many residents here don’t know about all the issues that are rampant for thousands of people who are struggling on the streets. When we took over the old Golden Truffle space, we knew we were moving into an iconic space in the O.C. But on our first day of construction, we realized we were right in the middle of the worst part of the entire city for homelessness. And, I think that’s exactly why we landed here.
Q: When did you first learn about Illumination Foundation?
I used to see the Illumination Foundation representatives out on the trails and in the parks, working with the homeless, so I started doing my research. It didn’t take long to realize we were both working to the same end. At the restaurant, we give 10% of our profits to helping the under-served, and most of our staff is made up of vets and foster kids we’ve employed and helped get back on their feet.
We believe that, as restaurant owners and chefs, we have a day-to-day opportunity to be there for people when everyone else has turned away. Beyond feeding them and providing nourishment, we should be the leader and create a welcome environment that opens the doors to vets and homeless adults and kids.
My wife and I are committed to eradicating homelessness because no one deserves that kind of life … and Illumination Foundation is clearly the leader – in the country – that’s devoted to the very same cause.
So, our commitment is this: Anything we can do to help Illumination Foundation we’ll do.
The top chefs in Orange County (along with a few surprise visiting chefs) are getting together again for the renowned OC Chef’s Table at Disneyland® Resort on March 3, 2019.
In it 6th year, OC Chef’s Table continues to help Illumination Foundation raise funds to provide permanent housing and services for homeless adults and children. With OC’s most imaginative chefs creating one-of-a-kind magical menus, it’s no wonder OC Chef’s Table is one of the most coveted gala tickets of the year.
See all 40+ chefs participating and secure your ticket at OCChefsTable.com. And, get to know this year’s phenomenal chefs as Diane Armitage sits down with each, asking 5 questions in just 5 minutes …