Park, a 1993 graduate of Bradley Central High School, got his passion for food when he learned to cook with his family while growing up in Cleveland. He said family members have always loved food and that he grew up enjoying many home-cooked meals and attending many potlucks.
“I grew up in Cleveland. I just wanted to know what was going on elsewhere,” Park said.
That curiosity eventually led him to a new life in California and a new career. Park left town for San Francisco in December 1995, two years after graduating from high school, and moved in with a friend from Cleveland who had already relocated there. There was one problem, though. After he settled into his new home, he realized he did not know what to do next. One day, he came to a realization.
“I was just searching for something to do, and it dawned on me one day that I wanted to do barbecue,” Park said.
He then bought a meat smoker and attempted to make his own barbecue. However, he soon found himself struggling to make good barbecue on his own.
“It was harder than I thought it would be,” Park said. “I decided I needed to do it right and go into culinary school.”
He graduated from culinary school and worked in various restaurants until some of his friends gave him an idea. They had just attended a San Francisco bluegrass music festival and were wondering why they had not found any good barbecue vendors there.
After that, he and a couple of friends started making barbecue and selling it at street fairs, festivals and other events. They eventually began to cater events like weddings as their food’s reputation spread through word-of-mouth.
“We would try to go wherever we could go just to get our name out there,” Park said.
The barbecue eventually became the centerpiece of a “pop-up restaurant,” a retail space where restaurant owners can set up temporarily to test-drive their menus. Park said this allowed him and his business partners to fine-tune their business model before they started a restaurant of their own. There were some challenges in the pop-up restaurant, but Park said the current menu is better for it.
“When we were doing the pop-up, we didn’t have a grill,” Park said. “Imagine a barbecue restaurant without a grill! That helped us learn more home-style cooking methods, and our food is better for it.”
After getting exposure with their pop-up restaurant, they were approached by the owner of a restaurant called Big Nate’s BBQ who wanted to know if they would be interested in buying the business. Park and his business partners said yes, and the restaurant CatHead’s BBQ was born.
“It’d be like Jenkins Deli selling the business to someone else and having another deli open up in the same spot,” Park said. “That just wouldn’t work in Cleveland.”
But it worked in San Francisco.
CatHead’s BBQ opened in May and got off and running with all the cooking equipment that came with the purchase of Big Nate’s.
The restaurant’s name comes from the cat’s head biscuits Park learned to make growing up and now serves on his menu. Cat’s head biscuits have their name because they are made to be as large as a cat’s head. One thing Park did not anticipate was that his California customers might not be familiar with the name of that particular Southern breakfast bread.
“Had I known that, I might have reconsidered the name,” Park said. “If I had a dollar for every person who’s asked if we serve cats, I’d have a lot.”
The restaurant is busier than ever because of some recent good reviews and publicity from Park’s success on “Chopped.”
Park said he decided to apply to be on the show after he saw an ad posted on the website Craigslist in May 2011. He said he told Pam, his fiancee and business partner, that he was planning to apply but didn’t think he would make it.
“I didn’t think there was a chance of snow in hell that I’d get on the show,” Park said.
He was wrong. The show’s staff called him back for an interview and later for a filmed bio for the show. Park competed and placed as runner-up as part of an episode centered around grilling. The dish that earned him the runner-up spot in the final round was a dessert of grilled biscuits with peaches and cream. Park said he was surprised and excited that he made it so far in the competition and shocked at the number of people who recognize him and his restaurant from the show.
“It’s been crazy,” Park said of the publicity he and his eatery have received since his “Chopped” competition. “People have recognized me at the grocery store.”
Though Park has experienced the success of going from an indecisive high school graduate to a successful California restaurant owner, he said he sometimes misses living in Cleveland.
“To be honest, I miss it,” Park said. “I miss how laid-back it is. I miss my family most of all.”
But, Park said, he does not regret having left town to look for the new, life-changing opportunities he found.
“We have something good here in San Francisco, and I’m glad,” he said.