There is an almost poetic balance in the fact that the reason Aaron Park, chef/co-owner of Henry and Marty Restaurant & Catering, is unnecessarily apologizing for running late was that his bees had swarmed a bunch of Victorian window frames. The buzzing horde of frenetic energy, always on to the next bloom in search of the freshest raw ingredients to make life sweeter, decided today was the day to check out vintage windows.
It’s a perfect analogy for how Park chases passions. Be it Oregon wine, introducing patrons of his Brunswick restaurant to his take on comfort foods, playing the viola, serving on the Brunswick City Council and, lately, chasing pickleball games (yes, it’s a thing) all over the state and East Coast.
“I love it,” he says of the odd-sounding game that he acknowledges he’s pretty good at, making his eyes sparkle. “And I also love that players well into their 80s routinely kick my ass at it!”
A Boston native, Park’s journey to Brunswick is a story of two coasts, two Portlands, two college degrees (including a master’s in education from Harvard), too many stops along the way to list and, finally, a 2004 choice between two cities: Bellingham, Washington, and Brunswick, Maine.
“Washington didn’t work, but I was able to get a job at Bowdoin as the assistant director of the Department of Events and Summer Programs,” he said. “Let’s just say it wasn’t a good fit. I had all the credentials, but no experience.”
Park’s is a classic tale told in many professional kitchens. Starting in the late 1970s as a dishwasher in a Eugene, Oregon, delicatessen and wine shop, within six months he was managing the place and beginning his love affair with great food and wine, particularly Oregon vintages.
From there he landed at a seafood restaurant where, he says, “I worked all the stations.” A year later a change of ownership led to his running that place. Stints demolishing old homes and working front-of-house gigs in restaurants led to the East Coast Portland, where he eventually became for a decade the driving culinary force (and chef) of the then-new West Side Café.
It was leaving there—and, to his surprise, discovering a 25-mile noncompete clause—that led to his glum return to Boston, some catering experiences, his secondary education (he has no formal culinary training) and the aforementioned Washington/Maine conundrum that has, for now, resolved with his 13-year affiliation with Henry and Marty, 10 as a co-owner.
“I was careful to respect the history [at Henry and Marty] but not afraid to add my take on the comforting, fresh cuisine our patrons have come to love. So yes, we kept the Cuban shrimp and brisket, but also added things like dolsot bibimbap”—a Korean dish of rice mixed with vegetables, soybean and chili paste and, if desired, an egg or meat, all combined in a very hot stone pot.
“I grew up eating it all the time,” said Park, whose father is Korean. “I still make it once a week at home.” It makes me happy, and it has made many customers feel that way too.
“For me,” he elaborated, “comfort food draws on your experiences—your loves, passions, memories—and you share that with others. It doesn’t matter that someone has never had it or something else we offer. Comfort food feeds your soul as much as, if not more than, your body. It evokes a hug from inside, an ‘Oh yeah’ moment, creates new memories while revisiting old ones and leaves you happy, healthy and warm.”
He has wisely encouraged his staff to make their own comfort-food memories part of the seasonal menus, like the Tourtiere recipe (page 49) from Jeff Thistlewaite’s wife’s aunt Rita Bisson in Lewiston. Sourcing ingredients locally, sustainably and organically in season ensures that everyone’s culinary memories arrive at patrons’ tables as fresh as possible.
Given the wealth of experience that has fueled Park’s insatiable fire, it’s no wonder that so many warm their stomachs, hearts and souls from the comforting glow of the flame burning brightly, yet softly, at Henry and Marty.
Henry and Marty
61 Maine St., Brunswick