“Pastry helped me embrace my queerness”: How chef Jayden Park baked his way to self-acceptance

“Pastry helped me embrace my queerness”: How chef Jayden Park baked his way to self-acceptance

His new bakery, Gateau Ghost, opens this week

Gateau Ghost chef and owner Jayden Park

Have you ever felt like a day-old madeleine? A classic but plain pastry pushed aside for something newer, trendier and more over the top? That was chef Jayden Park in 2020. But, after losing his job during lockdown, Park baked his way to self-acceptance with Gateau Ghost, his new bakery in Dufferin Grove. His passion for pastry not only led him to reinvent the humble madeleine but gave him the confidence to embrace his queerness.

At just 11 years old, Park was the youngest person in his hometown of Incheon, South Korea, to get a cooking licence. After attending culinary school at Woosong University on a full scholarship, he quickly ascended the culinary ladder—all the way to the position of personal chef for South Korea’s minister of defence. Then, drawn by Canada’s cultural diversity and support for newcomers and LGBTQ+ communities, Park moved to Halifax in 2016, eager to immerse himself in a new landscape. After a stint in Montreal (where he worked at Joe Beef), he came to Toronto, where he landed jobs in the kitchens of Buca and Dandylion. And then the pandemic hit. Just as his career was gaining momentum and he was starting to feel at home, he was laid off—left to dry out in his apartment like stale pastry.

A selection of colourful madeleines at Gateau Ghost in Toronto

“In the machine of the restaurant industry, I was just another cog—worn out and at my breaking point, only to be replaced and forgotten,” says Park. “I felt just like a madeleine. People today usually ignore the madeleine: it’s a classic, but it’s not exciting. Everyone’s chasing the next viral sensation.”

Related: This Toronto pastry chef opened her own chocolate shop in a 120-year-old Simcoe County farmhouse

Thoughts of pastry took up a lot of Park’s newfound free time. Throughout his culinary career, he had steered clear of the pastry station. “Pastry is often seen as feminine. I was secretly intrigued, but I was also closeted, and I didn’t want to be perceived as weak or unmanly,” Park says. “Now I know that being queer doesn’t equate to weakness.”

Before launching Gateau Ghost as a virtual pastry shop in 2022, Park busied himself fine-tuning his confections. Determined to elevate madeleines from overlooked desserts to pastry superstars, he began by revamping the cake batter. He was disappointed by the shallow madeleine trays available in Canada, so he sourced deeper pans from South Korea that would allow him to make more voluminous cakes. These thicker madeleines served as ideal vessels for rich piped fillings and decadent toppings. The resulting cakes are ultra-buttery, hyper-indulgent and beautifully decorated.

A closeup of Gateau Ghost's strawberry madeleine

Randall Papineau, an entrepreneur with experience at several locally grown brands (Balzac’s, Chefs Plate, Fresh), keeps his finger on the pulse of Toronto’s food scene. When Gateau Ghost’s madeleines popped up in his Instagram feed, he was impressed. “Jayden’s aesthetic was just so fresh, hip, queer—it really captivated me,” says Papineau. These weren’t passé pastries—these made-over madeleines were edible art. So Papineau messaged Park with a business proposition to partner on a brick-and-mortar space for Gateau Ghost. But there was one condition: Park would need to develop a more comprehensive restaurant concept, featuring a fleet of pastries in addition to brunch and lunch menus.

“I wanted the food to be relevant to pastry; there had to be a connection,” says Park, whose savoury creations walk the line between salty and sweet. Think shrimp toast battered in crushed Frosted Flakes or French toast that tempers sugary strawberry jam with a bold swipe of olive oil. These dishes display both Park’s fine-dining pedigree and his playfulness.

Shrimp toast

French toast topped with strawberry jam and cream

Related: Castle and Coal, a petite patisserie with all-dessert tasting menus

Park’s heritage makes cameos in several dishes, including a bulgogi-stuffed twist on a croque madame, a comforting Korean fried chicken sandwich and some spicy sausages, including one that riffs on jeyuk bokkeum, a spicy pork stir-fry popular in South Korea. While Park isn’t afraid to flirt with fusion, he has a soft spot for traditional French bistro fare, so guests will also find a handful of classic dishes like steak frites with shoestring fries and a robust black pepper jus.

A sausage with mashed potatoes and gravy

Steak frites

Similarly, the selection of pastries ranges from usual French bakery suspects (chocolate chunk cookies, pain au chocolat and gorgeously laminated croissants) to baked goods with international inspirations, like matcha-strawberry cookies. And, of course, there’s a selection of very photogenic madeleines on display too.

“I’ve always been passionate about pastry, but I held back because I was worried about how others would perceive me, especially regarding my sexuality,” says Park. “Starting Gateau Ghost—and all the positive feedback about my pastry that followed—empowered me to come out to my mom.” Although Park had imagined his coming out along the lines of an American sitcom, the reality of pandemic restrictions made it a little less Hallmark. “It was over Zoom, so she gave me a virtual hug, but it was still very emotional. She said she’d love me no matter what.”

Gateau Ghost opens May 15 at 974 College Street.

Chocolate-covered ice cream bars

A tray of chocolate chip and matcha cookies

A plate of Gateau Ghost's cookies, croissants and madeleines