What the Chef: Lawrence Suen
by Jane Snow
Balance is much easier for Lawrence Suen to achieve in his cooking than in his life. The yin and yang of sweet and sour, spicy and cool, crunchy and soft plays out across the panoply of Asian dishes on the menus of his family’s three House of Hunan restaurants in Akron, Fairlawn and Medina. In his private life, the 57-year-old chef balances family and physical pursuits in the scraps of time he can steal away from his job as executive chef of the restaurants. But it isn’t easy.
“It’s crazy, but we love it,” Lawrence says. “If you don’t like it you can’t stay in restaurants that long.”
The chef learned to cook in his native Taiwan, where the restaurants are a melting pot of the varied cooking styles of mainland China. He was just 24 when he emigrated to the United States. Five years later, in 1984, he opened the original House of Hunan restaurant in Fairlawn with his mother, brother, sister, nephew and his wife, Cheryl.
Lawrence has challenged himself over the years by learning how to make other popular Asian cuisines in addition to Chinese. The menus at the restaurants now include many Thai dishes and Japanese sushi. The chef is known for the intricate vegetable carvings that adorn many of his plates at the Medina restaurant, where he spends most of his time. With delicate precision, he carves turnips and other vegetables into dragons, flowers and birds. Each sculpture can take up to an hour to complete.
With similar concentration but considerably more muscle power he pursues his hobby of martial arts, even outfitting a room in the basement of his Bath Township home as a practice area.
Many customers from the early days remember Lawrence’s mother, who used to help run the Fairlawn restaurant and made the Chinese dumplings by hand. She is retired now, says Lawrence, who takes a short vacation to Taiwan each year and is looking forward to visiting mainland China (his parents are from the province of Shandong) when he retires—which he hasn’t even considered yet.
The chef is not ready to slow down and ponder life’s yin and yang.