Henry Kwok, 36, owns Henry’s Place, a neighborhood pub and restaurant in Meridian Township that specializes in “New American” cuisine along with some globally inspired flare. His family moved from Long Island to Michigan and opened Asian Buffet in 1998. Kwok laid out his own shingle and launched Henry’s Place in a neighboring suite in 2016. He graduated from Okemos High School, earned a degree in supply chain management from Western Michigan University and lives in Okemos with his wife, Sharon, and their two daughters, Victoria and Isabella.
Your family has been running restaurants for decades. Did you help out as a kid?
There wasn’t much choice. The restaurant on Long Island was close to home, so I could walk between them. From a young age, food was really the comfort zone that mended the family. We didn’t talk much about politics or religion or anything. It was food that brought us all together.
Was it a big adjustment to move from Long Island to Okemos as a kid?
It was a culture shock. New York is like a melting pot with thousands of people from different countries. Okemos is a little town without high rises, traffic and all the hustling and bustling.
It was also frigid and dark when I moved up here. I remember thinking on my first day of school: “I don’t know if I can handle this.” But everyone was so nice. It made the transition pretty easy.
Do you remember much from the early days of Asian Buffet?
I always came straight from school to help out with the counter, seating people and busing tables. My worst and fondest memories were making dumplings — thousands of them.
It was brutal work, but it was also nice because we had great conversations when we were doing it. That’s when we got together. I really didn’t have a social life outside of the restaurant in middle and high school. I don’t think I went to a single football game in high school. But it was worth it. I wouldn’t change anything because I think it helped prepare me for today. I learned how much hard work and patience is needed to run a restaurant from my parents.
What made you want to open up Henry’s Place next door?
It was a combination of luck and poor planning. The Christian bookstore next door went through a bankruptcy and didn’t renew the lease. I was thinking about branching off on my own and opening up another restaurant that incorporated more of my own personal style and flavors.
What is that personal style?
We’re just rolling with it. The whole menu is kind of experimental. We just picked things and thought, “Oh, this sounds good. Let’s try it.” And that’s kind of how Henry’s Place was born. About 90% of the food on the menu is made in the kitchen. We also specialize in craft cocktails — with real fruit juices and house-made syrups. We also have a lot of craft beer on tap. We try to support a lot of Michigan-based purveyors in deciding what items to put into the menu. A lot of the menu just comes from me dining out and finding things I like. Don’t get me wrong: I love Asian food, but there are all sorts of other cuisines that are really good too. It’s selfish, but the menu is just me assembling everything that I like. It’s all a reflection of my personal taste.
What are some of your favorite restaurants in Greater Lansing?
Bridge Street Social. StateSide Deli & Restaurant. I try to support local businesses.
Any favorite experiences or noteworthy customers from over the years?
There was a couple — Carl and Marilyn — that came into Asian Buffet every single day. Carl was a magician and would tell me jokes and stories. I remember him showing off magic tricks in the restaurant and him joking about how he came there often enough to have paid for my car.
What do you do when you’re not working?
Ironically, I don’t really cook at home, mainly because I spend most of my time here at the restaurant. I do like to delve into high-end steaks. There’s an online group where we all get together to buy some premium steaks — like Japanese Wagyu. Again, I think that’s all because I like to try new things and help other people try new things, then hear their feedback about it.
Otherwise, I like to go to the gym a lot. I try to reduce all of that restaurant stress by working out.
Any advice for others looking to get started in the restaurant business?
Don’t do it. It takes a toll on your body, mind and soul. It’s demoralizing. If you have to do it, do it because you really want to do it, not because of the money. Do it because you have a passion for the restaurant and your products. Also: Go slow. Everything doesn’t come all at once.
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