Meeting on a blind date when they were 15 years old, Tawon and Patricia Burton put the “soul” in soulmates.
The owners and chefs of ThaiSoul Fusion Grill entice Akron’s Kenmore neighborhood with unique flavor combinations. The smell of stir fry and fried chicken drift through the air as I sit down with the couple.
“It’s always been just us. He’s the Thai and I’m the Soul,” Patricia says.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Brynne Olsen: What’s your first memory of your love of cooking?
Tawon Burton: It all started when I was 3 years old and in the kitchen with my grandmother. I wanted to be a drummer like my older brother so I used to beat on her pots. But my grandparents couldn’t sleep with that, so they took the pots away from me. I was still in the kitchen, though, so my grandmother, who was a beautiful Jamaican woman, told me to go get those pots.
She taught me how to cook by first having everything chopped up already in bowls. She would be reading, watching TV maybe, and she would say, “OK, put that bowl in for me.” Then a few minutes later, another one. Then the chicken. I wasn’t allowed to stir or touch the pots, but she would let me put the ingredients and spices in. So by the time I was 5 years old, I knew when it was time to put the basil in. By the time I was 8 years old, I was doing it all for her. Every day after school, I would cook dinner with her. That’s what started my love of cooking. I was falling in love with it and didn’t even know it.
I started doing Thai because, when I was around 12 years old, we moved to Ellet, and there was a Thai family next door. So that’s where I was after school. They showed me how to use a wok, and we cooked together. And I’m still connected with them to this day.
My mom was an excellent soul food cook. She passed away from complications from COVID-19. She left me with many good memories. The soul food I tie in is because of her. Every time I cook, I’m with her. She taught me a lot about life and food.
My first full restaurant, which was on Romig Road, was her dream. For the last 3 years, I got to spend it with her. She was at my restaurant every day. I’ve been really blessed with food with my family. All she wanted to do was come to my restaurant. I thank God for that chance, that she was there with me. Food was her love and her passion. She passed it along to me.
Patricia Burton: That was my buddy. I was like her daughter and he was like my mother’s child. She was one of my biggest inspirations.
BO: What would you tell your younger self?
TB: Patience. Do not rush into things. I ruined a lot of opportunities because I was in a hurry. When I was in my 20s, I acted like I wasn’t going to make it out of my 20s. I would tell that to any young person. And never be jealous of what somebody else has, because you don’t know where it comes from.
BO: What are your most popular menu items?
TB: Everything. I’m not joking. We keep track, in our point-of-sale system, of the categories. We often sell out. I don’t ever get to eat my food because we are so busy.
BO: What sets your restaurant apart from others?
TB: The flavor combinations. You can only eat like that here. People order fried rice, fried lobster tail, macaroni and cheese, and sweet potatoes. You wouldn’t think these would go together, but they eat it and love it. We have a big menu too that I worked on for six years and it takes you to different places in the world. We take you to Atlanta, on to Italy, then we take you to Thailand. This is year five, over 20,000 dishes and we have only had 16 complaints.
PB: We’re honest with people, we don’t cover it up. We make mistakes, we’re human.
BO: What is it like working alongside each other?
PB: We’re always in sync. We know what the other is about to do in the kitchen, even if we’re working at different stations. People ask us how we can handle being together 24/7, with living and working together. It’s fun, we enjoy each other! We were friends first, then partners and then partners again. We are always laughing at each other at work. We have a really good relationship, so it doesn’t bother us, working together.