By Whitney Gomes
Anxious and sleep-deprived, he wipes beads of sweat from his forehead. The chef coat hangs over his gaunt frame; he has shed 20 pounds in the last month. Oregon’s finest chefs join the stage as hundreds of audience members await an enthralling culinary battle. With 30 minutes on the clock, each chef races to prepare the perfect impromptu entrée. Obsessing over this moment for months, executive chef Jeff Strom delivers. He wins the 2012 Iron Chef Oregon Competition.
Strom owns Koho Bistro in Eugene, Ore., where he spends 15-hour days prepping for the dinner rush. “We make everything 90 to 95 percent from scratch,” he said. After 20 years of working for elite restaurants, earning class valedictorian from The Western Culinary Institute, and cooking at the Playboy Mansion in Beverly Hills, Strom seized an opportunity he couldn’t pass up and became his own boss.
“To own my own restaurant was never really a dream of mine,” Strom said, shaking his head. “I’ve seen the hard work. My wife’s family owned a restaurant for 25 years.” Strom arrives at Koho Bistro from 6-9 a.m. six days a week and doesn’t leave until after 10 p.m. Their in-house butchery and locally sourced ingredients require extensive prep work.
“No risk, no reward,” Strom said. “The only real true way to build wealth and to take care of my family is ownership.” Both Strom and his wife Angela Chan own Koho Bistro, and Dec. 6 marks the restaurant’s first birthday. “We’re a great team,” Chan said. “I’m definitely more outgoing. He’s kind of an introvert.”
This summer Strom’s talents won him two cooking competitions: The Bite of Eugene and The Bite of Oregon –– putting him on the map in the culinary world. His journey began as a 15-year-old dishwasher in Spokane, Wash., and a series of opportunities since then shaped his career and his life.
“A 4.0 was the way I was going to meet Hugh Hefner,” Strom said. “That was my goal.” The Western Culinary Institute of Portland, Ore. promoted an externship opportunity to become a chef at Playboy Mansion West. Honing his culinary techniques with a perfect grade-point average earned Strom this honor after graduation.
Strom described Beverly Hills as “too la-la land,” and “just unreal.” The chaos and party-scene of Los Angeles didn’t appeal to him. “My rebelliousness –– I’ve tamed that down,” he said.
Strom and Chan relocated to Eugene –– focusing their energy on the future and raising their 3-year-old son. Strom decided to continue his career as a chef, and after the birth of their son, the couple chose to raise their family in Eugene.
“Apparently this is what I was born to do because I’m apparently okay at it,” he said. Strom, who has been cooking for over 20 years, helped open Eugene’s Agate Alley Bistro in 2008 and the Agate Alley Laboratory in 2011 as the executive chef. Owner Dug Beaird treated Strom as a business partner, involving him in the logistics of starting a restaurant. Strom appreciates the opportunity and credits “where he is today” from his experience at Agate Alley.
However, Strom quickly found that being your own boss has its disadvantages. “I love it sometimes and sometimes I get so fed up with it that I don’t want to do it anymore,” he said. Despite physical exertion and working long hours, Strom perseveres for his family.
“The biggest achievement of my life is being an awesome father to my awesome son,” Strom said. Meshes of tattoos decorate his upper arm, with the newest addition framing his chest –– a scroll-shaped design spells out “A Happy Wife is a Happy Life.”
Elements of Strom’s family dynamic influence the employees of Koho Bistro. Chan explained how his passion for cooking invigorates the kitchen. “He loves to show people and teach people what he’s learned,” she said. “A mentor –– that’s kind of what he’s become to a lot of people in our kitchen.”
In a few years, Strom plans to purchase a house, rezone it for commercial use and turn it into a local neighborhood convenient store with an emphasis on cured meats, sausages, ham and baked goods. “It would be a convenient store with a really kick-ass deli counter,” he said.
Strom drafted the next chapter of his life with the opening of Koho Bistro last December. He attributes his culinary success to preparation. “Prior planning prevents poor performance,” he said. Since The Bite of Oregon, people recognize Strom as the premier chef of Eugene –– a fish out of water in Beverly Hills, turned determined family man in Oregon.