A Home in Oakridge

Once a chef to celebrities, Jeff Lee now serves his spin on Asian food to locals

By Craig Reed

Jeff and Grace
Jeff and Grace are the only employees at Lee’s Gourmet Garden.

Jeff Lee’s earliest memories include picking food out of trash cans in Hong Kong.

“I was homeless at 4,” he recalls. “I needed food.”

He also stayed close to food carts in those early years of his youth, doing small jobs for the cart owners in trade for food.

Since those days of wandering the streets of Hong Kong, the South Vietnamese native has made many stops during life. There has been one common thread to all those stops: food.

Jeff, now 60 and about halfway around the world from his homeland, can be found in Oakridge, where he and his wife, Grace, are owners and the only employees of Lee’s Gourmet Garden. The restaurant’s menu is 70% Asian.

Jeff cooks in what he describes as Taiwanese style using a wok over an open flame. He adds a variety of seasonings to the beef, chicken, pork and
vegetables that he prepares. Grace waits on customers out front. When there is a break, Jeff frequently comes out to the dining area to talk with his visitors.

“Cooking is like an art,” Jeff says. “When cooking, use your heart. You want people to enjoy the food, to feel very happy about it. They love my food because they smile.

“Before, I have nothing. I never went to school. People on the street taught me. I said no to bad people to do bad things for money. Money I have made myself. Hard work and luck. I’ve worked hard. You have to make your own luck. I’ve always appreciated the life I have.”

The Lees opened their Oakridge restaurant in January 2008. They accidentally found the location.

Jeff had been working at a friend’s restaurant in Klamath Falls when the couple decided to drive to Philomath to check out a restaurant for sale. That business proved to be too big and expensive for the Lees, but on their return home they were intrigued by an empty lot fronting Highway 58 in the middle of Oakridge. They talked to the owner and made an agreement. The owner would build a building, and the Lees would fill the kitchen with cooking equipment and the dining room with tables and chairs.

George Custer and his wife, Sayre, have been regular customers of the restaurant for several years.

“We’re spoiled by Jeff’s food,” George says. “Other people we meet there say the same thing. The Lees are our diamond here in Oakridge. On the Yelp website, a lot of people have given the restaurant good reviews.”

Oakridge Mayor Kathy Holston says small towns such as hers are always looking for food varieties.

“Having Lee’s here is important to the community,” she says. “Jeff cooks amazing and wonderful food that draws a good number of people.”

Jeff’s persistence is what got him into the restaurant industry. At age 9 in Hong Kong, he went to numerous restaurants in search of a job and was finally hired. His pay was food and a place to stay in the restaurant’s kitchen. He also received plenty of cooking training and kitchen experience.

After three years at the restaurant, Jeff says he began to earn a little bit.

When his boss took a job in Taiwan 12 years later, he took his kitchen team, including Jeff, with him. Jeff spent several years in Taiwan. At age 22, he made his first trip to the U.S., taking a job cooking Taiwanese food at the Taiwan embassy in Los Angeles.

Three years later, he accepted the kitchen manager’s position at a high-end restaurant in Vail, Colorado. The food was all Asian.

“They paid more, but during the ski season it was a lot of orders, a lot of work,” Jeff says. “Vail was very, very big business.”

In 1994, Jeff became a firsttime owner, buying a restaurant in Park City, Utah. The year before at age 34, Jeff had become a U.S. citizen.

He says his goal was to be a U.S. citizen and own a business. Jeff spent 10 years in Park City, cooking for several celebrities, including actor Jackie Chan. When he got a good offer for the restaurant, he decided to sell and settle in a climate that was warmer year-around.

He worked in a restaurant in Kauai, Hawaii. He spent five years there before moving to Klamath Falls to help a friend in his restaurant.

In 2006, Jeff married Grace, who he met when working in Taiwan. They opened Lee’s Gourmet Garden in Oakridge two years later.

“Every day, I tell my wife ‘If you don’t keep working hard, the business will fail,’” Jeff says. “People come to have a meal and to spend their money. They are the boss, the guests. You have to treat them right.”

Jeff and Grace return to Taiwan for several weeks each year to visit Grace’s family. Jeff has no family. He was raised in an orphanage before being taken in by a church in Hong Kong when he was a boy.

On the trips to Taiwan, the Lees help at an orphanage as a way to give back. Jeff says what the world is missing is love, so he shares his with the kids at the orphanage.

Back in Oakridge, he shares his cooking and food with those who visit his restaurant.

“I know a lot of people in this world have no food, so when people eat my food, I’m thankful,” Jeff says.