At first glance, it might not seem like TV writing and helming a restaurant have much in common. “But they do,” explains Jeff Strauss. “In both cases you are putting on a show for an audience each night.”
Smoked salmon yaki onigiri with red onion and crème fraiche
Jeff made a name for himself by writing on shows like Friends and Dream On, but after 30 years in the entertainment industry, he decided to pursue his second passion—cooking “I did briefly think about cooking professionally in my 20s,” Jeff says. “Instead I cooked for friends and family and occasionally catered a school fundraiser or helped a friend throw a large party.”
In late 2018, “coming off a job on a TV series with all the usual joys and frustrations,” he mulled next steps. “My wife, Mindy Schultheis, said, ‘You know, if you’re ever going to do anything with cooking, you should probably try and do it while you can still stand up!’ Our kids were all out of school, or nearly, and we didn’t need my income to pay the mortgage, so the opportunity to take a risk seemed ripe.”
In 2019, he worked stages—unpaid internships, essentially—at chef-friends’ restaurants and began catering for friends, calling his new business Jeff’s Table. Around that time, a friend introduced him to Peter Jarjour, owner of The Bar at Oyster House in Studio City, a neighborhood haunt known for its cocktails. Since the bar had a limited menu, they gave Jeff an opportunity to host pop-ups there. Impressed, Peter offered him a full-fledged opportunity: Run a small gourmet sandwich shop in the back of Flask Fine Wine & Whisky, his Highland Park liquor store. Carrying over the name Jeff’s Table made perfect sense.
During the pandemic, Jeff lost access to his commissary kitchen where he prepared food. Since The Bar at Oyster House was closed due to COVID-19 restrictions, he started prepping there for Jeff’s Table. Once LA County lifted restrictions, he proposed flipping the business into OyBar, a nighttime concept with elevated bar food that draws on Jeff’s family traditions and international influences.
Above: Chef de cuisine Kenya Bovey. The OyBar space, with its original 1950s style bar. A cocktail with mezcal, Mexican rum, homemade grapefruit cordial and lime juice.
“I wanted to do something that reflected my roots,” he says. “So some Jewish deli East Coasty stuff, but also Los Angeles. There’s so much food in the city that reflects these cross-cultural experiences.” To work alongside him at OyBar, Jeff hired chef de cuisine Kenya Bovey, who had experience working for chefs including Suzanne Goin and Nancy Silverton, and sous chef/pastry chef Alex Madayag. And then it clicked.
“There were a couple of pieces that Eater did and then website The Infatuation named us best LA burger, and more people started coming,” Jeff says. Thursday through Saturday, on most nights, the line starts forming out front before 6 o’clock (no reservations accepted).
Jeff credits his mother, Jane, as his biggest culinary influence. “My mom taught me to cook,” he wrote on an Instagram post. “And to think about what I was eating and the flavors and textures. She taught me that food was culture and communication. She taught me to be fearless in eating and in cooking and that feeding someone is an act of love and that eating with someone is an act of community.”
Jeff was raised, with sister Sarah, in several East Coast cities, including Boston, Rochester and Washington, D.C. His dad would barbecue and help cook fish they caught while camping, but Mom, a Massachusetts native, made most meals.
“My mom taught me to cook And to think about what I was eating and the flavors and textures. She taught me to be fearless in eating and in cooking and that feeding someone is an act of love and that eating with someone is an act of community.”
In the ’60s, “when most women were cooking either from convenience and simplicity” in the frozen dinner era, she scoured magazines, newspapers and cookbooks for international recipes like sukiyaki or hot and sour soup. “I was one of those kids who grew up not knowing that Chinese food wasn’t part of the Jewish traditional diet,” Jeff jokes.
Jane had signature dishes like hamburger soup and crisp, toasty chicken wings coated with sesame seeds and served with tangy orange sauce or tossed in lemon juice, soy sauce and ketchup. Jeff also recalls broiled chicken, lamb chops and steak, trout almondine, and “fresh green salad with homemade dressing.” She drew from the Jewish canon for holidays, including matzo ball soup, kugel and sticky braised brisket. Her willingness to go off-recipe to suit her mood was an approach that influenced Jeff’s cooking.
Looking back, Jeff’s becoming a chef may have been inevitable. “He was not quite 4 years old and we had gotten him a goldfish,” his mother recalls. “It lived for a few weeks, and then died. I was really worried about telling Jeff the news and having to explain to this little boy what had happened, and what death was. I put it off as long as I could, but I finally had to do it. I sat him down and told him. And Jeff took it in, and he looked at me with his big brown eyes and asked, ‘So can we eat it now?’”
“The first time my mom suggested that I pick up a spatula or pan was when I was 6 or 7 years old,” Jeff recalls. “I didn’t like what she was making for dinner. She said, ‘Make something yourself. Make yourself some eggs.’ She showed me how to crack eggs into a bowl and scramble them up and put them in a pan with some butter and stir. It was this really empowering feeling to be able to control a hot dish that I ate and enjoyed.”
Jeff’s mother is now 83 and lives in Connecticut. She visited in July and tried her son’s latest creations. “Her being here and getting to go to these things was really meaningful in a ton of ways,” he says.
She recently savored OyBar’s entire menu during a group dinner, including a pastrami quesadilla with crispy Gruyere-and-jalapeño crust, a combo play on his signature Jeff’s Table sandwich and LA street burritos.
“Certain dishes absolutely come deeply from my mother’s roots,” Jeff says. OyBar’s fiery habanero honey hot wings certainly qualify. So does matzo ball ramen.
Mom also appreciated smoked salmon yaki onigiri, a riff on lox and cream cheese that features a grilled Japanese rice ball topped with silky salmon, crème fraîche, red onion, dill, and miso butter, coated with an everything spice that includes caraway and toasted nigella seeds. Her influence was evident throughout the meal.
Mom’s commitment to sharing food with family and community has also left a lasting impression. Jeff remembers potluck dinners in Rochester, where he found inspiration from nearby farmstands, local legend Wegmans supermarket, and Mr. Courtney, a neighbor who farmed a full acre and would let Jeff and his sister pick apples and berries.
During our interview, a passerby addressed Jeff as “chef.”
“I still wonder who they’re talking to,” says Jeff, half jokingly. “It’s been hard for me to get used to being OK with that. I mean, that’s what I’m doing, but for a long time, as I would joke with Kenya—who has a lot more professional culinary time than I do—I was Jeff, not chef.”
Although fully immersed in food, Jeff hasn’t closed the door on the entertainment industry. “I’m not writing, but I’m never not a writer,” he says. So Jeff remains a storyteller. “I like food that tells stories,” he says. “I like surprising twists, things that make you smile, and things that make you think of things from your past or present that are either fun or awkward or funny.”
Jeff’s Emergency Jewish Deli Dill Pickles
(makes about 1 cup)
This cucumber dish is great for eating alone, or on burgers and sandwiches. “It’s really a slightly sweet, slightly salty cucumber salad pretending to be a pickle. While nothing matches the wonder of a truly great, traditionally fermented deli pickle, the freshness brings a playful flavor that out-competes many bottled/store-bought pickles,” Jeff says.
- 4 Persian cucumbers, medium large
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 large clove of garlic grated on a microplane or finely minced
- 1 tablespoon minced fresh dill
Slice off ends of cucumbers; then slice them into roughly 1/8-inch-thick rounds. Make them look like sliced pickles, or just slightly thicker. Combine these with the other ingredients in a nonreactive bowl and stir gently once or twice over 10 minutes. Serve immediately, or refrigerate to use within a few hours.