Before I Was Boss: Stint in jail and meeting his wife changed his life

PHOTO: AsiaOne
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When he was 20, Jeff Koh spent time in jail for illegal gambling. But meeting his wife, and his long-held passion for cooking, helped him turn his life around.

Going out to the playground would be the highlight of the day for most children, but as a child, restaurateur Jeff Koh actually preferred visits to the wet markets.

"I remember the scenes vividly, how they used to kill chicken or skin frogs in front of you," he recalled, adding that he also picked up basic cooking skills from a young age.

Koh, 31, has always wanted to open his own establishment due to his long-held interest and passion in food and cooking, and now owns and runs Vietnamese eatery Moc Quan.

He picked up basic cooking from a young age, and continued to learn the trade through part-time and full-time stints as a waiter, bartender and in the kitchen at a number of restaurants.

But his journey to where he is today has been anything but a smooth ride.

Photo: AsiaOne

"Going rogue"

In an interview with AsiaOne at the cosy eatery in UE Square, Koh speaks candidly about how his impulsive, headstrong attitude got him into trouble in his earlier years.

"I've always been the type of person who would always just do something, and I would only think about the consequences later. But the mistakes I made in my life also got me to where I am today," he reflected.

He pinpoints his parents' divorce when he was 13 as the point where he started to "go rogue". "It wasn't that it affected me emotionally, but suddenly I didn't have to answer to anyone and basically had ultimate freedom," he said.

Eventually, his involvement in gangs and activities like gambling and underage drinking caught up with him, landing him in jail for 11 weeks when he was 20 years old for illegal gambling and assault.

While in jail, he realised that, deep down, he was different from the types of people there. "I knew it wasn't the path I wanted to go down and I'm lucky because I always knew what I wanted to do," he said.

However, he credits the impetus for his eventual "redemption" to his wife, Kim, whom he met while working in the kitchen at a restaurant in Dempsey Hill.

"My life changed. She guided me to give up a lot of my vices, and also taught me things like how to value money. Basically, she showed me what life as an adult should be," he said with a smile towards his wife, who was seated beside him.

Kim, who is listening in on the interview, smiles back, before joking: "That's why every day I have to clean up his mess,"

Good morning, Vietnam

Being from Vietnam herself, Kim was also an important figure in his eventual decision to open a Vietnamese restaurant.

Koh shares his experience of falling in love with the "organised chaos" of Ho Chi Minh City, as well as Vietnamese food, when he visited the country with his wife for the first time in 2011.

Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. Photo: The Straits Times

It was when he came back to Singapore in 2013 that he realised there was a lack of places serving good Vietnamese cuisine.

"We tried a few places but they were nothing like what you get in Vietnam, and that's when I saw an opportunity to try and start a place serving truly authentic Vietnamese food," he said.

He approached a partner with the idea, who trusted him (and his wife) enough to give him the capital needed to start the restaurant, and after searching for a suitable location for a few months he managed to get Moc Quan up and running by July 2014.

16-hour days

The first couple of months were tough. Due to a lack of funds, Koh could not afford to hire staff, meaning that he, his wife and his sister-in-law spent 16-hour days toiling away in the kitchen.

Yet, working in the kitchen remains one of the most enjoyable parts of the job for Koh, who has always been interested in cooking even though he never went to culinary school. "Most of my cooking ability comes from experimenting and from my previous work. What you learn in the kitchen, you can't learn from school."

Photo: AsiaOne

Instead, it was the other aspects of opening a business, such as paperwork and getting the right licenses, which he found to be most challenging. He never had to think about such issues previously as he had always been working for someone else.

He also acknowledged that while many customers liked the food, there were initially some complaints about the service, such as dishes being served too slow, causing him to sometimes take his anger out on his staff.

"I can sometimes be too focused, so when I'm in the kitchen, my only concern is ensuring that the customers get a good dining experience," he said, adding that his temper meant that even his wife finds him difficult to work with at times.

Despite this, Koh believes strongly that staff in his restaurant should be treated "like a family".

He gives a few examples: "Here, there's no such thing as the staff eating separately from my wife and I. We eat together every day."

He elaborated: "Even until now, I will still help wash the dishes or make drinks when we're busy. We don't differentiate our roles just because I'm the boss. We all do what we need to do."

Jeff's wife, Kim, helping out in the kitchen.Photo: AsiaOne

This belief, according to Koh, stems from his own humble roots. "I was once a staff too, so I know what being an employee feels like," he simply said.

Reflecting on his far-from-straightforward journey, Koh has one final piece of advice for those thinking of starting their own business: "If it's something you want to do, just do it!

"Don't wait until you're 50 and then look back in regret."

seanyap@sph.com.sg