When he was a tot, Andrew “Roo” Strom played with spatulas, pans and measuring cups in the bath.
Before he could walk, he’d perch on the kitchen countertop to watch his parents cook. After dinner, he’d “bus” the table, rolling along in a baby walker.
It seems like he was destined to be a chef, but it was actually a heartbreaking loss that cemented the 18-year-old’s decision to earn a culinary arts certificate from Sno-Isle TECH Center in Everett — even after he suffered a serious head injury while playing football.
His father, Kirby Strom, died from bladder cancer in 2015. The loss hit Roo Strom hard — the two bonded while cooking together over the years — but he saw a chance to keep his dad’s legacy alive as a student at Sno-Isle.
“My dad absolutely loved this recipe for potato soup,” said Strom, referring to a family recipe that had been passed down by Kirby’s grandmother and mother. “I wanted to make that. I feel like that’s what really set me on my path.”
When Strom, of Arlington, stepped inside the trade school’s kitchen, he felt a calling like never before. He enrolled in 2016 for the two-year program.
“I’m not a very spiritual man or anything, but everything in my body shivered,” he said. “Every fiber in my body told me I needed to be there.”
Strom, who was homeschooled, dedicated himself to Le Bistro, Sno-Isle’s student-run restaurant, as well as cooking for after-school events. In his free time, he would search for new recipes to add to the bistro’s menu.
His dad lingered in his mind. Whenever he became overwhelmed with emotions, he’d take a break from cooking to collect himself.
“He managed to pull out of that,” said Jennifer Knudson, Le Bistro’s restaurant manager. “It wasn’t long until he decided, ‘I gotta keep going, I gotta keep pushing.’ He’s a really strong-minded individual for his age.”
That strong will helped Strom cope with a traumatic brain injury he suffered during a football practice at Lakewood High School in 2016. The injury causes seizures and tics, and makes it difficult for him to communicate.
“I had to relearn to read and write during that first year,” Strom said. Completing his education at Sno-Isle took three years instead of two.
Strom and his late father loved football, so giving up the sport for good was a blow, despite the injury.
His mom, Monica Strom, said Sno-Isle was nothing but supportive, despite the complication.
“I remember one day he was having really bad Tourettes and some seizures,” she said, “They called me over and they were standing with him. They were all so calm. They just said, ‘OK, what do we need to do to keep him here?’ Nobody at that school told Roo he couldn’t do something.”
Strom not only returned to cooking, he thrived in the kitchen. By the time Chef Mark Luepnitz took over as culinary chef and instructor in 2018, Strom was the unequivocal leader in the kitchen.
“He could take any of our first-year students and make them feel accepted and make them feel like they could do anything he could do,” Luepnitz said. “He’s definitely one of those students you find every once in a while.”
Luepnitz saw Strom excel at rustic dishes like pork cutlet with mushroom and onion gravy and German beer stew, but he also was adept at more complicated fare, such as beef Wellington.
Strom likes to create new recipes. His favorite is called Roo’s Beer Bake, made with Yukon gold potatoes, asparagus, red onion, bacon, pepper jack cheese and pale ale. It’s the kind of fare he’d serve at the gastropub he hopes to open some day.
He also loves Italian cuisine, which made him an ideal intern at Lombardi’s in Everett. He started in the “dish pit,” and struck up a friendship with sous chef Christian Murphy, who took him under his wing.
“Roo is a rare breed these days,” Murphy said. “He puts everything he can into whatever he’s doing and gets the most out of it. He’s come a very long way.”
After Strom’s internship, Lombardi’s hired him. He worked there throughout his senior year. On Monday, he starts a new job as a chef’s assistant making farm-to-table dinners at Carnation Farms.
Perhaps his biggest achievement at Sno-Isle was when he was put in charge of the culinary arts program’s first-ever “pop-up” restaurant at Le Bistro. He was tasked with staffing it and deciding what to serve.
Of course, Kirby’s Potato Soup was on the menu.
Evan Thompson: 425-339-3427, firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @ByEvanThompson.
Roo’s beer bake
2 pounds Yukon gold potatoes, cut into thin slices
1 pound asparagus, cleaned and diced into ¼-inch rounds
1 pound red onion, cut into matchsticks
8 ounces bacon, cooked until fat is rendered (reserve 1 tablespoon bacon fat)
Pale ale beer
1 pound pepper jack cheese, grated
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Throw all the vegetables into a roasting pan. Pour the beer into the pan until it covers the vegetables. Add the bacon and reserved bacon fat. Cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes.
Remove the foil and top with the cheese. Then recover with foil and bake for 15 minutes. Serve warm.