The Washington Post

Nha Trang chef Nguyen Lee, ‘mother of the Eden Center,’ dies

Just weeks after the $20 Diner sang the praises of her exquisite central Vietnamese restaurant in the Eden Center, Nha Trang chef Nguyen Lee has died from complications of a stroke, leaving behind countless community members who not only enjoyed her food but benefited from her generosity, a family member told The Post. She was 78.

Nguyen Lee died on Sunday after feeding the souls of countless Vietnamese immigrants.(Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post) Nguyen Lee, 78, died on March 30 after feeding the souls of countless Vietnamese immigrants. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

"She was quite extraordinary," said Joe Steger, husband of Lee's granddaughter, Natalie Tran. "She put people to work. She literally was the mother of Eden Center ... If there ever was an issue, people would go to her.”

Lee died on March 30. She had earlier suffered a stroke, and "things didn’t improve from there," Steger said. In the Vietnamese tradition, the past few days have been devoted to ceremonies, prayer and wakes, which have attracted hundreds of Lee's friends and family, Steger said.

Nguyen Thi Ly was born in 1935 in central Vietnam but immigrated to the United States in 1982. Her husband died about 22 years ago, Steger said, leaving her to oversee a family of eight children and, eventually, 19 grandchildren.

"She gave us all the stepping stones in life to become the people we are today," reads a memorial at the wake, "and through it all she stood proud of us all. Her family (husband, children and grandchildren) meant everything in the world to her."

A framed photo from Nguyen Lee's wake. (Joe Steger for The Washington Post) A framed photo from Nguyen Lee's wake. (Joe Steger for The Washington Post)

Lee was known for her fierce work habits and generosity of spirit, Steger said. She would work 365 days a year, 12 hours a day, even as she reached and surpassed retirement age.

"She was very, very happy with the way things turned out," the grandson said, noting that Lee's work ethic persisted during a spike in customers after The Post's March review. "Retiring and traveling was not her idea of a good life. She was about work and helping people out.”

Nha Trang remains open during this bereavement period, Steger said. "That’s the way she would have wanted it," he added. The restaurant will continue on through her daughter, Minh Dao, and son, Vinh Dao. Lee and the current kitchen staff at Nha Trang have worked together for more than 10 years, Steger said. "They know what they're doing."

Funeral services will be held at 8 a.m. Saturday at the Holy Martyrs of Vietnam, 915 S. Wakefield St. in Arlington. There will be a memorial gathering at Nha Trang immediately following the burial, which is set for 10 a.m. at Mount Comfort Cemetery, 6600 S. Kings Highway in Alexandria. The public is welcome to attend all three events.

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires he ingest more calories than a draft horse.



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