Mykha Trinh escaped Vietnam with 13 children — only four of them her own — and made a new life in America feeding hungry college students and gourmands her fresh, homemade, garlicky “Grandma Noodles,” shrimp with papaya and berries in lemongrass elixir.
She used the profits from Mykha’s — her Glen Ellyn restaurant — to support two children’s homes in Vietnam. When the 71-year-old died July 10 of a brain aneurysm, she had no money to speak of, according to her son Thomas Nguyen.
“There was no 401(k), no pension funds, no life insurance,” he said. “During the height of the restaurant, I’ll bet you if you looked at my mom’s finances, it would have been exactly the same. My mom gave it away.”
She even donated her organs.
“My mom literally gave everything, including her own body,” Nguyen said.
She believed food was a way to love and happiness.
“Nothing happ[ier] when you share a bowl of rice with people,” she once said in a video posted on Vimeo. “When you cook, you make people happy. . . . Eat good food, be happy and smile.”
During more than 20 years running her restaurant, Miss Trinh hired broke Wheaton College students and immigrants from Mexico. Linking common ingredients of Vietnam and Mexico — including jicama and cilantro — she cooked delicious hybrids, like pork chops with salsa.
“Mykha cooked with soul and with the seasons,” said chef Rick Bayless of the Frontera Grill empire. “She approached this noble craft with a deeply rooted devotion to make others happy.”
“My career is completely due to her,” said Jennifer Jones Enyart, who operates Dos Urban Cantina, 2829 W. Armitage.
As a young woman, she worked in Mykha’s kitchen. And though she later learned from Bayless and famed chef Charlie Trotter, “she was the most passionate, inspiring person I’ve ever worked with,” Enyart said.
Jonathan Swindle waited tables at Mykha’s in college.
“People with cancer would travel to Mykha’s to drink her soup and seek her counsel,” Swindle said. “Wealthy Glen Ellyn women would come in looking for advice. She always said if a child comes, make sure I’m told about it. She’d cut up a mango or papaya, make sure the kid ate.”
In Vietnam, she’d worked in the American embassy. Her husband was a South Vietnamese military officer. When Saigon fell in 1975, they were separated in the chaos. Miss Trinh scrambled to flee.
She collected her four children, plus nine more: six of her brother’s kids, two cousins and an infant thrust upon her, said Nguyen, who still recalls evacuees clawing to get out on helicopters.
“People were grabbing each other and pulling each other out of line, jockeying,” he said. “I remember this American soldier saying, ‘If you move, I’ll shoot you.’ ”
Though small in stature, only about 4-feet-8, “My mom got us through,” he said.
She and the kids clambered into a helicopter.
“I still remember running up [a ramp] and sliding, and running up and sliding, and thinking I’ll never get in,” said Nguyen, 7 at the time.
They made it to a camp in Guam, where they were reunited with relatives. Her former husband wound up spending a decade in a “re-education camp.”
She and her children were sponsored by a church in Minnesota, where they settled briefly and lived with a kind couple, Beverly and William Severson. For a time, they were on public assistance.
“She cleaned houses,” said her son. “I remember her working at a pizza restaurant.”
The family relocated to Illinois, where she opened an ethnic grocery in Wheaton. In the late 1970s, she moved it to Carol Stream and added a few tables and chairs. When hungry students from Wheaton College stopped in, her son said, “She would give them eggrolls and say, ‘Don’t worry, pay me later.’ ’’
In the early 1990s, after opening her Glen Ellyn restaurant at 476 Forest Ave., “there would be a line out of the place,” her son said. “It caught on right away.”
She operated it until 2012.
Miss Trinh loved furs, saris and resale shops.
Before she was stricken at her brother’s home in Palatine, her son said, she’d gone off her blood-pressure medicine, saying, “I feel good. I don’t need medicine.”
She is also survived by daughters Maria Peterson and Mimi Brown; another son, Andrew Soucie; a sister, Thanh Cherry; a brother, Van Nguyen; a great-aunt, known as Ba Muoi, who taught her to cook; and 10 grandchildren. Services have been held.
“She believed,” Swindle said, “you can never be too friendly or give too much.”