A Life of Family in Food
The Egg Roll Lady
by Sydney Bender
Chef Thi Khen Tran has lived many places: south Vietnam, where she was born, and D.C., North Carolina, New York, and Martha’s Vineyard, where she lived after immigrating to America. She left her own children behind to nanny and cook for other families, including the Taylor family.
Today, Khen lives in West Tisbury, in a house that shares space with crowds of trees, beautifully manicured lawns, and green gardens filled with herbs and flowers, all of which she planted.
When you walk into Khen’s house, her past is in pictures on the wall. Red and yellow Chinese New Year calendars hang alongside framed photographs of Khen’s family and friends, both American and Vietnamese. Khen’s kitchen is comfortable, open with windows that face her garden. Her fridge is filled with jars of sauces and food in Tupperware. Even the sauces labeled with masking tape and red writing evoke a time and place from Khen’s well-traveled life. “A lot of people don’t realize whole days go into making a sauce,” Lindsay Taylor, the youngest of the Taylor children, now 38 years old and living in Chilmark with a family of his own, says.
Khen was introduced to the Taylor family through a mutual friend. She moved to New York City in 1967 to help them raise the kids and spend summers on the Vineyard.
In Khen’s cookbook, she writes that she started learning how to cook for the Taylor children. “I made egg rolls and they loved it,” she writes. As toddlers, they developed a strong liking towards the Vietnamese style of cooking that Khen made for them. Today, Lindsay’s seven-year-old son, Lucas, has acquired his father’s palate: his favorite food is fried tofu. Khen and the Taylor family grew close over the years. They helped her gain citizenship, which allowed her to stay in America and make money to send back to Vietnam for her children.
Twenty years after Khen’s first summer on the Island, she set up a table at the West Tisbury Farmers’ Market. At first, she sold big heads of lettuce (for a dollar) until she moved on to selling flowers, and then realized she could be different and sell something new at her table, something better, something unique. Smoked blue-fish mousse.
Shortly after selling mousse at the market, Khen’s world expanded, as did the appetites of Islanders who shopped at the Farmers’ Market. Khen decided to make and sell (with help from the Taylor family) her egg rolls that Laurie and Lindsay loved so much. At first, the $1.75 egg rolls did not sell well, but after raising the price to $2.00, they sold—and sold fast. The first day, a hot summer day in 1987, Khen sold out of her egg rolls because a tour bus came and the tourists bought them all. This was the birth of Khen’s very popular table and where she earned her nickname as “The Egg Roll Lady of Martha’s Vineyard.”
When Khen is cooking, a teacup filled with steaming tea—jasmine or green—is always within reach. “I like tea,” Khen says, in her soft-spoken Vietnamese accent. “Always when I cook,” she adds, smiling briefly, softly, and then looking away, picking up her knife to French-cut the chives picked from her garden.
Although quiet and precise, Khen’s character is also grounded. She sharpens the end of her butcher knife on the edge of a ceramic serving bowl just as nonchalantly as she washes her hands and dishes while she cooks.
With Pho broth simmering on the stove, Lindsay wanders over and waves soup steam towards his face. Smells of ginger, garlic, star anise, waft through the air. “She makes the best Pho,” Lindsay declares, smiling.
Lindsay says that Khen’s Pho is therapeutic, like chicken noodle soup when you’re sick. It soothes the mind, clears the head. Take a deep breath and feel fine, feel at home, feel full.
At home and in her West Tisbury kitchen, with Lindsay by her side, it is clear that Khen wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. Twelve years ago, Khen’s children came to America, one to Florida and the other to the Island, and since then Khen has made the Island her home—she even has grandchildren that are Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School graduates. Khen has become a familiar face for her successes at the Farmers’ Market, with Lindsay always next to her, as her helping hand.
“It’s been incredible,” Lindsay says of his relationship with Khen.
“I lost my mom years ago—and it’s amazing to have a second mom. I mean, I used to crawl into her bed when I was sick when I was little.”
As Lindsay helps Khen layer the Pho in bowls, first the bean sprouts, then the beef, on top of that the pho noodles, then more beef slices, then scallions and cilantro. The last thing she tosses in are the ox tails, which she says are worth the wait for their long cooking time. It is almost second nature to Lindsay to smile and thank Khen right away for yet another delicious meal. Lindsay knows he has been spoiled with her good cooking for years, it is only a matter of time before more people try Khen’s delicious, inspired creations.
One thing is certain: she won’t be leaving this place for a while.