Featured in UCI Magazine {Winter 2014 Issue}

Featured in UCI Magazine {Winter 2014 Issue}

We are so honored to be featured in UCI Magazine. All three of us are first-generation Asian Americans and attended UC Irvine as undergraduates before beginning our journey in writing Inspired Celebrations.

Best-laid plans
While creating a book on entertaining, three alumnae learn to celebrate every day

Last spring, Ngoc Nguyen Lay ’03 visited UC Irvine’s bookstore, The Hill, to talk about her new book on entertaining, Inspired Celebrations. But what inspired many in the audience was the story she shared about how the book went from concept to coffee table.

She wrote Inspired Celebrations with the help of two fellow alumnae from the class of 2003: Tram Le, who contributed the recipes, and Caroline Tran, who took the sumptuous photos. None of them anticipated the challenges they’d encounter on the way to becoming published authors.

“It’s a party-planning book, but it has greater meaning for the three of us,” Lay says. “It’s about the journey we took.”

That journey began in spring 2010, after she’d staged everything from corporate galas to intimate dinner parties as the owner of a successful event planning business, Skybox Event Productions. “I wanted to share what I’d learned, so I just decided to write a book,” Lay says.

Undaunted by her lack of publishing experience, she outsourced anything she couldn’t do herself. For images of creative centerpieces, themed invitations and candlelit table settings, she enlisted the help of Tran, a Los Angeles-based photographer. The two had met after graduating, when Tran was shooting a mutual friend’s wedding.

For recipes, Lay turned to Le, whom she’d met her sophomore year when both worked for UC Irvine’s Student Parent Orientation Program. She knew Le was a registered dietician and followed her blog, Nutrition to Kitchen.

By November 2010, Lay had completed a book proposal and sent it to 22 publishers. A few sent letters back expressing interest in the project. Everything was going according to plan – until she lost contact with Le.

Suddenly, her emails and phone calls were going unanswered by her always reliable friend, who was living in Houston at the time. Lay soon discovered the awful reason.

Le and her husband, Phong, had been on their way home one night when another driver slammed into their car. Her husband was OK, but Le, who was seven months pregnant, had sustained a traumatic brain injury. Their daughter, Camille, was born premature two weeks later, weighing just 3 pounds, 7 ounces. Paralyzed, Le couldn’t move or even open her eyes during the baby’s birth.

“I was in the hospital for about six months. I was trying to walk and talk again and get my life together. And I had a new baby,” she recalls. “So the book was the last thing on my mind.” (See video of her recovery at www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJx_S0AIhas.)

Meanwhile, Lay had landed a publisher, Brown Books, but after learning about Le’s condition, she put the project on hold. Then a mutual friend suggested that working on the book might be good for Le: It would give her something positive to focus on during her long recovery.

“Phong asked me if I still wanted to do the book,” Le says. “I couldn’t talk, but I nodded my head. I wanted to do it because, at the time, it was one of the few fun things in my life.”

So, throughout her one-year rehabilitation at an outpatient clinic, she developed dozens of recipes for party fare, such as bacon-wrapped dates and Earl Grey tea cookies.

“I would write ideas for recipes on a computer,” Le says. “It was like my therapy. I was learning how to use my hands again. After a couple months, I was able to chop and sauté ingredients. Once I was able to eat food, I could test the recipes.”
Completing the book on time tested Lay’s planning skills as she juggled writing with running a business. “I slept very little,” she says. “At times I wanted to quit, but then I’d ask myself, ‘How can you give up when you see [Le] struggling?’” One by one, the chapters emerged – offering advice on hosting events ranging from a casual outdoor movie night to an elegant engagement party.

To meet the publisher’s deadline, Tran took all of the photographs in just 12 days. Inspired Celebrations debuted in July 2012. (See video about the making of the book at http://vimeo.com/44230864.) To the authors’ delight, the first order of 1,500 copies sold out, and a second printing will be released this fall.

Lay says she hopes the story behind the book will encourage others to follow their dreams.

“All three of us are first-generation Asian Americans,” she notes. “We all went to UC Irvine as undergraduates before getting our master’s degrees. Our parents aren’t risk takers, but we all took a chance on nontraditional careers and became businesswomen.”

“A lot of students are in our shoes, trying to figure out what to do with their lives,” Lay adds.

As a student herself, she never intended to become an author – or a professional planner. Instead, she figured on a career in student affairs, earning a bachelor’s degree in social ecology with a minor in education at UC Irvine and a master’s in student affairs at USC.

“In college, I planned things but never thought it would translate into a career,” Lay says. “It wasn’t until after grad school, when people told me, ‘We’re interested in hiring you for events,’ that I discovered it was a skill not everyone has.”

Tran, who received a bachelor’s degree in physics with minors in education and digital arts from UC Irvine and a master’s in education from UCLA, began taking pictures as a creative outlet, but her hobby evolved into a full-time job. While teaching high school physics in the Los Angeles Unified School District, she started a photography business, specializing in destination weddings.

“In six months, when the venture took off, I knew that it was what I wanted to do,” Tran says. She eventually quit teaching to pursue photography and now shares an office in Pasadena with Lay. Because she still enjoys teaching, Tran mentors other photographers through her website Propel.

Her images, which she shoots on film in natural light because she prefers the softer, romantic effect, have appeared in print and online.

Le’s career has taken a surprising turn too. She earned a bachelor’s degree in social ecology at UC Irvine and a master’s in nutrition and dietetics at Central Michigan University. After her recovery from the accident, she went to work as a dietician at the rehabilitation center. Le and her husband recently moved to Annapolis, Md., where she stays home with their toddler and keeps up with her blog. She hopes to continue promoting healthy eating and helping others regain their strength – and their lives.

“If you relish the little successes, then you can accomplish anything,” Le says. “I’m so thankful for every single day that I have.” And that’s something worth celebrating.

– Kathryn Bold, University Communications

Post Published on January 29, 2014. 

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