The Tragic Death Of Iconic Restaurateur Madame Wu

The world knew her as Sylvia Wu, and she was as iconic as the guests she served. The Los Angeles Times said that during its glory days, Madam Wu's Garden made Peking duck for actress turned Princess Grace Kelly and bird's nest soup for Mae West. She served Wu's Beef, made with steak, onions, and oyster sauce to Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow. She modified dishes for the likes of Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston, and Paul Newman, who were not too keen on authentic Chinese food. Per USA Today, she even came up with the idea of creating the now-iconic chicken salad with lettuce and cabbage, wonton strips, and tossed with a peanut or sesame dressing — an idea, The Los Angeles Times says — which came from Cary Grant.

Wu died at the age of 106 on September 29. The LA Times, which broke the news of her death, said the legendary restaurateur is survived by her sons George and Patrick as well as her grandchildren. She was predeceased by her husband who died in 2011, and by her daughter Loretta, who had cancer and passed away in 1979.

Madame Wu was born Sylvia Cheng in 1915 in Jiujiang, in China's northern Jiangxi province, per The Los Angeles Times. She grew up in a well-to-do home with her grandfather and often spent time in the kitchen watching the cooks prepare their meals — an experience that helped shaped Wu's impressions of food.

Madam Wu's Garden was a Hollywood Icon

After the Japanese invaded China in the second Sino-Japanese war, Sylvia Cheng escaped to British-run Hong Kong where she first met King Yan Wu — the man who would become her husband. But she didn't stay in Hong Kong, instead choosing to travel to the United States, on her own, where she studied at Columbia Teachers College in New York and became reacquainted with King Wu. They would go on to marry and have three children, according to The Los Angeles Times.

The Wus relocated to Southern California for King's work, and it was then Sylvia became inspired to start her own restaurant; she was tired of eating substandard Chinese meals. She famously told USA Today, "Chop suey everywhere. All you see are chop suey houses," per The Los Angeles Times.

Her first restaurant, which opened in 1959, was located on Santa Monica's Wilshire Boulevard. The second, a much larger one, opened ten years later in an area a block from her first and would be known as Madame Wu's Garden. But Wu wasn't just a restauranteur and cookbook author, she was a humanitarian too. Her daughter's death inspired her to do charity work for the City of Hope cancer center.

Wu served her versions of Chinese classics that Hollywood luminaries enjoyed. The restaurant may have closed in 1998, but Wu, like the stars she served and with her memorable Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud, was never forgotten.