A gorgeous summer day on the lake awaited DJ Stokes and a friend who came to town to belatedly celebrate their birthdays.

Stokes made a schedule switch and got the day off from his sous chef duties at Hai Hai in northeast Minneapolis and joined friends for some kickback time on Lake Minnetonka.

Hai Hai owner Christina Nguyen, who saw her prized kitchen employee the day before and heard of his plans, said, "He was beaming and so excited to go out on the lake."

But that outing turned tragic early in the evening of July 16, when a woman from the group of nine fell in the water and, without a life jacket, struggled to stay afloat. Stokes and two other women went in after her.

The three women made it back to the pontoon. Stokes did not and drowned one week after his 29th birthday.

The Hennepin County Sheriff's Water Patrol recovered the St. Paul man's body Monday from the lower lake area northeast of Big Island in roughly 55 feet of water. The recovery took four days because of stormy weather and strong winds that made sonar use difficult, said sheriff's spokesman Andy Skoogman.

Nguyen said that even in the six months since he joined the Hai Hai family, Stokes had become a staff favorite for his culinary skills and personality.

"He was very positive and excited and always had a great attitude," Nguyen said Thursday. "He never cooked Southeast Asian food before. He picked it up fast. … He was excited about the new flavors. And everybody loved him too."

Nicole Daniels met Stokes about three years ago through mutual friends and enjoyed the Minneapolis scene with him and being a guest at his home for dinner.

"He'd cook for his friends and try new dishes for us to taste-test," Daniels said. "The way he would plate, it was like you have your own private restaurant."

She said she hopes her friend's death brings the importance of boating safety to the forefront.

A statement from Sheriff David Hutchinson gave a nod to Stokes' quick actions on the lake and said the young man's death was "especially sad when someone loses their life attempting to save another."

Nguyen has set up a GoFundMe page to help Stokes' family with funeral expenses.

Nguyen's next duty is to tend to a gathering at Hai Hai on Aug. 3 for co-workers, friends and family from his native Chicago and elsewhere.

Soon after Stokes died, Nguyen read a Facebook posting he made after being hired at Hai Hai. She said he expressed how proud he was to win a salaried spot in the kitchen of such a highly regarded dining destination not long after losing his job when the City Works sports bar in downtown Minneapolis closed for good.

"That made my heart break when someone showed it to me," Nguyen said. "It made me cry."

Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482