Public Radio International with Katie Chin
by Katie Chin, Tastemaker in Residence
Leeann Chin grew up in Guangzhou, China.
One of 10 kids, she was surrounded by food — her father owned a grocery store. And while the family wasn’t rich, it was prosperous enough to have a family cook, whom Leann followed around in the kitchen and at the markets.
Leeann’s daughter, Katie Chin, is a food writer whose latest book is called "Everyday Chinese Cooking: 101 Recipes from my Mother’s Kitchen."
She takes up her mom's story:
"My mother was match-made to my father in Hong Kong, when she was 18 years old," she says. "She moved in with someone she had never met, including her mother-in-law, and although she followed around the family cook, she actually didn't know how to cook: she wasn't hands-on cooking.
"So she had to teach herself. Her mother-in-law was quite critical. She always complained. She dove in, and I think she found cooking to be an escape."
Katie Chin's parents emigrated to Minnesota in 1956. She says there were very few Asians there at the time.
Leeann told her daughter that she would sit in their Minnesota basement on a chest and just cry because she didn't speak English and it was 10 degrees below zero. Plus, she says, at the time, the community was largely Norwegian and Scandinavian.
Leeann remembered wonderful neighbors, yet she didn't feel like she could relate to anyone around her, plus she couldn't even find ginger at the grocery store.
So Leeann improvised. She grew a garden: Beans and bok choi and eggplant. And, little by little, she started being able to cook the dishes that she really loved.
"My mother was a seamstress," says Katie Chin. "She had learned how to sew in China. She was making $0.05 an hour as a seamstress, working out of our home, with five small children. She would whip up these amazing Cantonese dishes for us, but we wanted hamburger helper.
"She decided to cook a luncheon for some of her sewing clients one day, and they couldn't believe how delicious her food was. Because back in the day all they had was chow mein and chop suey. They encouraged her to start teaching classes, and to cater."
A helping hand from 007
Katie Chin remembered the orgins of her mother's catering operation in their basement. When other kids were going to mall or ice-skating at the park, she was frying pork pieces in the basement, "gritting my teeth and wishing I was at the mall," she says.
"We all chipped in, I mean that's the Chinese way. She became very popular and she met a socialite who wanted to make my mom a star. So she encouraged her to open a restaurant and was able to get the owner of [Major League Baseball's] Minnesota Twins and Sean Connery to invest in the first restaurant."
"I was in high school, and I didn't see her — I barely saw her at all. But I knew something really magical was happening to her," Katie says.
The Leeann Chin restaurant chain was born. It grew in the Twin Cities until the 1980s, when another Minnesota company, General Mills, bought the company for "millions of dollars." General Mills was going to take Leeann Chin national — but the expansion faltered. Chin's family bought the chain back and they focused on their base in the upper Midwest.
The family sold the chain again in 2007, but Leeann Chin restaurants are still very much a thing in Minnesota.
Passing it on
Katie Chin didn't envision the food world for her future. She says she wanted to do something completely different. She went to school to study marketing and moved to LA.
Leeann and Chin. Credit: Courtesy of Katie Chin "One day I decided to throw a dinner party for some clients, and I realized I had forgotten how to cook," she says. "I could do 500 shrimp toasts, no problem, but a dinner party was a completely different thing. So I kept calling my mom, and she was, like, 'I can't believe this!' So she got on a plane with frozen lemon chicken, showed up on my doorstep, cooked the entire meal for my clients, and let everyone think I had cooked it."
A few years ago, Leeann Chin was diagnosed with liver cancer. Katie says when her mother became more ill she really honed in on teaching her everything that she knew about cooking.
"Through cooking together in the kitchen, she felt like she could open up and tell me about some of the hardships she'd endured: Being match-made to someone she didn't like, having an overbearing, cruel mother-in-law, having a business as a minority woman and being discriminated against.
"All these things she never really talked about, because you don't burden your children with these things in Chinese culture. But I think she felt like ... becoming a bit more American actually, and opening up to me as her daughter."
Before she passed away, Leeann Chin had to go to the hospital.
"My sister called the ambulance — she was living with my sister at the time — and as they're lifting her into the ambulance, she calls out to my sister: 'Don't forget to eat the pork pieces in the oven!'"