Chef Katie Chin is the owner of Wok Star Catering in Minneapolis and the author of “Katie Chin’s Global Family Cookbook” (Tuttle Publishing). She live-streams virtual cooking Xperiences through HUNGRY and co-hosts with her daughter, Becca, “Cooped Up Cooking with Katie & Becca”, live-streamed Sundays, 3 pm PST, @chefkatiechin on Instagram.
A mother and daughter cooking together is nothing new for Chin. For many years, she cooked with her mother, Leeann Chin, who built a successful eponymous restaurant chain in the Midwest. Leeann Chin restaurants were the first to offer authentic Cantonese and Szechuan cuisine in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. The two co-authored a cookbook, “Everyday Chinese Cooking,” and started a Pan-Asian catering business together called Double Happiness. They co-hosted a PBS cooking show entitled “Double Happiness” and traveled to China to co-host an episode of Food Network’s “My Country, My Kitchen.”
Leeann Chinn passed away from complications of liver cancer in 2010. Through her shows, books, and blog, Katie Chin has worked hard to carry forward her mother’s legacy.
Leeann Chin was born in Guangzhou, China, in 1933. The daughter of a grocer, she was forced into an arranged marriage. Chin and her husband emigrated to the United States in 1956 and settled in Minnesota. She worked as a seamstress making fifty cents an hour to help provide for her family of five children.
A love of cooking and a simple act of gratitude helped change Leeann Chin’s future. Santé Magazine asked Katie Chin to share her mother’s fascinating “rags to riches” story.
Santé Magazine How did the Leeann Chin restaurant chain get started?
Katie Chin: “My mother loved to cook. One day in the 1970s my mother arranged a luncheon to thank her sewing clients. They were blown away by her dishes, authentic Chinese cuisine which they had never tasted before. They encouraged her to teach classes and to cater. A socialite friend introduced my mother to the owner [Carl Pohlad] of the Minnesota Twins and his friend, the actor, Sean Connery, who happened to be in Minneapolis visiting another friend, Robert Redford, who was in the city filming ‘Ordinary People.’
“My mother was invited to cater a party where I worked as a server. Imagine being a young girl serving Sean Connery! The Minnesota Twins owner and Sean Connery became investors in my mother’s first restaurant, Leeann Chin, which opened in Minnetonka in 1980. By the early 1980s, it had expanded to 30 restaurants. She ended up selling her company to General Mills at one point only to buy it back and grow the chain into a $50 million company. She never even went to high school.”
Santé Magazine: You shared that your mother inspired you to cook, even though that was not your first career.
Katie Chin: “Before I became a chef and caterer, I worked in entertainment as a Senior Vice President of Marketing and Promotion for 20th Century Fox. Although I had helped out my mother when I was a young girl as she was building her business, I had forgotten how to cook. I was asked to cater a party and called my mother in a panic. She bought a plane ticket and showed up on my doorstep with supplies and cooked the entire meal herself. She gave me all the credit. After opening my refrigerator and seeing only champagne and yogurt, she decided to teach me to cook. Inspired to reconnect with my culinary roots, I ended up quitting my job to pursue cooking.
“My mother taught me to taste. She was a savant, like Beethoven or Mozart when it came to her palate. She could taste anything and know how to make it. She would take a bite of food, offer it to me to taste, and ask me what the first sensation was in my mouth. She was always trying to teach and test me. She also taught me to always have a sharp knife.”
Santé Magazine: Cooking also brought you closer to your mother.
Katie Chin: “As we started cooking together, we became more like friends. She shared her story with me for the first time in her life. I knew she was a strong woman, but I had no idea of the hardships she endured living through a war. Her family abandoned her when she was twelve, fearful that the Japanese were going to bomb China. She could carry fifty pound bags of rice and master the abacus, but she had the least value to them because she was a tomboy. So, they left her with the grocery store workers for three weeks. Imagine knowing your family left you behind to possibly die!
“I learned about the sacrifices she made for her own family, staying in a terrible arranged marriage, being an immigrant Asian woman working hard to build a business in America to provide for the family. Yet, she never complained. She had such incredible resilience! She taught me if you work hard, believe in yourself, and don’t complain, you can achieve anything.”
Santé Magazine: What does cooking mean to you now?
Katie Chin: “Cooking means love. My mother could not express love through words or even hugging, but she could through her cooking. For me, cooking is preserving my mother’s memory and legacy. Cooking is a thread to preserve one generation to the next.”
Santé Magazine: In your new cookbook, “Katie Chin’s Global Family Cookbook,” what recipe reminds you most of your mother?
Katie Chin: “Many of the dishes my mother taught me were Chinese, but the California roll stands out. I liken rolling up a California roll to her parenting style which was gentle and firm.”
Refer to the Santé Magazine Recipe section for Katie Chin’s California roll recipe.
Santé Magazine: Did your mother have a special quote or saying?
Katie Chin: “She always said, ‘Happy Cooking!’ at the end of her shows. I like to end my shows and blog with this phrase.”
Santé Magazine: You lost your mother to cancer in 2010. What do you want people to remember about her success?
Katie Chin: “My mother made Chinese cuisine accessible to Midwesterners. I’m so honored to carry her torch by making Asian cuisine accessible and relatable for real people through my blog, shows, and cookbooks.”