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"She was a savant": How Leeann Chin built her Asian cuisine empire from the ground up

How Leeann Chin built her Asian cuisine empire from the ground up
How Leeann Chin built her Asian cuisine empire from the ground up 04:20

MINNEAPOLIS -- You likely know the name Leeann Chin, as her chain of Chinese restaurants is a Minnesota staple. But few know the dramatic way it all came to be. It's actually a veritable Hollywood story.

Known for its noodle dishes, wontons, and garlic-laden green beans, there are more than 40 Leeann Chin locations in Minnesota.

It was in Minnetonka in 1980 that the 47-year-old Chinese entrepreneur opened her first restaurant, a stunning feat when you understand how her life began. She passed away in 2009, but her daughter, Katie Chin, now wants to make certain her story lives on.

"People today know Leeann Chin as, you know, fast-casual kind of chain. But back in the day, the first restaurant was quite elegant," Katie said. "I feel like my mom's story is so inspirational. It's really a story of strength and resilience...There are some things that happened to our family that some familes would keep secret, But I feel like it's my responsibility to make people aware first of the struggles she faced."

Born in China in 1933, Leeann Chin was promised to be a stranger's bride when she was still a teenager.

"I remember her telling me they had lunch, and then the next thing she knew they were married and her parents left," Katie said.

The couple then immigrated to Minnesota.  

"She had to endure a lot. My father had depression and anxiety, and he would take that out on my mom. She had to raise six children in a tiny little house in south Minneapolis with one bathroom."  

Leeann Chin Chin Family

She describes her hardworking mom as devoted and stoic.

"In a lot of Asian-American families, love isn't expressed verbally or physically. Like my mother never said, 'I love you,'" Katie said. "We knew that she loved us, it's just that love was expressed through food."

Emotions and heartbreak spiraled when Katie's beloved older sister died by suicide.

"I felt like there was a cloud of shame around our home and family for many years, but I think the way we dealt with it in our culture was to pretend like it didn't happen," she said.

A seamstress by trade, making 50 cents an hour, the silently grieving mother threw herself into her cooking.

"She decide to throw a luncheon for some of her sewing clients one day to thank them, and they fell in love with her cuisine because they had never had authentic Chinese cuisine before. So they encouraged her to start teaching and to cater out of our tiny little basement," Katie said. "Eventually she saved up enough to get a yellow Ford Pinto, I remember that, and she became very successful. And so she was able to get the owner of the Minnesota Twins, Carl Pohlad, to invest in the restaurant. Carl Pohlad happened to be friends with Sean Connery, which is a crazy story."

It happened because the movie star was in town visiting his friend Robert Redford, who was filming the Oscar-winning 1980 movie "Ordinary People." Leeann Chin catered a party.  

Sean Connery and Leeann Chin Chin Family

"I was there as a little girl, serving appetizers, and I was so nervous," Katie said. "Sean Connery was exactly as you'd imagine, he was just so handsome and tall and he turned around and he was like, 'Nice dumplings.'"

Connery invested in her first restaurant, and once word got out, lines quickly formed around the block, all the while Leeann Chin worked in catering.

Leeann Chin sold her successful empire to General Mills a few years later, and Katie Chin became a Los Angeles-based chef herself. The mother-daughter duo became national TV cooking stars, and the daughter now has her own cookbook that honors her mother's recipes, including her favorite thing her mother ever cooked: chicken chow mein.

"She had no idea that this would happen to her," Katie said. "My mother's food was magical. I like to say she was a savant."

A savant who fought through the bitterness of life to find sweet success.

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