A Mother’s Touch

When your mom is a well-known chef and restaurateur, the prospect of following in her footsteps is daunting. Why and how Katie Chin ultimately wound up doing exactly that.

  • Category
  • Written by
    Katie Chin
  • Illustrated by
    Yasmine Kahsai

“Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I will understand.” – Chinese proverb

As a young Chinese American girl growing up in Minneapolis, I often gritted my teeth when my mom asked me to help make potstickers or roll up egg rolls in our basement. My parents had emigrated from Guangzhou, China, and my mother, Leeann Chin, ran a catering business from our tiny home in the ’70s. My siblings and I were her team of guileless sous chefs (it is the Chinese way, after all). We just wanted to be blonde, Norwegian and carefree like everyone else around us.

Looking back on my childhood, I’m awed by my mother’s dedication and unwavering patience in teaching us, even as toddlers, how to pleat dumplings or master the art of making velvety Cantonese stir-fry sauces. She was a perfectionist, a general whose expectations were as high for us as they were for her. We stood at attention.

Her drive, talent and attention to detail led her to build a 50-plus eponymous restaurant chain, which still exists in Minnesota. It was a miraculous feat, considering my mother never attended high school and started out as a seamstress making 50 cents an hour.

Eighteen years ago, after a successful career as a film and TV marketing executive, I did something that I never would have guessed I’d do. I became a chef and cookbook author, ultimately following in my mother’s footsteps.

I was throwing a dinner party for some clients and realized I had completely forgotten how to cook. I kept calling my mother for advice and the next thing I knew, she boarded a plane for LA with a carry-on of frozen lemon chicken. She cooked the entire meal but let everyone think I had cooked it. She was just that kind of mom.

On that same trip, she opened my nearly empty fridge and was mortified. I thought that by becoming a senior vice president at a major film studio I’d make her proud. But in fact, I’d done the opposite by forgetting how to cook!

I suddenly felt inspired. Cooking became a means to make sense of my cultural identity and to embrace my heritage. Getting to spend hours in the kitchen with my mom became a bridge between her past and my present and future.

I was under her tutelage once again as we formed a catering business together, co-hosted the PBS cooking series Double Happiness, made appearances together on the Today show and traveled to China to host a special for the Food Network. She was the toughest boss I ever had—even after spending all those years in Hollywood, where I had some doozies.

My mother passed away nine years ago. I still hear her voice in my head when I cook. “Make sure the water comes to a rolling boil before you blanch those pea pods,” or “Don’t forget to test the oil with a scrap of dumpling wrapper to make sure it’s hot enough.”

And now, as a mom to 11-year-old twins, I try to involve them in cooking as much as possible, so they too develop a lifelong love of Chinese cuisine. With every fold of a wonton and with every mince of fresh ginger, her memory lives on.

Katie Chin lives in Encino. She is founder of Wok Star Catering and is currently working on her fifth cookbook.