Chef, teacher and entrepreneur, Leeann Chin talks about her early years living in China, the struggles she faced in opening her first restaurant, and the traditional role in Asian culture that she was expected to follow as a woman and a wife.

What happened next?

This interview with Leeann Chin was originally broadcast in 1992. At this point, she had sold the rights to her name and her three restaurants to General Mills in 1985. But three years later, she bought it all back. At the time of this interview, the US economy was in the midst of a recession, but Leeann Chin’s business saw only slightly weaker sales – and a significant uptick in the number of real estate agents and building owners who wanted to fill their vacant spaces with tried-and-true money-making tenants.

The years following this interview were tenuous. A volatile business relationship began in 1993 when former General Mills executive Ron Fuller – who had served as the brand’s general manager when it was owned by the company – was named the president of Leeann Chin, Inc. A year later, Chin’s husband Tony (whose lack of support looms large in this interview) passed away. The following year, Chin founded the Leeann Chin Foundation and her daughter Laura (who is mentioned in this interview as an asset to the restaurant business) took the reins as president of the foundation, while Chin, herself, took a leave of absence from her half-time position with the company. When CEO Ron Fuller resigned in 1996, Leeann Chin returned as head of the board of directors.

In 1997, the Leeann Chin company brought on a new CEO: Stephen A. Finn. Unlike previous corporate partnerships, Finn saw Chin as a key asset to the brand, bringing the company back to Chin’s original vision and concept. Whereas previous CEO’s had focused on expanding the brand’s suite of products – adding on full bar service and marketplaces – Finn’s leadership brought the brand’s signature sauces into existing markets beginning in 1998.

Leeann Chin retired in 1999. Today, the company has more than 50 restaurants nationwide.

Up until her passing at age 77 in 2010, Chin continued to enjoy making and sharing food with friends and loved ones. She wrote three cookbooks and hosted the PBS cooking show Double Happiness with her daughter Katie who continues to carry on the tradition of creating accessible Asian cuisine.

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This story is made possible by the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund and the Friends of Minnesota Experience.

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