Two hours before the Chinese New Year party they were hosting last year, Leeann and Katie Chin stopped at a red light on Laurel Canyon Boulevard and were reviewing the menu for the evening. To begin with, firecracker shrimp, chicken skewers . . . and then bam! A Mercedes rear-ended them.
“That was OK,” remembers Katie. “Then my mom goes to the trunk, and it was sealed shut. We’re like ‘Aghhh!”’
That was where much of the evening’s meal, in its raw form, was sitting.
“The guy who hit us says, ‘Are you absolutely sure you need the contents of the trunk?’ ” Katie’s unequivocal answer: “Ye-e-es!”
It’s a testimony to this mother-daughter team--and to the tow-truck driver who came to the rescue--that the New Year’s party went off without a hitch.
Of course, the two are practiced hosts, especially Leeann, who owns 55 Chinese restaurants in the Midwest, all bearing her name. They’re also authors of a new cookbook, “Everyday Chinese Cooking” (Clarkson Potter, $22).
Katie, a 35-year-old senior vice president at the L.A. Office, a Los Angeles entertainment marketing agency, grew up working in the restaurants. “I was really good at volume,” she says. “I could make 10,000 shrimp toasts easily. As I got older though, the thought of throwing a dinner party became intimidating. I would do it occasionally, but it was a big project. Plus, when your mom is Leeann Chin, you have big shoes to fill.”
Over the past year or so, though, Katie has had a crash course in the art of the dinner party. Her friends, mostly 30-something industry execs, have been the beneficiaries.
It all started during one of Leeann’s regular visits. (The 67-year-old restaurateur, who grew up in Guangzhou, China, lives in Minneapolis.) Opening the freezer in her daughter’s Hollywood apartment one evening, she was horrified to find just two items: ice cream and ice. She resolved to teach her daughter how to cook the Chinese dishes she grew up with.
Soon, Leeann was flying out twice, sometimes three times a month, to join her daughter in the kitchen. They would prepare multicourse meals, often with Katie’s friends pitching in.
“We started calling it Test Kitchen Sunday,” says Kristin Nicholas, one of the 20 or so New Year’s party guests. “Whoever wanted to would come over.”
It was during these Sundays that the idea for a cookbook was born. Leeann was already at work on her third cookbook (she did two others on Chinese cooking for Betty Crocker). “It was going to be a little fancier cooking,” she says. “But after being with Katie and her friends, who would say, ‘Oh, we can do this every day, we can do this all the time,’ we changed to everyday cooking.”
The New Year’s party was, in part, a celebration of Leeann and Katie’s collaboration, which Katie calls extremely harmonious.
“She was the mastermind behind the recipes,” Katie says of her mother. “She would hand me a recipe and say, ‘Go do this. Don’t ask me questions.’ I was sort of like the guinea pig.”
Katie’s friends watched with wonder as she was transformed into a Martha Stewart. But this new Katie, armed with a chef’s knife instead of a cell phone, didn’t exactly jibe with her friends’ image of a high-powered entertainment executive. On top of that, she had accepted the role of sous chef to Leeann. It was eye-opening to see her take direction and be gracious, says one co-worker: “It’s not her M.O. in business.”
Many of Katie’s friends had another reaction. As Nicholas puts it, “If Katie can do it, anyone can learn to do it.”
On the night of the New Year’s party, however, it was mom, with a couple of assistants, who did most of the work. Katie welcomed guests, passed hors d’oeuvres and wished everyone “Gung hay fat choy"--"Happy New Year.” (To which one guest replied, “What did you say about bok choy?”)
Occasionally, Katie joined her mom at the stove. The two had already done a significant amount of prep work earlier in the day--absolutely necessary for the 13 dishes on the menu. Chicken was threaded on skewers and ready for a hot oil bath, pot stickers were already golden and needed only to be steamed, lotus root was marinating for “jewel of happiness,” and firecracker shrimp had been preassembled. (And these were just the appetizers.)
Leeann called firecracker shrimp a “new tradition.” With their carrot-strip wicks and spring roll wraps, the shrimp resemble the firecrackers so popular during the New Year’s celebration.
Chicken is far more traditional. “Every celebration meal has to have chicken,” Leeann explains, because it signifies good luck. But Leeann is generally disappointed with the flavor of chickens bred today.
So for the dinner banquet she made beautiful, glazed Cornish game hens, subtly perfumed with star anise and ginger. There was honey-barbecued pork too, because, Leeann says, pork means you will have a rich, wealthy year.
Much of the banquet’s meaning was lost on the guests, who were also unaware of the Chinese custom of keeping conversation upbeat on the New Year. “You don’t say bad things or bad words,” said Leeann. “You don’t mention deaths or injury.” Yet out on the patio, guests were bemoaning their rigorous work schedules.
And they were fretting about the evening’s dietary damage. “Any time there’s rolling oil, it’s a little bit terrifying for an L.A. person,” said one guest.
At least the group had eaten some lotus root, a symbol of happiness. Now they were digging into whole crispy fish with ginger-green onion sauce, a symbol, said Leeann, of a whole life: “A whole fish means you always have extra--extra money, extra everything.”
The feast also included shrimp blanketed in mayonnaise, crisp-skinned roast duck, fried rice dotted with peas and pork, vibrant stir-fried vegetables, and golden tofu stuffed with shrimp. This last dish, called “pile of gold” in China for its resemblance to gold bars, is another New Year’s staple, a promise of wealth in the coming year.
Black moss, a kind of seaweed, is also traditional. “But the taste is really hard for Americans,” says Leeann. “It’s really fishy. And the texture is just like hair.”
As guests savored a dessert of cool creamy mango pudding with miniature coconut walnut cookies, Katie appeared with a huge red platter. In the center were chocolates and marzipan fruit. Along the rim were small red envelopes printed with an ornate gold design. This was lucky money. “I have to give them to anyone younger than me,” said Leeann. And so, each of the guests received an envelope containing a dollar bill.
One guest planned to buy a lottery ticket with his. Another planned to save up another $3 and buy a latte at Starbucks.
Usually, Katie says, the flow of money went the opposite direction--from the guests to Leeann--in the heated poker games that typically ended New Year’s parties.
“I told all my friends to expect to have their shorts eaten by my mother,” said Katie.
But with a writer and photographer present, Leeann was playing innocent. “Poker?” she asked with a surprised look. “That’s illegal!”