Leeann Chin could not keep her delectable Chinese cuisine a secret.

When the seamstress, who had emigrated to Minnesota from her native China in 1956, began to throw dinner parties at her Twin Cities home to thank customers who brought their clothes to her to mend, her entrees were so well-received that she was asked to cater parties and teach cooking classes.

The demand grew, and in 1980 she opened the first of her restaurants in Minnetonka, one of the first in the Twin Cities to offer authentic Szechwan and Cantonese cuisine.

"One thing just led to another," said her daughter Laura Chin, of Edina. "It just sort of happened."

Chin, 77, died Wednesday in Seattle, where she had been staying with her daughter, a Leeann Chin Inc. spokeswoman confirmed Friday. Chin, who has suffered from cancer, was a longtime south-metro resident who most recently had spent much of her time at her daughters' homes.

The original concept for Leeann Chin restaurants called for a sit-down venue with intricate meals and menus written in calligraphy. The food drew such large crowds that soon after opening, Chin jettisoned her initial format and went buffet-style.

"We'd spend three days preparing the food, and it would be sold out after an hour," her daughter said.

The popularity of her first 80-seat restaurant in the Bonaventure Mall across from Ridgedale led in 1984 to the opening of two others, one in St. Paul's Union Depot and the other in the International Design Center in Minneapolis.

Soon Dayton's asked Chin to open a takeout operation in the market area of its store on Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis. That location, which also opened in 1984, served an average of more than 1,000 customers per day.

Chin, who created most of the recipes, was "proud of offering quality food and being able to offer it at a good price," her daughter said.

She ran the restaurants until 1985, when General Mills bought her company and rights to the name. Chin regained the company in 1988 and remained with it until she retired in 1999. Under her direction, it evolved into a fast-food and takeout operation with counters at places such as Byerly's grocery stores. Today there are more than 40 Leeann Chin locations, most in the Twin Cities.

An accidental career

Chin had never intended to get into the restaurant business. Born in Guangzhou, China, she emigrated to Minnesota in 1956. She took classes to learn to make wedding dresses and mended clothing to earn a living while raising her five children. As word of her talent with food spread, she taught cooking classes through community education programs and at Edina's former Creative Learning Center.

Chin "touched the lives of her employees and guests with her charm and hospitality," said Mike Loney, chief operating officer of Leeann Chin Inc. "She was incredibly elegant, generous and had a contagious entrepreneurial spirit."

In addition to her daughter Laura, Chin is survived by three other daughters, Katie Chin-Jonas of Los Angeles, Jean Chin of Seattle and Linda Chin of Boston; a son, Bill of Chicago, and 11 grandchildren. Services will be held at 1 p.m. March 27 at Normandale Lutheran Church, 6100 Normandale Road, Edina.

Tim Harlow • 612-673-7768