The Hmong-American chef tells his refugee family’s story through food.
By Yia Vang as told to Julie Kendrick
After working his way around Minneapolis’ fine dining scene, Yia Vang started Union Hmong Kitchen, conducting pop-up events all over the Twin Cities. Now, following a successful Kickstarter campaign, he’s poised to open his first brick-and-mortar location, Vinai, which is named for the Thai refugee camp where his parents met and where he was born.
I used to think a bologna and cheese sandwich was just the best food ever. Those perfect layers when you cut it open—that’s always what I wanted for lunch when I was growing up. But that’s not what food was like at my house. It was rice, it was grilled meat, it was vegetables. The way my mom cooked. There were no bologna sandwiches, ever.
We’re Hmong, which means we’re descendants of people who lived in isolated mountain villages in southeast Asia, mostly in Laos. About 70 years ago, war came to the area, with the French and the northern Communists. In the late 1960s, when the Vietnam War spread into Laos, the United States recruited the Hmong to fight against communism. My dad joined the army at age 12, helping the United States. The promise the US made to the Hmong was that if you fight with us, win or lose, we’ll give you citizenship in America. That really made a difference when the US pulled out in 1975. The Hmong families left behind were slaughtered by the Communists.
But the ones who got out went to refugee camps first, before they came here. My parents met at Ban Vinai, a camp in Thailand. That’s where I was born—my name means “Iron Skillet.” I’m one of seven kids. We ended up in the Twin Cities.
When I was growing up, I had a typical immigrant kid’s reaction to food. I wanted the All-American stuff, not what we ate at home. I wished my mom would make spaghetti and Prego sauce, but that never happened. Instead, we’d get a whole pig twice a month, and we’d gather around and start breaking it down together. I think I got my first boning knife from my dad when I was nine. I learned how to break down sides of pigs and whole chickens before I learned how to ride a bike or throw a ball.
I started cooking in restaurants when I was a dumb college kid. I thought everybody knew how to do the things I had learned at home. I worked at Nighthawks, Borough, and Gavin Kaysen’s Spoon & Stable. Cooking wasn’t my Plan A, B, or C – it was more like Plan D. I just figured if everything failed, the world always needed cooks.
But like every stupid college kid, I was running from who I was. I was learning a lot of things, but for my own selfish reasons. I wanted to be a better cook. I wanted to see if I could hack it and be of those guys—this was heavy in the time when people were worshipping the Anthony Bourdains of the world.
I’m one of those people who have to have things connect for me in order to commit to it. I couldn’t do well in office jobs, that’s for sure, but also at some point I also began to realize I wasn’t interested in cooking just for the sake of cooking any more. And around the same time, I started realizing how many of my friends who were born and raised here had generations of family all around them. They’d tell me, this road is named for my great grandfather, who farmed here, or here’s a book I found that belonged to my grandparents. I thought man, this really sucks. We have nothing here. We’re just passengers.
I was frustrated and sad and acted like I didn’t care. I realize now that I was running away from who I was, but I was running in a circle. That became clear when my dad had a health scare. He slipped on a ladder at work and fractured his skull. He was in the ICU for two months. Seeing him laying there, this war hero, this hero of mine, connected to all these tubes, so fragile—I kept thinking this is not the way heroes are supposed to go. I mean, he survived the war and he slipped on a stupid ladder. I kept thinking about his legacy.
I remember leaving the hospital feeling so frustrated with myself. I thought that if he dies, no one will know any of his story. That kicked me in the butt to get serious about cooking Hmong food. I don’t give a turd about awards or people’s approval. I have to do what I have to do to tell people the story of my parents. After that medical scare with my dad, it drove me harder and made me keep moving.
I started thinking about what Hmong food is. I mean, we are a displaced people who don’t have a country of our own. You can’t find Hmongland on a map. Hmong people are held together by traditions, culture, art, and cuisine. So what does it mean to cook Hmong cuisine?
Our stories have always been integrally woven into the foods we eat. We can’t talk about our people without talking about our food. Put us in the middle of nowhere, and we’ll find a way to use the food around us to tell our story. For me, Hmong food is a philosophy of spending time together and taking care of each other.
I started cooking Hmong food in residencies and pop-ups across the Midwest. I cooked in other people’s kitchens, in our trailer at Sociable Cider Werks, in every season and crazy weather. And a lot of people hadn’t tasted food like this before, and they hadn’t heard the stories of our people before.
Now, all that stuff in the culinary world that mattered before doesn’t matter to me. I talk to young cooks, and they say I wanted to stage here, go there, and I think, “One day you’ll look in the mirror and ask who am I and what am I about?” And if you can answer that question honestly, you’ll be a better cook. That’s what I want to do. I want to honor my parents who sacrificed so much, and I want to tell their story.
So now I’m looking at opening my own place, which will be named for the refugee camp where my parents met and where I was born—Vinai. We ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to help build out of the kitchen, specifically the woodfire grill. That’s not because a grill is what all the sexy people are doing right now. It’s because it’s very Hmong to start a fire and throw food on top.
We want to support local Hmong farmers through our sourcing and create a place where young Hmong food professionals can get their start. Since the whole idea of the place is to celebrate a communal experience, I felt like crowdfunding was the right way to signal that sense of community right at the start. And I’m hoping that going with crowdfunding as an investment strategy that will allow me to be the owner, not a whole bunch of investors.
We’re going to have a family-style menu—we just call that “dinner,” but whatever—with the four elements of a Hmong meal … protein, rice, veg, and hot sauce. The sharing of food is so important. When we were kids and arguing over who would get the drumstick, my dad would say, when you say this is mine, you have less, but when you say this is ours, you have more.
Hmong food isn’t about making a plate that’s zhuzzy and sexy so people will take pictures of it. That’s Eurocentric. We are about gathering together, so that’s what the menu reflects. And there’s going to be a rice cart, like the breadsticks at Olive Garden.
Everything we’re planning is going to celebrate my parents and their story. We’re going to have plants everywhere, because my mom loves them—I always say you can take the Hmong mom out of the jungle, but you can’t take the jungle out of the Hmong mom. And we’re going to have a steam bun station where my mom and auntie can work. We’re going to have a 10-top right in the center of the kitchen, so you’ll feel like you’re eating in someone’s kitchen. My dad escaped Vietnam by lashing three pieces of bamboo together and floating across the Mekong River to the refugee camp. So our outdoor grill echoes those three pieces of wood in a triangle shape.
The restaurant will reflect me and my family and our people. I always say, we are an echo of the past but we get to write our future.
With the closing of restaurants in Minnesota, we pivoted to family-style meals that people can order and pick up. That ban on more than 10 people gathering is hard on us, because our families usually are so big that 10 people is pretty much just members of an immediate family. On Saturday, March 13th, my business partner and I said, let’s figure this out, so we built a little website for orders and launched it the following Monday morning. Customers have been supportive. One woman who lives in Los Angeles ordered a meal for her friend who lives here.
That’s the thing about the restaurant industry that amazes me. No matter how hurt we are, we still will do our best to provide food for people. It’s a curse and a blessing, I guess. Cooks can be dealing with health issues, mental health issues, and maybe they should be stopping to do self care, but they aren’t. They’re still cooking and putting out darn good food. We still make food, you can’t take that away from us.
I have three pieces of advice: One, don’t lose hope. Two, keep busy, because the moment we stop for too long, we’ll feel sorry for ourselves and lose hope. And three, be creative and think outside of the box. If there was ever a time to do that, it’s now. There’s a hustle and a grit in this industry that will see us through. You know, in a restaurant, if the toilet starts leaking right before service, you don’t have time to call a plumber—you figure out how to fix it yourself. My dad does that all the time. I call it Hmong-Gyvering.
All of our catering gigs for the rest of the month have cancelled, which is about $12,000 worth of sales. We had a bat mitzvah scheduled, and they had paid in full. The dad called me last Thursday to cancel and said, “I don’t want the refund, I know that right now a lot of people are cancelling, and I want you to be able to take care of your guys. But can you still make the food we ordered and put it into smaller packages so we can take it to friends and family who are quarantined?” One of their friends tweeted about it, and then it ended up on a BuzzFeed roundup of inspiring stories. MoveOn and Kristen Bell posted it. I’ve heard from a lot of journalists. They are confused why Hmong food would be served at a bat mitzvah, but I loved that idea—two cultures literally coming together. That’s what we’re all about here.