Episode 30: Cooking up a storm
Cooking up a Storm
Who am I?
My name is Yia Vang. I’m a trained chef who worked in some of the Twin Cities’ best kitchens—Nighthawks, Borough, and Spoon & Stable—before starting Union Hmong Kitchen. I’m also the son of Hmong refugees. I was born in Ban Vinai, a Thai refugee camp, and moved to Wisconsin when I was 4 years old. These days, you can find me at my food trailer at Sociable Cider Werks and hosting TPT’s Relish series.
Why are we asking for your help?
Despite having the world’s largest concentration of Hmong people outside of Asia, the Hmong voice is missing from the Twin Cities food conversation. You can’t tell the story of Minnesota food without telling the story of Hmong cooking, yet many serious Minnesota foodies have never had the opportunity to try our vibrant and diverse cuisine. We are here to change that.
Our goal is to also build a space to boost the local Hmong food community. We will support local Hmong farmers through our sourcing and create a place where young Hmong food professionals can get their start.
Why a restaurant? Why now?
For the last four years, I’ve been cooking dishes my parents passed down to me through Union Hmong Kitchen, holding residencies and pop-ups across the Midwest. I’ve cooked in other people’s kitchens, in our trailer, in the heat, rain, and freezing cold. But now, I want to continue to tell my parents’ story with a restaurant experience that truly reflects what they taught me about creating community and sharing hospitality. Named after the Thai refugee camp where my parents met (and I was born), Vinai will be a place where friends and family come together to share dishes inspired by my family and experiences.
What is the Vinai restaurant concept?
Vinai will be a warm and welcoming restaurant located in the Twin Cities—location to be announced soon! It’s a tribute to my parents in many ways. The space will be fresh, bright and full of greenery, just like my mother decorated our house. At the heart of the kitchen will be a wood-fired grill, where we’ll prepare all our meats the way my father taught me. Our menu will feature large, shared main courses like grilled whole-fish snapper, tri-tip steak, and my Hilltribe grilled chicken served with braised mustard greens and seasoned with my mom’s hot sauce. We’ll also have small plates and vegetable side dishes made with local ingredients, and my family’s favorite dishes like Khao Poon and my mom’s steamed buns.
This is the Hmong food that I grew up with, that I have made my own, and that I’m so excited to share with you.
Who are the Hmong People?
Hmong people are nomadic with no country of our own, but are held together by our traditions, culture, art, and cuisine. In the 1970s, many Hmong people left Asia for the United States after the Vietnam War, which is what brought me and my family to Minnesota. We now live among the largest Hmong population in the United States and, as a chef, it’s a gift to be able to celebrate our history and traditions through food.
Celebrating my parents’ legacy through food
“Hmong food tells the history of our people, and the food I make tells the history of my parents.”
My passion and craft in cooking comes from my parents—the Hmong name they gave me, Yia, even translates to “Iron Skillet.” My father, Nhia, taught me how to grill over a pit fire in our backyard. I still remember the rush I felt the first time he handed me the tongs. I want to honor my mother, Pang, with the welcoming hospitality and service offered at Vinai, and by crafting signature dishes based on what she has taught me.
What is Hmong food?
Although it draws on various Southeast Asian flavors, ingredients, and techniques, there is no singular Hmong cuisine. Hmong food is more than just a style of cooking. For me, it is a philosophy—it’s about the value of spending time together and taking care of each other. That’s why community is at the center of my vision for a restaurant.
Hmong food is also about the perfect balance of flavors—creating the “best bite.” The four elements of a Hmong meal—protein, vegetable side, rice or noodles and hot sauce—can create a limitless number of flavor experiences. We can’t wait to innovate on this cuisine and share it with you.
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