St. Paul's humble hometown hero, Chef Yia Vang
Christy sat down with Chef Yia Vang pre-COVID-19 for an intimate, candid conversation that covered everything from the day-to-day nuances of running an enterprise, mental health, and how he feels about being one of the most well known Southeast Asian chefs in the movement.
Read along below to learn more about this legendary friend, brother, chef, and mentor.
Chef Yia Vang is the friend everyone wishes they had. When we first connected it was as if I were meeting a long lost brother, cousin, and fellow food connoisseur all in one. Down to earth, he would never consider himself any of the latter. He would humbly just tell you that he loves telling stories through his cooking, more specifically, his parents Nhia and Pang’s story.
He describes himself as a country boy. He prefers t-shirts and shorts over a chef coat, loves comic book stories, and equally geeks out on meeting big name chefs. I wanted to share some of this amazingly talented, multi-faceted human being’s accomplishments - mostly because he’s too modest to share with you.
Yia Vang’s parents are Hmong and lived in Baan Vinai refugee camp just outside of Nong Khai, Thailand after they fled Laos during the late 70s. His father was an esteemed soldier and Yia’s mother bore six children. In 1988, his family was resettled to Saint Paul, Minnesota where he continues to live, work, and foster the Hmong community. He is the co-founder, alongside his cousin and business partner, Chris Her, of Union Hmong Kitchen, a pop-up, catering, and cooking class enterprise. They specialize in open fire cooking and a spicy Tiger Bite sauce using locally sourced veggies. He is also the founder of a new brick and mortar slated for Spring 2021, Vinai, which bears the name of the camp he was raised in before resettlement. With two establishments and a growing list of accolades under his belt, Yia never cares to be in the spotlight. Family is always centrifugal, because family is the foundation.
Growing up as a young, Hmong refugee kid in Minnesota wasn’t that far off from rural life in Laos. Vang’s parents continued their Hmong traditions while cultivating on this new foreign land. To this day they still butcher whole hogs and grow their own vegetables. The Hmong are an ethnic hill tribe people with no designated country to call home. They make wherever they settle home, because the people are the home. This is something Chef Yia wants his eaters to understand. It’s not about the food per se, it’s about the people preparing and sharing the food. The experience of joining as a family and passing hands is the history behind the dish.
For Yia, the history he wants to share is not the story of Hmong people, because it’s such a big burden, but the journey of his parents.
“I’m telling the story of my mom and dad. If people look and say that’s a great story of Hmong people, that’s cool too, but it’s really about mom and dad. The moment you step into my family’s house, and take off your shoes until you put them back on; that’s Hmong food. It’s not actually the physical food, I want to get our people beyond that. It’s more of a philosophy, it’s Hmong food because you’re Hmong. Our people gleen, it’s whatever you make out of what you have. It’s about the leftovers you’re gonna take home with you. It’s about the conversation we had while you were here. It’s about how you feel after you’ve shared the meal.
You know people say it’s sad that Hmong people didn’t have any land of our own, but I say don’t be sad, that means we’re free — free to go wherever we want. Think about Italians, you’re bound to cook a certain food depending on your region. What is Hmong food, what if you move to Bozeman, Montana and can’t grow Thai basil? What then? Is your dish any less Hmong? You can’t say what you made isn’t Hmong food just because it’s not lemongrass chicken. It’s Hmong food because you made it.”
Let’s dig a little deeper into the process and the passion behind Chef Yia Vang’s culinary journey.
What do you like about cooking?
You get to take nothing and create something from it. You get to express yourself. Every time we go somewhere to do an event, first thing people ask us “is this spicy?” I get frustrated with that because I don’t go up to someone and say, “is this bland?” I can’t do that!
In the past, I would get upset, and think I should tone the food down a bit, but then decided not to. Now I’ve realized that this may be their first introduction to Hmong food. Instead, I tell them to just try a little bit and see if they like it, and they usually come back. I could brush them off, but with food it’s like that barrier and if you get past that then you can engage and connect.
Tell me about your process.
We just gotta get the job done. I want to bring Hmong food to people but we can't do that unless we teach them how to eat Hmong food. With most restaurants it’s ‘this is mine, I ordered this’ very Eurocentric attitude. It’s a possessiveness that’s bull crap. At Hmong Union Kitchen (MN) we started what we call a large protein format that feeds between 2 to 3 people for about $30 and is meant to be shared family style. What we’re pushing people to do is eat together. They are coming in larger groups, 4 tops, 6 tops. They order a couple of different meats and side dishes so they can try a little bit of everything. When we grew up we didn’t call this family style; we just call it dinner, but it changes the way people eat. We can buy more from our farmers and support the locals this way, but we can also bring more people together. In Hmong culture, we don’t cook for one person we cook for the family.
What’s a day in the life of Yia like?
Usually I take morning meetings, and do my prep. When we have all of our produce laid out and at the end it’s all prepped, mise en place, that’s satisfaction. It's this process that I love; cleaning veggies. All the little things provide a calm. I like going around and cleaning up after all the cooks, sometimes I feel like a mom. Breaking boxes down, sweeping, mopping.
Monday’s are usually office days, so it’s a lot of answering emails. It’s a lot of hand holding. We’ve been getting a lot of catering requests and also requests from non-profits. When we get an email that right off the bat says ‘we’re a nonprofit,’ I know that means they don’t have any money to pay.
Christy: “Which is exactly how you met me!”
“Well, when we met you, we weren’t that busy!”
How do you keep grounded?
I have a group of guy friends from college that I’m still very close to. These are they guys who’ve been with me through everything. We meet up every year for a guys trip. Ten years consistently, we’ve made a commitment that wherever we are in the world we’re gonna meet up. We’ve cried together through loss, we’ve supported each other. When I was laid off, jobless, they let me crash on their couch and took care of me. It’s not competitive because I think we are each other's number one fans. Cheerleaders. I’m very blessed to have that. There’s six of us, and we recognize it isn’t normal for people to have friendships like this, it’s something really special.
They are all leaders in their own communities. A lot of them aren’t foodies. When they come visit I’ll say, ‘let me tell me about this 35 year aged steak we’re gonna eat tonight and they are like what’s the cheapest thing I can get from Aldi?’
They still treat me exactly the same. I think they are proud of me, and didn’t realize I was a good cook, they just knew I liked to cook. I have a friend who’s a doctor, so he’ll call me and check on me, ask about my health. He’ll drive the five hours to come see me or just to support a pop-up. Those are the people I need around me, and I want to be able to take care of them.
I always hear you talking about how you need to take care of the people you love. Who takes care of you?
Uhh, I don’t know. I get yelled at by my girlfriend Mary a lot for not taking care of myself. She’s white, but she’s gonna be such a great Asian tiger mom some day because she’s always barking at me.
I compare myself to my father. When I look at my problems I always compare it to my parents. I ask myself, ‘Why are you complaining when your feet are sore? You wanna complain, try walking through the jungle barefoot.’
Anxiety is not a real thing in Hmong culture. To cope, I binge on lots of trashy shows and Netflix. I dork out, I’m a closet comic book nerd. I love movies because I love stories. These are great questions, did you talk to Mary? Self care is real, and we, especially in the Asian community we don’t talk about it. You only see a professional when you go crazy, but I also have been seeing a counselor, so that’s been good. I think a lot of what he says I already know but I need to hear it. Sometimes I just feel Iike I have to say ‘yes’ to everything because if not me, then who? I have to make the message clear though, so now I feel the need to say, ‘Yes.’
Has most of the backlash been from Hmong people?
Oh absolutely, white people can’t do that.
We got some pushback from some stuff, and I took it really hard. We’ve got some comments from Hmong people that were crude, but some that were also really supportive, and Chris and I felt really proud.
People were saying ‘you’re bastardizing our peoples food just to get a name for yourself.’ It’s interpretation vs intention, I was a communications major in college so I’m kind of obsessed with getting my message clear. It’s hard to fall asleep at night because I’m always thinking what’s the next step? How do I say this right? How do I represent myself and my people correctly?
What is it about you that has led to your success?
I don’t think it’s me at all. Knowing how to talk to people, to take care of people; I think that all comes from my mom and dad. We moved to Pennsylvania for a bit, and my parents made sure they took care of everyone. My dad was at church cutting grass, cooking, bringing food to people and they still do that to this day. Whatever community they are involved with, my father naturally became the leader. He didn’t take leadership, people just listened to him. When injustice happens, he stands up and fights.
My dad is a very humble man. When people find out I’m his son, it’s like an unspoken respect I’ve gained. In Hmong, your father’s name carries a lot of weight. People will come shake my hand and say, “your father is a great man,” but he would never say that himself.
He was in the military, he fought in the war. My grandma told me that my father was one of the most respected men in our village. He gave all that up to come to America and work as a janitor for minimum wage. He’s taught me almost everything I know. My dad taught me how to cook over fire. People always ask why I don’t use a grill, because it’s much easier. But life for my parents was never easy. I don’t care, we’re going to cook over fire even if we’re standing in the middle of snow. We’re going to do it the traditional way. All this is for him.
You don’t think any of your success can be attributed to your own hard work?
Yeah, I guess there’s some hard work. Whatever I do I carry their name with me. A few years ago my dad had a bad accident and ended up in the hospital. I started changing the way I work, it started to change the way I thought about food. I’ve kind of been the screw-up and I’d say to my parents, “I’ll do better, and I’m trying.” When my dad got sick, my view of urgency changed. It became my WHY. It’s watching your father who is a hero, who’s given his life for you, lying helpless on a hospital bed.
You ask yourself, ‘do I have more? Can I still give more?’ I want them to turn on the TV someday and see me. I want them to see their story in national news, in the Wall Street journal. It’s very important that the cameras see that my mom and my dad have been the fire behind me.
My mom was on the front page of the Star Tribune, literally one of the biggest papers in Minnesota, a full page photo of her making baos. She was just like, ‘oh that’s nice.’ My dad is such a big nerd, he’s retired now but he looks bored because he’s been working his whole life. For thirty some years he’s been waking up at 5am working. He doesn’t know what to do with himself.
Are you okay with the non-verbal affirmation of your parents?
Yeah, I’m okay with the non-verbal affirmation. I know they are proud of me. They are happy. They just want to see us kids happy. They are not like Western parents you know.
Are you proud of you?
I’m excited. I’m proud of what we do. There are many things where I feel like we’ll just figure this out along the way, and when I talk to big name chefs I realize they are doing the exact same thing which makes me feel like we’re doing something right.’
What do you think your role in the family is now?
To not screw up!
Hmong men are usually being babied by their moms. Women run the household. My mom had an iron fist, but when mom was so mad and she sent you to dad for discipline it was even worse. My dad wasn’t a typical Hmong guy. He always held us to very high standards. It was on us to take care of our siblings, as a boy, not in a macho way, but I grew up with the knowledge that I should as a man take care of my siblings. I realize that’s not typical. Typically, the Hmong women here are working two jobs and their Hmong husbands aren’t doing anything. I just didn’t see that in my family. My dad set an amazing example for us. Us not going to college was not even a question. It’s my responsibility to carry that. I didn’t realize how great of a father I had until I started talking to other people.
Now as an adult, I realize that we had rough things happen in our family. My parents had money issues, marital issues, health issues. We never knew that, they protected us from that. They took all the pain and I want to do that for them. My cooking is a reflection of what I came from.
Do you see parallels in your people not having a homeland and you not having a home kitchen?
Let me tell you something deeper. All of this was not my idea. Hmong people are one generation passing to the next generation to keep them steady so the next generation can go on. Especially people without a home. We people prepare the next generation, that’s what my parents did.
In middle school my parents finally bought a house. My dad said, ‘this is our home now. Every month when I pay the mortgage a piece of it belongs to us.’ I was like, ‘Dad, what are you talking about?’ I didn’t understand. That was when mom and dad started explaining what equity was to me.
A lot of Hmong people are now buying if they can. I think they finally want to own something. For many of them they are coming from a place where they’re not sure they’re gonna live through the night. The last thing you’re thinking is ‘I’m gonna someday have this big house in America.’
What advice would you give to a younger you?
Shut up and listen. I was so eager to be a leader that I stopped listening. I think leadership places a tough responsibility on your shoulders and once you understand that responsibility you realize the depth of what that is. I would tell myself to find an elder to mentor you. Learn from them. Learn from their mistakes. Don’t put them as your God, but listen to them. Also, have patience. I think the immigrant narrative is just: come here, do whatever you want and you’re gonna make it, but that’s not the reality. Be okay with things not happening right away. I think the stories that are featured are these kids that are 18, 19, and this amazing thing happened to them, but those are the anomalies.
Lastly, surround yourself with friends, family, and the people who really love you — that’s really important.
How does it feel being the most widely recognized Hmong American Chef?
I don’t know. I just wanna help engage in my community. I see it and recognize it, but I’m not that comfortable with it yet. We love what we do. Lately I’ve been asked to do a lot of speaking gigs, and there was a fancy event at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. I went in a t-shirt and jeans and everyone was all dressed up. There was a panel I was on where everyone (except me) was a James Beard nominee, and I was like “oh frick!”
I was in the green room freaking out. I thought, ‘what am I doing here?’ There were all these different important people; authors, food writers, and big, big chefs. They asked us, ‘What are you trying to do? What’s your purpose?’ The thing that kept coming to my heart was, ‘I wanna be a voice to the voiceless.’ When I think of the voiceless, I can think of these bigger picture issues, but I really just think of my mom and dads. Here’s my mom that’s been feeding me for 34 years; this same hand that has fed all of her kids, her grandkids, and is still feeding them. It’s so interesting, over the summer all the nieces and nephews, cousins, and siblings were at my parents house hanging out. My nephew was running around with his shirt off, 3 years old, and she’s chasing him down saying “you gotta eat, you gotta eat” he kind of looked at her confused because we just ate, it was like 10 or 11 o'clock. But she was worried about him going hungry. She was already thinking about the next meal. She’s always making sure all of her kids are fed.
We just got a really great deal with a cool brewery here, we’ll be their first guys in there which is kind of like a pop-up residency for the next three to six months (Sociable Ciderworks). Some people say get your restaurant started, some say don’t worry about the restaurant. Sometimes I still feel a little bit inadequate because we don’t have our own space, but we need to learn how to talk to investors, convey that it’s not just a trendy thing we want to do. If I open a restaurant, it’s not for Yia, it’s for my community. It’s for young Hmong kids who are interested in culinary, and I can teach them the skills they need for six months instead of them going to a French school. They can come here and still be Hmong.
If the restaurant gets us the platform to tell this story of this man and woman who sacrificed everything then I’ll do it. If it means I have to go to New York to tell it, I will. I want their legacy to be known. That’s my mission now. Whether it’s in a restaurant or we’re popping up. When people come to eat our food I want them to know what it was like to grow up in our house. I want to create a restaurant when you walk in, you’re family. You’re our brothers and sisters.
Thankfully, we’re still making money from the pop-ups. Food Network has called. We’re working with a cookbook writer. There’s a connection with DreamWorks. I feel really anxious, what do I choose? We just hired a PR company, but I think we’ve kind of capped our organic growth, so if we don’t have someone out there on a national level representing us it’s hard to grow beyond Minnesota. Most producers, writers, critics aren’t going to be coming to Minnesota searching for Hmong chefs.
I want to make sure we control our narrative. I want to share the whole story. How do we do that? I want to stay approachable, I just don’t want to sound douchey.
A special shoutout to Chef Yia Vang and his parents for allowing their story to be told. Tuk Tuk Box is honored to feature their work and their food.
To follow Yia’s journey, find him at his new restaurant opening 2021 @Vinai or his pop-up @UnionKitchenMN or unionkitchenmn.com
All photos: courtesy of Yia Vang