Yia Vang never wanted to be a chef. It’s a surprising confession from the celebrated Minneapolis Hmong chef, who’s developed a deep fan base thanks to his award-winning pop-ups, jovial personality and larger-than-life presence. But despite the accolades and honors — including a James Beard Best Chef finalist nod this year — the 37-year-old still feels like he let his refugee immigrant parents down by chasing a career in the kitchen rather than the corner office. He hopes to rectify that this summer with the debut of his highly anticipated restaurant, Vinai, which he declares a love letter to his mom and dad.
One of the first dedicated Hmong restaurants in the country, it’s an homage right down to the name, short for Ban Vinai, the Thailand refugee camp where his parents met and where he was born. Let’s be clear though that Vang’s guilt is entirely self-imposed (his family is plenty proud), mainly because he’s keenly aware of the sacrifice it took to get his family here so he and his six siblings could pursue the American dream.
“Our parents sacrificed a lot to bring us to this country, and there’s a sense of duty that you live a life that’s worth their sacrifice,” he says. “There’s this unwritten rule in our culture: You go to college, you study hard and you get a good job with financial security — a doctor, lawyer, engineer. Because then in turn, you come back and take care of the family. Knowing that, why would you be a cook at a restaurant?”
Those sacrifices were very real. As a boy, his dad served in the CIA anti-Communist operation dubbed the Secret War, running missions like rescuing downed pilots in the Laos jungle during the Vietnam War with the promise of American citizenship. Vang’s grandfather and uncles died in this effort, alongside an estimated 40,000 Hmong soldiers killed in combat. At the end of the war in 1975, his dad and mom separately escaped Laos and genocide, hiding in the jungle for months before eventually crossing the Mekong River into Thailand.
After many years and many life experiences at Ban Vinai — meeting, marriage, children — they immigrated to the United States in 1988, when Vang was 4 years old. He admits he spent much of his childhood in Pennsylvania and then Wisconsin trying to escape his identity. “You try to run so far and so fast from who you are that you don’t realize you run in a circle right back to it,” he says.
Despite Vang’s best efforts to assimilate, his Hmong heritage was omnipresent. In Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, his family lived among the Amish and Mennonites. “It was awesome because we were all the weird kids,” he says. This is where he learned to toil, helping out on the neighbors’ dairy farm and following the example set by his dad, a carpenter.
“His hands would be very rough from working with wood all day, and when he’d give us a hug, his hands would scratch us because they were so tough,” he recalls. “Today, I love that my hands are also rough from working all day, because it connects me to my father.”
Vang resented his out-of-the-ordinary childhood experiences. Like after they moved to central Wisconsin in 1997 and would spend a Saturday harvesting whole pigs, goats and chickens for meat. Or the hours spent begrudgingly tending the massive family garden. “At age 12, when I was supposed to be learning how to swim or throw a baseball, I got a boning knife,” he says. “By the time I was 14, I was more comfortable breaking down an animal than I was throwing a curveball.” Still, he chased that all-American lifestyle, playing football in high school and vowing to get out of that small Wisconsin town to make something of himself.
But the conventional trajectory wasn’t going to work for Vang. He earned a communications degree from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse but abandoned it for dishwasher and cooking gigs at Minneapolis restaurants like Gavin Kaysen’s acclaimed Spoon and Stable and local favorite Borough. All the while, it wasn’t lost on him that the Twin Cities is home to the largest Hmong population outside Asia yet doesn’t have a single full-service Hmong restaurant. So he set out to change that.
Vang developed a loyal following with his Union Hmong Kitchen pop-ups combining culture and cuisine, like fan-favorite housemade sausage (his dad’s recipe) with purple sticky rice and hot sauce (his mom’s recipe). He figures he put on about 100 of them in five years across Minneapolis and beyond. Along the way, he realized part of his job was to demystify Hmong food. “One of my biggest frustrations is when people try our food, they automatically categorize it how they want to — Asian, Asian fusion,” he says. “But Asia is a pretty big continent.”
In the beginning, he actually leaned into that Asian fusion idea. “I wanted to do Hmong food that white people would get,” he says, which meant altering recipes to suit Midwestern palates. But about a year into the pop-ups, a work accident put Vang’s dad in the hospital with a fractured skull. That really shook him up. “My dad’s my hero; he’s the toughest guy I know,” he says. “But here he is, laid up in bed. I was so angry at myself because this is not how warriors die; they die of old age telling stories to their grandkids about all the adventures they had. If he dies in this hospital, nobody’s going to know all the sacrifices he made that changed my life.”
That’s when everything changed. “I could no longer sit there and be like, ‘What do the American people want? We’ll just do that so they can get it,’’’ he says. “Screw that. It’s never been about a James Beard Award or some prestige. It’s about me being able to look my parents in the eyes and say, ‘This is your story.’” He recommitted to learning traditional cooking techniques from his mom, which are taught by doing rather than following a recipe.
“Hmong food isn’t about written recipes, because that’s actually a very Western mentality,” he says. “Hmong food is about experience. Hmong food is a catalyst into creating and cultivating great relationships. If you want to know our people, know our food, because our cultural DNA is intricately woven into the foods we eat. The stories of where we’ve been, the history of how things have changed for us — it’s all part of our food, because wherever our people have gone, we’ve gleaned from the cultures around us and that’s actually interwoven into our food.”
Which means that the bright, vibrant Hmong fare cooked in Minneapolis isn’t the same as that made in Fresno, California, or Little Rock, Arkansas (both home to notable Hmong populations). “The reason why is we use what’s around us, then that gets forged into our culture,” he says. “People always ask me what it means to be Hmong. Being Hmong means one generation has to give up a bit of themselves so the next generation can grow. I learned this watching Mom in the garden.”
Vang explains that each year they’d let some of the garden produce die off so that its seeds could be used for the following season’s plantings. “This is how the story of the Hmong people is written,” he says. “We can tangibly see it in the way we farm, in the way we garden. That’s been the main question in my head for the past few years: What am I sacrificing? What am I giving up for the next generation?”
His sacrifice, he’s come to realize, is bringing Vinai to life. After years of successful pop-ups, the nomadic chef decided the time was right to open his own restaurant. On February 4, 2020, he pushed his Kickstarter campaign live, asking devotees to put up $75,000 to help finance it. He easily hit that goal within a month, even exceeded it — then the pandemic hit.
Like everything else, those plans came to a screeching halt. The palpable energy and enthusiasm for Vinai got swallowed up by the panic of the pandemic. Vang did all the COVID-era things: He transitioned Union Hmong Kitchen to takeout. He started a popular podcast, White on Rice, that explores the link between food, culture and community. And he waited.
He kept pushing back Vinai’s opening date, originally slated for late 2020. He signed a lease on a 3,100-square-foot building in Northeast Minneapolis, the same neighborhood as Ann Kim’s Young Joni and Christina Nguyen’s Hai Hai. He tapped Christian Dean Architecture to build out the 80-seat eatery, with homages to Hmong culture and experiences baked into the design. Like everyone else, he watched the news and hoped for better days. Surely he’d be able to open by his new spring 2021 date, right?
All that waiting gave Vang time to think. “And then it hit me: Vinai was never about a building,” he says. “The more I thought about it, the more I realized Vinai is actually about love and the spirit of Mom and Dad. It could be in any building; it could be in any place.”
Nothing about the process has been easy. Vang has been rejected by multiple banks. He hasn’t taken a salary in nearly two years. A friend and “big-name chef” suggested he cut his losses and instead focus on maximizing media exposure and speaking gigs as an ambassador for Hmong culture and cuisine. “But that’s all about Yia, and I don’t want to be about that,” Vang says. “I want to be about my parents and our people.”
In the meantime, his Union Hmong Kitchen found a permanent home last fall at Graze food hall in Minneapolis’ North Loop, clocking in at a mere 290 square feet. “People are coming to our little corner of the building and really loving it,” he says. “It has made them literally hungrier for Vinai. These are all the things going through my head that I’m sussing out, but the struggle is real.”
Now, Vinai is nearly here. In the meantime, there is a Vinai pop-up at a Northeast Minneapolis event space, Steady Pour, plus Vang will be a challenger chef on Netflix’s Iron Chef reboot, set to debut June 15. And Vang’s conviction is stronger than ever. He wants to make diners feel how his parents made him feel: taken care of. “Mom and Dad have this policy: It doesn’t matter who you are or what you believe — there will always be a place for you at the table,” he says. “You can leave all your worries outside the door and come in. We don’t have to solve all your problems at the dinner table, but at least you’ll leave full. They’ve always had this approach to life, and that’s the philosophy we want to have.”
The menu is also reflective of Hmong philosophy. “Ban Vinai translates to ‘village of virtue,’ so the menu is like a road map,” he says. “It’s broken into six sections all with Hmong names, because we really want the Hmong language to be very comfortable in this place. So ultimately it’s on you to choose how you want to dine.” A self-guided tour of Vang’s world, if you will. He insists it’s not fine dining and it’s not family-style; it’s just dinner.
Seasonal dishes will take their cues from family recipes and fan favorites. There’s an umami-forward popcorn shrimp (since his dad loves whole shrimp, which symbolize success). There’s wood-fired Hilltribe chicken (named for the Hmong population who lived in the hills of Laos). And of course there’s his dad’s sausage and his mom’s hot sauce. All of this fare will ask guests to meet Vang where he’s at, and not vice versa.
“I find it ironic that we have to meet American diners where they’re at,” he says. “It’s saying, ‘If you could be more American, if you could be more white, we could understand your food.’ But why can’t I just be Hmong and you accept me for being Hmong? That’s why I’m so driven by the idea that every dish has a narrative. You follow that narrative long enough, and you get to the people behind the food. Once you’re there, you realize it’s actually not about food; it’s about people.”
“I get so passionate about this, because it’s teaching our Hmong kids that if you want to be successful in this country, you’ve got to be more ‘American,’ more ‘white’ — and you lose a piece of yourself,” he says. “Trust me, as a Hmong kid growing up in a small town in Wisconsin, I lost a piece of myself. It took me years to get it back.”
So Vang must have had mixed feelings becoming an American citizen last fall, right? “I love it,” he says emphatically. “You need to understand where our people come from. There’s a generation that sacrificed so I can have life. I never got to go fishing with my grandfather up at the cabin on the lake, like good Minnesotans do, because he died in the war. I look at my father, who’s a patriot — but maybe not in the way people think a patriot should look like. We are the children of war, and now we get to tell the story of our people and set a trajectory of who we’re going to be. Being an American citizen means I’m now in a place where I can talk about all of this. I wasn’t born into this; the sacrifices of my family and my people got me here. What do I do next? That’s the question I ask myself.”
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Source : Esquire