Yia Vang never enjoyed cooking growing up. He didn’t even enjoy it during college, when it was just a way to pay the bills while he pursued a communications degree. Then, Vang had an epiphany.
Vang, 35, is the co-founder of Union Hmong Kitchen, a pop-up restaurant that has gained national attention despite not having a permanent home.
Vang, whose team cooks at Sociable Cider Werks in Minneapolis, is looking to open his own brick-and-mortar restaurant. So how does a reluctant chef become a celebrated entrepreneur?
“I never wanted to get into it, not even in college,” Vang said. “A lot of my cooking experience came through college and it was an easy way to make money.”
Then he realized what Hmong cuisine meant to him.
He recalled how his parents taught him to prepare dishes using a campfire-style cooking method while he was growing up.
“The way that my dad taught me will go from me to hopefully one day my kids,” he said. “I think that’s what being Hmong really means, passing down our heritage and traditions … so that the older generations’ legacy, their sacrifices, will be remembered.”
For Hmong elders, those sacrifices included fleeing from Laos with their families during that country’s civil war. Vang’s father, a military leader, helped his troops come to the U.S. from refugee camps in Thailand and start new lives. Vang and his family came with them.
“One thing to know about Hmong people is that they’re always moving,” he said. “We’re always going in different areas, because that’s how, culturally, we were and that’s also how our food is — our food is always transitioning.”
And yet, it wasn’t until eight years ago, while he was a student at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, that he discovered his passion for cooking. He realized how much it meant to him and his family; he compares it to being in a relationship.
“Cooking is like that ex-girlfriend that you keep breaking up with, but you somehow end up back together,” he said.
Vang said the food he created was often inspired by other cultures’ ingredients or dishes. He called this “forging, not fusion.”
For example, Vang serves a Bahn Mi hot dog that combines an American favorite with Southeast Asian ingredients and presentation. He uses a local meat provider, Andy Peterson, of Peterson Craftsman Meats.
“We just take their hot dogs, and then we just did the elements that we love … like all the pickled veggies, the jalapeños,” he said. “Again, we always want to tell the story, so it’s just like the story of (Hmong people) being influenced by this American culture.”
Another dish, Hmong BBQ Pork, features tender pieces of pork, pickled red onions, spicy Tiger Bite sauce and General Vang Pao sauce, a play on the popular Chinese American dish General Tso’s chicken. The sauce was named after the infamous military leader who rallied Hmong soldiers during the Laotian Civil War. Vang also serves kimchi fried rice – fried rice with a Korean twist.
Vang started his business with just $350 in the bank. While his family was also supportive, Vang recalled how his friend Josef Harris was the one who gave him the “kick in the butt” not to compromise his food or “dumb down his flavors.”
“He kind of helped me maneuver through (the process),” he said.
In the future, Vang plans to build a brick-and-mortar restaurant and to keep working hard.
“It started from the idea of saying that food is the ultimate equalizer. It makes us all the same,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how rich or how poor you are, what political party you are a part of, at the end of the day, we as humans, as people, need to eat. And when it comes to food, we are equal.”