I've been lucky enough to interview some incredibly passionate, dedicated local foodies for this blog, but I have to say-- Yia Vang of Minneapolis' Union Kitchen pop-up Hmong restaurant is hands down the nicest, most thoughtful person I've had the pleasure of talking with. A blog post could hardly do our conversation justice, and it's only my own laziness preventing me from typing up and posting the entire transcript of our gem of a chat. Alas...
Monica at Dinner on the Farm nominated Yia for his unique approach to showcasing his Hmong roots through food. After meeting him for coffee last week, I heartily agree that his approach is creative and his story is one all should hear. He's a 33-year-old Hmong chef who was born in Laos, grew up in Philadelphia, went to college in Wisconsin, and eventually moved to Minnesota, where his career in restaurants flourished. He opened Union Kitchen a little over a year ago, and hosts pop-ups at festivals and events in the Twin Cities throughout the year. He and his business partners hope to have a brick and mortar destination soon.
What is Hmong food? Yia says he gets that question a lot. "I kind of end up defending Hmong food instead of describing it, because there's no specific country that we can place ourselves from. That leads to a kind of shame--like we're just a lost people. But Hmong food is really about technique rather than ingredients. Hmongs are farmers and wherever we migrate we take a little bit of that culture with us. If Southeast Asian flavor is our paint, then here in Minnesota we could say Midwestern produce is our canvas. We're doing things that we know and love, but we're using the produce and the products of this area. That's who we are, and Union Kitchen is all about coming out and being proud of that."
Yia moved to Minnesota to pursue grad school, but ended up working at Nighthawks, then Borough, and Spoon and Stable. "I've been trying to get out of the kitchen my whole life," Yia laughs. "It's like that ex-girlfriend you keep coming back to, you know? Like 10 years later, let's just make this work out." When he began to feel his creative voice getting lost in his restaurant jobs, a few good friends and some intense brainstorming led to the idea of creating a pop-up restaurant that tells a story of cultural identity while bringing people of all backgrounds together. "I firmly believe food is the commonality between everybody." Yia goes on. "So it doesn’t matter where we come from. We can differ in religious and political beliefs but at the end of the day if you put a big bowl of friend chicken between the two of us, we’ll both believe that’s a great bowl of fried chicken. When you bring people together over food, the conversation shifts. We want Union Kitchen to be a space for that to happen."
"I have no problem calling myself a Midwesterner. I love that!" Yia concludes about his identity. "Cheese curds are my jam, you know? Double cheeseburgers from Culvers, I love that stuff. I'll have a pho day and I'll have a good ol' chili day, too. I love forging cultures together like that."