Some people are born to delight others with their presence and their food. Chef Yia Vang is one of them. When you meet him, you will know what I mean. His friends and supporters describe him as someone who commands respect with love and humility. He is serious about his food and his tribe. His diaspora and his family. His mama’s dumplings. He does it all with an infectious smile.
Born in a refugee camp, Chef Yia’s family first immigrated to Minnesota at the age of four. After living in St. Paul, MN, for a few months, Yia’s father moved the family to a small town in Pensylvania. With proximity to the Amish community, Yia found himself butchering with his father while his friends played baseball or football. He credits his father for his pit fire barbeque skills and his mamma for a variety of cooking skills. His face lights up when he speaks of his parents, their migration, their personal sacrifices for him, and their effect on young Yia. Every move was an adventure for him. It taught him to take risks. That’s precisely what he is doing in Minneapolis now by making a bold move. Vinai, a Hmong food restaurant.
Vinai, soon to be his permanent home[restaurant], is named after the refugee camp in Thailand where Hmong refugees settled after the Viet-Cong war ended in 1975. And Vinai is symbolic of his journey. His father Nhia, who fought the “secret war” helping the American troops, met his mother Pang Vang at Vinai, Thailand.
Refugee camps are tents, rationed meals, sub-par facilities, and lack of future, as we all know. Anybody who rises above the fray after living in a refugee camp itself is a human feat. I salute Chef Yia and his family along with all the Hmong refugees that have endured such hardships. To create a home in a foreign country while fighting to preserve their identity and culture.
Hardships witnessed by his parents and his community made Chef Yia a hard worker. He was not in a rush to be an expert. He wanted to do one percent better every day. Setting aside his Marketing degree, he started out as a dishwasher. Yia taught himself to cook as he worked at many kitchens. He spent a chunk of his time in his parent’s kitchen and at Hmong Union Kitchen.
With no professional culinary degree, he bagged the coveted title of Chef of the Year award in 2019 in Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN. Working out of a food trailer, he started his residency at Sociable Cider werks with his cousin last year. He has done countless pop-ups and catering under rain, heat, snow, blizzard condition you name it. One of his signature Kamayan feast, a communal spread, is often coveted for the food that is symbolic of his narrative. Eat with love and community.
Every dish he makes is the narrative of his origin and his journey. An immigrant refugee with no home country to call his own. All he had growing up was his community and the unique identity of being Hmong. Not Thai, not Chinese, but a proud Hmong son.
One of seven children, Yia graduated from high school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, after his family resettled. Growing up, Yia was teased for bringing smelly lunch to school and wanted to get as far away as possible from Hmong cooking. But it was his calling. Sharing Hmong cuisine with his community makes him happy.
His community is his strength. His parents are his inspiration. The essential ingredient in his food is his narrative. You can find the essence of a whole nation in a soup. In Laos, being hilly and cold, Hmongs resorted to broths. As they migrated to new lands, the Hmongs embraced the permaculture of its soil. And Chef Yia delivers that story perfectly in his sweet potato dish. He uses many ingredients and herbs that are native to Minnesota and adds pizzazz to Northern food culture.
A nomad in life and career, Chef Yia is ready to set his roots down. It is in Vinai that he will find his permanent home. His establishment is an homage to his heritage and beloved parents. The Hmong community may be less than five hundred thousand in the world, but Chef Yia will ensure his heritage lives on through his Hmong cuisine. One dish at a time.
P.S. I personally wish Chef Yia the best. When I reached out to him to write a story, I was unaware of his Kickstarter campaign. Even though Chef Yia has already reached his goal, we all know it is only a fraction of his expense. He is going to need our ongoing support. So let’s give this son of immigrants a fighting chance to own his establishment and an outdoor patio. Let’s send a message to our community that all are sincerely welcome here. And of course, we want to eat more than just burgers and fries.