Finding Minnesota: Union Kitchen Pop-Up Chef Yia Vang

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — A Twin Cities chef is making a name for himself forging Hmong recipes with traditional Minnesota dishes.

For Yia Vang, food preparation isn’t just about a good meal.

“Every dish has a narrative,” said Yia Vang of Union Kitchen.

He knows he’s carefully crafting the introduction to good conversation that, in some ways, speaks on behalf of an entire culture.

“I believe food is a great equalizer. We can use it as a language to interact and speak to people,” Vang said. “Food is huge in the Hmong culture.”

Through his Union Kitchen, Yia is incorporating the Hmong influence into a predominantly Scandinavian palate and he’s doing this outside the traditional restaurant model. Yia serves up his unqiue menu through pop-ups, allowing him to guest chef at restaurants around the Twin Cities. It’s a calculated move allowing diners more access to Hmong food.

“One of the things we did with these pop-ups is, we’re coming to your world,” Yia said. “If we do pop-ups at certain restaurants it’s like, ‘Oh hey, cool.’  I don’t know what Hmong food is but I’m going to try it,” said Peter Vang, who works at Union Kitchen.

With the help of fellow chefs like Peter Vang, sous chef at Black Dog Cafe in St. Paul, they create dishes that tell the story of their heritage and history in southeast Asia.

“Every place they went to and every culture they interacted with, they took a little piece of that culture and forged it into their own,” Yia said, while speaking about the history of the Hmong people.

“A lot of it comes from us being poor just cooking with what we have to cook with,” Peter said.

That combination of cultures is found in his recipes.  His most popular dish, the Minnesota Hmong Hotdish, is a twist on a Minnesota favorite, the tater tot hotdish.  Yia’s version contains sausage, parsnips, carrots, bamboo, a curry sauce and then is topped with tater tots.  He’s also adding new recipes at every pop-up.

“This is a stout beer braised goat rice bowl with soft egg,” he explained while showing one of his dishes.

Each recipe not only symbolizes the history of the Hmong people but, for Yia, it also represents the future of his ever evolving culture.

“If I want to do fancy French food or Spanish tapas, I can do that but there’s going to be a piece of me which is Hmong that’s going to be in it,” Yia said.

His approach to food has made him a rising star in the Twin Cities culinary scene.

“We get calls from big name people that are like, ‘Hey, we want to do a pop-up’ and I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, really?’ You’re star struck,” Yia said.

In Yia’s kitchen, the union of food and culture creates a narrative and he’s just hoping you’ll take in the story.

“I think we get to showcase a little piece of who we are and a little piece of our culture,” Yia said.

Union Kitchen’s next pop-up is scheduled for April 18 at Chef Shack. Learn more about Union Kitchen here.

Send your Finding Minnesota ideas here.

More from Rachel Slavik
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