Yia Vang, the creator of the pop-up restaurant, Union Hmong Kitchen in Minneapolis, presented at Madison College’s Chef Series event on Nov. 13.
He shared his personal story, explaining he found his “culinary narrative” by embracing his cultural heritage.
Vang came to the Twin Cities when he was 5 years old. He came from a refugee camp with his mother and father.
Growing up, Vang tried to hide from his Hmong heritage. He never had friends over because he didn’t want to have to explain to his friends why his parents didn’t speak English or why their food smelled the way it did.
When Vang came to the United States, going to school and eating lunch was a completely unfamiliar experience. The rest of the kids would bring PB&J sandwiches or Lunchables, while he would bring the food his mother had made for him.
“All I wanted was a Lunchable growing up, especially the pizza ones,” Vang recalled.
During his elementary years he was surrounded by kids that were either white, Amish, or Mennonite.
As a child, trying to explain his culture to his friends was hard. Vang said explaining to his peers that “we’re not Laotian, we’re not Thai, we’re Hmong” confused them. Often, he wanted to respond that “I’m just a person.”
“My whole life when I was a kid, I had been running away from Hmong food and Hmong culture,” he said.
“It’s funny that as you get older, as much as you ran away from everything as a child, you end up coming back to where you started in your culture when you become an adult. That for me has been the culinary narrative that I have been running with,” he said.
The food at his pop-up restaurant is based off of the food that his parents made for him as a child and taught him to make.
Vang explained that despite the hardships his parents went through living in a refugee camp and then transitioning to the United States, they always made sure to keep their children fed.
He had never known what hunger was growing up, that was his parents’ expression of love.
“I see the kind of man my father was, and I see the kind of woman my mother is and I wouldn’t trade that for anything. Everything that we do (as Hmong) I want to reflect on that,” he said.
“It’s not about the restaurant. It’s not about the name. What really matters to me is that people hear the story of my parents,” Vang said. “At the end of the day, I want my parents’ legacy to keep going.”