If your palate enjoys flavorful, open-fire dishes infused with unique combinations, you’ll love Yia Vang’s food concoctions. Vang blends flavors and spices from disparate traditions and cultures to make a dish “work” — much like the rich history of his Hmong ancestry.
“I take life experiences and restaurants that I’ve worked at and think — how do I make this work so it flows together?” says Vang.
“The first place I worked was Italian. The second a high end BBQ and blues place. I’d go home and eat mom and dad’s traditional food and I’d want to infuse these flavors together.”
He continues to hone his unconventional cooking methods by working at Spoon and Stable, a brigade-style French/American kitchen in Minneapolis, Minnesota as a line cook for hot appetizers.
“Spoon and Stable is like Mozart,” he says, “a disciplined classical structure that I thrive under.”
Restaurants like this help hone cooking and hospitality skills for his future as a chef.
I caught up with Vang to peel back the layers of his passions for food, community and culture — and to discover how they inevitably intertwine.
dabble | How did growing up as part of the Hmong culture impact your view on food?
Yia Vang | In the Hmong culture women do the day-to-day cooking, but when there’s a big party, men prepare the meat, and women cook the side dishes. In my family, the men would build a makeshift grill. Five to six dads would be sitting around this — each with their own tongs — and a cooler of meat. As a kid you would hang out by your dad and he would cut little pieces off the meat and give it to you.
When I was 10 my dad was setting up the grill. He handed me the tongs and asked me to watch the meat. I was excited and terrified.
It’s the first time I sensed the heat of the fire.
I watched as all these other men fearlessly walk into the fire to grill this meat. I didn’t want to show fear — I was entrusted to take care of the meat. This began my relationship with the type of food I like to cook — open fire, grill and meat.
dabble | What are your memories of cooking as a child?
YV | I grew up cooking for my family. Food just made sense to me. It drew people together — this is something I noticed at a young age.
I would come home from school and my dad would be watching Peter Jennings. He loved the news even though he couldn’t understand it. My brother would translate for him. I would be in the kitchen with dad telling me what to cook. While other kids were out learning soccer I was learning how to slice, dice, chop and cook.
dabble | Did your attitude towards food change when you moved to America?
YV | Historically the Hmong have adapted to every area they’ve lived. Hmong means “people without a home”. They are a nomadic group in Southeast Asia. In 1988 my family came to the United States from a refugee camp in Thailand, and we took American ingredients and infused them with our own food.
For example, in Hmong Village they serve deep fried tilapia stuffed with dill. Dill is not a Hmong spice. Ginger, garlic, lemongrass — yes. But not dill.
dabble | What is your favorite thing to cook and why?
YV | What I’m interested in at that moment. The seasons impact this a lot too. I get bored if I’m doing the same thing for a few months. It’s good to have my own style, but always to be challenging myself and trying new things.
I like to take what’s in my environment, my background, and who I am. Sometimes I just love a full out Hmong traditional stew of heart, lungs, liver and intestines. It has a deep, rich earthy taste.
dabble | Do you like teaching others how to cook?
YV | Yes! Good communication is such an important element when teaching cooking.
On one hand there is the old-world style of cooking where your grandma is making pie crust. You ask her how much butter, or flour or why you mix them together. She says because it makes the crust flaky. That’s all good, but learning how the butter, fat, and flour work together on a molecular level is really helpful when teaching others.
I think millennials love the nostalgia of grandma’s cooking, but are also educated and want the understanding of why.
dabble | Your website http://www.foodpeoplecommunity.com/blog/ has gorgeous food photography. Do you do this yourself? Does it interrupt your process?
YV | Yes, I do my own photography. Ultimately I view myself as a cook first and a photographer second. I want to show the end product. I don’t take photos of the steps — which would also be difficult to wash your hands and arrange everything and get the light correct for the photo.
Everything I put on my dish for the photo goes with the dish. I’m not going to add a sauce that doesn’t belong there just for the photo.
Update 2.1.17: Yia's new website is Union Kitchen MN.
dabble | Does being a cook make you more mindful about what you’re putting in your body?
YV | I make fun of my friends that are gluten-free, dairy-free, you know all the “free” food families. But if I eat that way, I feel better too. When I cook I’m able to control what I’m putting in my food and body. People complain that food in Europe is better. It’s true — it’s different there. But we aren’t in Europe so we need to figure out what to do here.
Moderation is the biggest key — and portion control. I simplify cooking for myself and cut all that crazy stuff out. Quality, fresh ingredients help with the health side too. Simple seasoning like good salt and cracked pepper go a long way. You don’t need lavender dust.
dabble | What is your food philosophy?
YV | 80% is the ingredient quality and 20% is how you put it together.
dabble | What do you mean by quality?
YV | As I cook I see the ecosystem around me. I’m talking to farmers, going to farmers markets and co-ops. I see and respect the process of food and that somebody worked very hard for this. I’m also still communicating with people in this context and creating a community of relationships.
dabble | What food is your vice?
YV | La Huasteca in Minneapolis, Minnesota. They serve the best tacos with cow cheek, cow head, goat and lamb. After working all day my other biggest vice is frozen pizza or 20-piece chicken nuggets. If I eat that though, I pretty much just eat vegetables and leaves all day long the next day. I don’t have time to eat while I’m cooking, but I’m trying to become more balanced in that too.
dabble | How is food a communal experience for you and those you cook for?
YV | In all of us there’s an urge to want to share with others — stories, life experiences, moments. These things make us human. There is always a food/beverage element in that sharing. It plays the buffer. You meet someone at a coffee shop and there is coffee and muffins as the buffer. You go on a date and there’s food as a buffer. Friends bring other friends you don’t know to a party — a community develops through this security of food as a buffer.
When people get together food is the second most important thing there. People are the first. Food jumpstarts the community. If it’s not there, it feels like something is missing. People want to give to each other — a glass of water or cup of coffee. Somehow that community is inside us.