Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

James Beard nominee Yia Vang tells us what's for lunch

A chef smiles for a portrait
Chef Yia Vang poses for a photo inside Slurp, his new pop-up restaurant in Minneapolis on Jan. 3.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Four chefs and one pastry chef from the Twin Cities have been nominated by the prestigious James Beard foundation for “Best Chef Midwest.” Finalists will be announced on March 29.

MPR News host Cathy Wurzer spoke with chef Yia Vang, the founder and owner of Union Hmong Kitchen as well as the pop up Hmong noodle spot, Slurp. He also hosts the show Relish on Twin Cities Public Television and the podcast Hmong-lish. Since Minnesota Now airs over the lunch hour, Cathy asked them what’s for lunch.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation. 

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Audio transcript

INTERVIEWER: Four chefs, one pastry chef from the Twin Cities have been nominated by the prestigious James Beard Foundation for Best Chef Midwest. Finalists will be announced on March 29th. It is a huge honor, so we wanted to catch up with all of the nominated chefs this week.

And since our show airs over the lunch hour, we thought, well, what the heck? We'll ask them what's for lunch? Yesterday, we spoke with James Beard-nominated chef Christina Nguyen. And today, we're talking with Chef Yia Vang. He started Union Hmong Kitchen as well as the pop up Hmong noodle spot called Slurp.

He also hosts the show Relish on Twin Cities PBS and the podcast Hmonglish. Yia, welcome to Minnesota Now. Welcome back to Minnesota Now. How are you?

YIA VANG: Great. How are you guys doing?

INTERVIEWER: So far, so good. And since the title of the series this week is "What's for Lunch?" what are you eating for lunch today?

YIA VANG: [LAUGHS] Just completely honest, I have not had lunch yet.


YIA VANG: I didn't have breakfast this morning. Yeah, I usually-- it's usually a lot of iced coffee in the mornings. But I had a bite of a mochi donut because we've been running around, picking up products and stuff this morning and had some meetings.

INTERVIEWER: OK, so you've had a mochi donut and iced coffee? That's it, so far?

YIA VANG: Yeah, part of a mochi donut and iced coffee at Five Watt because I had a meeting at Five Watt this morning. I know. It's really bad. We usually don't get eating, quote-unquote, lunch until, like, probably after around 3:00 PM to 4:00. That's when we have family meals. So I'll get a nibble there.


YIA VANG: But yeah, it's bad overall. I'll be very honest.

INTERVIEWER: Hey, hey-- no shame. There's no shame on the show here. It's OK.

YIA VANG: I know.

INTERVIEWER: It's OK. So let me ask you, when you do have family lunch, what might be something that you guys really like to get into?

YIA VANG: Yeah, so when we do family meal, it's usually whatever is kind of left over. Or if we're testing out new dish or something, we'll go with that. Right now, we have the new pop up. It's opening next week on the 29th. We have a new pop up. We're shutting down a Slurp Noodle Shop, and we're opening one called Mee-Ka. And so we had that one coming up.

So we've been testing out some of the dishes there. So that's been fun, eating some of the leftovers there. But one of the fun ones we had this past week was we got a bunch of spam from Costco, and then we made Spam kimchi fried rice. That was one of the fan favorites.

INTERVIEWER: Spam kimchi fried rice, wow!

YIA VANG: Yeah, so got to know Tony, who is the executive chef down in Hormel. And so we've been working with them for the last couple of years, doing different things. And yeah, so we got some Spam and cooked it up with some kimchi and had some day-old rice in there and vegetables. And we had-- yeah, that was it.

INTERVIEWER: What does it taste like? Because I'm thinking, Spam, kind of salty, kimchi, a little sour. I mean, yeah, what does it taste like?

YIA VANG: It's delicious. It's exactly what you want in a fried rice. Think about it. So the Spam itself is-- Spam is basically like a condensed ham, if you want to say that. So it's got a little salty. It's got a porky flavor. So we cook it down, actually, where it gets a little crispy.

And then you throw in the kimchi, which the big trick with kimchi is before you throw it in, you got to squeeze all that liquid out because you don't want all that liquid in there.


YIA VANG: So you throw in the kimchi, and you get that spice, and you get that funkiness from the kimchi, tossing that rice. A hack that we've learned, instead of tossing the eggs with the rice while you're cooking, take your egg, scramble it, and pour it over the day-old cold rice.

It's kind of like think about French toast, right? So you're kind of dousing your rice in the egg. And when you throw it in, I mean, it makes the texture of the rice so much better.

INTERVIEWER: Oh, I got to do that.

YIA VANG: And whatever vegetable you have, we just throw it in.

INTERVIEWER: I love that.

YIA VANG: It's like one of those things. And if I didn't tell you that it was Spam in there, you probably wouldn't know, you know?

INTERVIEWER: You're probably right. You're probably right. I got to try that. That does sound good. Now, I want to congratulate you that you're a finalist. And I know that Union Hmong Kitchen was a semifinalist last year for the James Beard Award. So it's got to feel pretty good to be here again this year.

YIA VANG: Yeah, we feel truly honored, truly blessed to be here, have the James Beard tag on it. I tell everyone, I'm very blessed to be the face of this, but just doesn't happen without our whole team. We have an incredible team of operators, incredible team of people running operations, up to our chefs, our cooks, our prep people.

We have an incredible team that works very, very hard not for an award, but they work really hard because they love what they do.

INTERVIEWER: How does a nomination like this, though, change things for you and the rest of the team?

YIA VANG: I think, one of the things, especially for the team, is there's just this sense of-- there's kind of a payoff of, wow, people see our work. They recognize our work, which is incredible. I don't think it really changes me much. Again, like I said, I feel very honored to be in this position.

But to be completely honest, I went, and I told my parents. And my mom was like, that's great. Take the trash out when you leave the house, OK? You know?


YIA VANG: So mom really reminds me of, yeah, I've always thought you were great before this James Beard guy came along. [LAUGHS] But I think that we get a platform to really tell the story behind the food, get people to know my parents a little bit, and then they also get people to know our people, the Hmong people.

INTERVIEWER: So tell me a little bit more about the new pop up because I'm wondering, does the pop up concept help you-- it sounds like it might-- help you try out new stuff? And if it flies, and people really love it, do you take it then into Union Hmong Kitchen?

YIA VANG: Yeah, so the pop up-- actually, our Hilltribe building is on the corner of Lake and Bryant in uptown. So it's actually our commissary kitchen too because every year, we have a state fair. So we need this big kitchen to be able to provide for the state fair. We have catering.

We have special events that come out of this. And most of the food that we do in there kind of backs up Union Hmong Kitchen, which is a small, 300-square-foot place in Graze Food Hall in North Loop. So this does that. But we have this little kitchen area, and we have this little dining area. So that's why we wanted to put in rotating pop ups every three months, try a new idea, try a new idea.


YIA VANG: And these ideas, these concepts, if we like them and I think that they do well, we can always keep them in the back pocket as a new concept or a new brick and mortar if we want to ever open one up again. But it's also a fun place to get all our chefs and all our cooks to actually think about some of the things that they're excited about. So the new pop up coming up is called Mee-Ka.

Mee-Ka is the Hmong word for "American." So growing up, we always get asked by our parents, do you want to eat Hmong food or Mee-Ka food? And we also think that Mee-Ka is this great collision of two food cultures colliding together to create a third culture. And then so the food that we're doing for Mee-Ka is based on a lot of the dishes that we ate growing up, that we knew was this Western style food, but using Hmong ingredients and Hmong pantry.

So we get to do that. And it's super fun to see how these-- when two cultures collide together, they create this beautiful third culture.

INTERVIEWER: Oh, I love that. And I love your food. Yia, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me. I appreciate it. And best of luck, by the way.

YIA VANG: Thank you so much.

INTERVIEWER: Chef Yia Vang has been with us. He's up for this year's James Beard Best Chef of the Midwest Award. Finalists will be announced next week, winners in early June.

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