Chef Yia Vang on discovering his father’s heroism and what he tells the kids with ‘stinky’ lunches

A man poses for a photo.
Yia Vang inside what will soon be Vinai, his new restaurant venture opening this year in northeast Minneapolis.
Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

This story comes to you from Sahan Journal, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to providing authentic news reporting about Minnesota's new immigrants and refugees. MPR News is a partner with Sahan Journal and will be sharing stories between and

In celebration of Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, MPR News and Sahan Journal are featuring Asian Minnesotans making history.

Yia Vang, 36, is the owner of Union Hmong Kitchen and Vinai, restaurants in the Twin Cities. As a chef, Yia says that he didn’t fall into cooking, but that cooking fell into him. That love affair deepened some nine years ago, he said. What changed for him was realizing that food isn’t just sustenance but a vehicle for storytelling. 

“Every dish is a narrative,” Vang said, in April, at a building in northeast Minneapolis, which will soon open as the restaurant Vinai. “If you follow that narrative long enough and close enough, you get to the people behind the food. And once you’re there, it’s actually not about food. It is about people and their food is a catalyst for cultivating great relationships.

“I took that lens and I looked at Hmong food, and I started tracing back what Hmong food is and where I landed was at the table of my mom and dad. Learning about mom and dad’s story and about the hardship they’ve gone through, and realizing how much they’ve given up and sacrificed for us kids to get here to this country — that really changed the way that I view food.” 

One of Vang’s favorite stories to tell through food involves khao sen, a noodle dish. It wasn’t his favorite as a kid. “It’s a simple dish with veggies and noodles, and I didn’t like it because it meant there was no meat,” he said. In that sense, it was the home meal that signified money was getting a little tight. 

On the menu at Union Hmong Kitchen he made a rendition of khao sen and it became one of their bestsellers. He wanted to take it off the menu, but customers requested it so often he never did.  

“That dish is deeper than just a noodle dish,” Vang said. “It was mom’s dish for us in that she didn’t want us to know what that pain of hunger felt like. So she did everything she could to provide for us. It was her way of loving us unconditionally and when people eat it, they feel that element. It has soul and depth and I think that’s what people take in.”

Vang describes new restaurant venture, Vinai, as a love letter to his mom and dad. Vang actually wrote the letter in two or three days, and three themes resonated, he said: compassion, grace and unconditional love. 

He took the letter and sent it to the restaurant’s architect and business partners: The new restaurant, he explained, should embody these themes as its ethos. “So that became the center of what building Vinai means,” Vang said. 

That last phrase — unconditional love — points back to something Vang’s father told him in college, which he still carries with him: “‘You know that your mom and I love you because you are our son, and nothing else?’ And what he meant was, ‘Our love for you maxed out already the moment you were born. If you fail, we don’t love you less.’ ” 

That expression has become the platform for all his adventures in restaurants. “If this whole thing fails and everything fails, mom and dad still love me. It frees you to take risks, boldly and move forward in love.”

Editor's note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What does it mean to be AAPI in Minnesota right now? 

All the anti-Asian hate stuff coming out and being brought more to the light — I’ve experienced it growing up. I think it’s always been there. Now people are realizing that this stuff is real. 

I think the first question I asked myself is, what can I do? And the second question was, will I even make a difference? Is this machine way too big for me to actually make a difference? It came to this point that, regardless, I’m still going to try to do something.

Those are the first initial emotions I had. When I heard the stories of some of the elders that were being attacked and hurt, I thought of my parents and grandparents. I thought, “wow that could be my mom, my grandmother, my father and my grandpa.” Then, there was a sense of rage, anger, frustration,  and asking why isn’t anybody doing anything?  

I think the thing that settled me was the fact that my dad is my shoreline. When I’m in this sea of B.S., I look to him. The one thing I think he would say to me is that “fear begets more fear begets fear.” And so all these things that are happening are coming from fear, and how do you battle fear? You battle fear with hope. 

To be AAPI right now in the Twin Cities, we are saying, how do we offer hope?

That’s why we we’re working with all these Asian American chefs to do this project called Minnesota Rice, where we’re putting together our skills. We’re going to team up with all these incredible advocates from all ethnic backgrounds and we are going to raise money for the Coalition of Asian American Leaders. They are the ones who are fighting for us on the legislative level. 

At the end of day, I’m a cook; it’s what I do. But if we can somehow highlight CAAL and help support them financially, they’ll fight for us, they’ll speak for us on that legislator level. 

What figures have shaped you and who you are? 

I feel like a broken record but I would just say mom and dad. I love my mom and she has a really special place in my heart. But I think that that relationship with my father has really shaped me. We butted heads a lot growing up. It’s funny, as a kid growing up, you don’t want to be like your dad because you think he’s kind of dorky. However, I tell people that I ran so far from him that I actually ran back to him. I found that I am my father. 

When we were kids, my dad, before we’d go to bed, would tell us stories. He’s a great storyteller. I realized that what I’m really trying to do with food is tell my parents’ story. 

I am him, and everything that’s good about him is reflected in me. I find that when people say, “Man, you’re so gracious, you’re so good,” I smile. Because I want to say, that’s actually not me; that’s him. You see him in me. 

In our culture, when you come into a room and there’s a bunch of elders, they usually stop and say, “What’s your name? And who’s your father?” And so kind of like “Game of Thrones”–style, you have to say, “This is my name, son of…” That’s a traditional Hmong thing we do. As a boy, you learn that when an elder man asks you your name, you give them your name and give them your father’s name. 

I remember I was a kid, like 12 or 13, I said, “this is my dad.” I remember the whole room just stopped and everyone looked at me. I remember the elder looked at me and said, “Son, your dad is a hero to us. He saved us during the war. Most of us men wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for your father.” 

As a kid you’re like, OK cool, can I go play now? That resonated in me as I got older. I realized that the way that when my father came into a room, men would respect him, men would listen to him. It wasn’t like he was cocky about it. I call him a silent warrior. 

I noticed that and I put two and two together and realized that I am in the presence of greatness here. But then when you realize that as a kid, you just kind of overlook it. I realized that my dad is a man of honor, and how do I honor a man like that? By being able to reflect him as his son. 

What is your vision for future generations of AAPI people in Minnesota? 

One thing I want to say to these kids is you don’t have to be afraid anymore. You don’t have to be ashamed anymore. When we’re making our food here and we’re doing it the way that our parents showed us, and we’re doing it the way that we love. 

I want to say this to all the kids who brought the “stinky” food for lunch, and you were made fun of — this one’s for you. No longer do we have to hide behind the idea that we’re the kid with the stinky food.

But one day, the kids who make fun of us for bringing the stinky food, they’re going to be wanting to come and find that stinky food. Because for them, they’re going to be a few years behind or they’re going to want to be educated. In that moment, I would say to those kids, you have two choices. You either say, “Screw you, you used to make fun of me, I don’t care anymore.” Or you be the better and the bigger person and say, “Hey, I understand, join us.” 

That’s what I really want to see. The easy route is to say, “Get out of here” — because maybe you might think it’s justice. Or you invite them in. Being Hmong means you invite people in, regardless of who they are. Despite socioeconomic background, religious background, political background, whatever. You invite them and everyone’s got a seat at the table. 

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