Yia Vang giggles when he says it: "Korean is really sexy right now."
Why does that make him giggle? Because, he says, a lot of people outside of Minnesota don't even know what Hmong is. And as a result, he says, the Hmong sometimes have a tendency to jump on the bandwagon of other Asian cultures like Korean and Japanese, because they're more well-known and have more cultural trappings to glom onto.
"Japanese Anime or K-pop— it's not my thing, but a lot of people are like, let's be like the Koreans, let's be like the Japanese!"
But like he said, it's not his thing. His thing is cooking, and cooking Hmong. Vang is ultra passionate about food and has been cooking for over 15 years, though there is one thing he says that Hmong tend not to aspire to, and that's chefdom. "Being a cook is just something everybody does," he says. "You aspire to be doctors and lawyers, not chefs. It's taken me a cultural transition to think beyond 'this is a job I'm doing until I get a grown up job.'"
Finally, at 31, despite considerable angst, he's going to relent and get into the food business. Enter Union Kitchen.
Vang talks in excited, giddy circles about food and cooking and Hmong culture in general. He's done stints at Nighthawks and Borough and Spoon & Stable and he's currently working at Coastal Seafoods. He says the number one thing that he learned from Gavin Kaysen (Spoon & Stable) is that hospitality comes first.
"The thing that drives me the most crazy about many Asian restaurants is that the food is good but the hospitality is terrible. A lot of Asian restaurants are run by moms and pops who think, culturally, 'We'll put the food on the plate for you, and you deal with it.' He says he and his partners Peter Vang and Lang Vang want to change the status quo.
While hospitality may be lacking in some establishments, it's always there in a Hmong household, he says. "If you go to a Hmong house and they're eating? You're always going to eat, too. There's no call ahead required. There's a proverb — 'Brothers will even share a grain of rice.'"
That spirit of sharing inspired their name. "Growing up, the kitchen was always the unifying factor. If you heard clanging and sizzling, that's where everybody was going to be gathered."
So Union Kitchen is going to make its debut next month at Cook St. Paul. Vang says they'll present around eight dishes inspired by traditional Hmong cuisine, which, naturally, he'll tweak using techniques he's culled over his years in professional kitchens. For instance, a traditional comfort food dish of boiled pork with greens will get some extra culinary love: Vang says he'll smoke some pork bones and with those, make a rich tonkotsu broth (commonly found in ramen) and then let the greens go Southern soul food style (he has also spent some time learning the Southern BBQ tradition).
He says it just feels "honest" for him to try and showcase Hmong food, and not just the Laotian or Chinese or Cambodian traditions that some Hmong food is known for. The Hmong were nomadic, migrant people, and the cuisine is a product of that travel and movement — they gathered culinary traditions from the countries through which they passed. "The greatest thing about the Hmong people is we adapt to anywhere we are," says Vang.
For a good example of this, says Vang, you needn't look further than Minnesota. "When the Hmong settled here about 40 years ago, they started applying Midwestern produce to the cooking. You know those stuffed Tilapia you see at the Hmong Village? They're sometimes stuffed with dill. Now that isn't a traditional Asian ingredient, but that's how we do things."
That spirit of adaptation is what really inspires Vang, and it's what makes him, and Union Kitchen so very deeply Hmong. Check out what they do on Friday, February 5 at Cook St. Paul, starting at 5 p.m.
The menu, subject to change, includes his takes on Hmong fried rice (Mov Kib), catfish (Ntses Tuaj Kuv), braised pork belly (Npais Npuas), and several other dishes.
And for those of you still harboring the silly notion that Southeast Asians eat "weird stuff," Vang has a dose of perspective for you: "I'm like, have you guys ever had Lutefisk? And that's traditional! So don't come to Southeast Asia and be afraid of chicken feet!"
February 5, 5 p.m.
Union Kitchen at Cook St. Paul
1124 Payne Ave., St. Paul