As Hmong Chef Yia Vang works to open his first storefront restaurant, Vinai, in 2022, he’s been having conversations with his parents about the restaurant's namesake, which derives from the Thai refugee camp where Vang was born.
“My dad says you had to have a family member go and get in line for the rations, and when you got back, you had a family meal. You would just lay everything out, sometimes over banana leaf, sometimes over a newspaper, and just have the families all come together.”
In that spirit, Vang and a rotating cast of hand-picked local chefs are presenting monthly dinners around a shared table at the St. Paul Farmers' Market. A recent dinner featured chef Gustavo Romero of Nixta, Minneapolis’ only Mexican restaurant that is currently nixtamalizing corn for handmade tortillas. Vang said that Hmong and Mexican food are kind of “sideways cousins,” and the meal of Hmong meat and seafood paired with Mexican tortillas and salsas, all laid out on banana leaves, was a brilliant combination.
But more than the brilliantly unexpected nature of how Hmong food (itself and an amalgam of culinary traditions thanks to the persecuted and forced nomadic history of the culture adapts and pairs with other global cuisines, these shared dinners are about learning how to be together, again.
“The pandemic made us afraid of each other.” Vang laments, “Masked against unmasked, vaxxed against unvaxed. What these dinners are trying to say is that ‘Hey, it’s OK to come out. It's OK to gather again.”
Minnesota is home to the largest urban concentration of Hmong in the United States, after they began arriving in 1975 as refugees fleeing war and persecution in Laos. Their presence has an important effect on Minnesota’s distinctive culture, and Vang’s profound influence on the culinary scene cannot be overstated. His ability to storytell through food has provided a bridge between Hmong and other immigrant communities to the dominant culture community, helping everyone involved to forge crucial bonds, friendships, and understanding. Like an envoy, Vang uses food as his medium.
When he invited chefs to collaborate on the monthly gatherings, Vang says he just asked them, “Hey, what do you have?” He asked if they would bring three items, and he would contribute three items, and in the spirit of coming together over a shared table, he knew it would be enough.
“Because not only do we have enough when we eat together, we actually have more.”
Some people call this kind of family-style gathering a “Kamayan Feast,” after the Filipino-style tradition, but for his purposes, Vang & Company are calling it a Vinai Feast-- simply put: food eaten by hand over a communal table.
“We’re not plating anything with tweezers here,” says Vang. This is definitely not a time for tweezers.
Upcoming dinners will feature a shrimp boil by Mateo Mackbee of New Orleans-inspired Krewe; Marla Jadoonanan and her locally famous Trinidadian cuisine; Christina Nguyen, of the second generation Vietnamese restaurant Hai Hai, and Gerard Klass, of “soul food reimagined” Soul Bowl.
Chef Yia Vang is a longtime Twin Cities based chef and founder of Union Kitchen, “a pop-up restaurant experience that features Hmong culture, stories, rituals, foods and flavors.” Vang’s cooking and culinary experiences are known for authentic gatherings, hospitality, and inspirations that turn strangers into friends.