Acclaimed chef Diane Moua has conquered just about any challenge set before her. And with her new restaurant, Diane's Place, she's ready to embark on her biggest one yet.
In early 2024, her new all-day cafe will open inside the Food Building in northeast Minneapolis, serving both the food this pastry queen has been known for — ethereal croissants and pastries — but also food that only those much closer to the Hmong-American chef have tasted.
"I want Diane's Place to reflect my heritage, and everything my parents taught me, including their work ethic, hospitality and love of food," Moua said. The name honors the American name her parents gave her, and all of the dreams they had for her.
Moua is the oldest of six children born in America to refugee-immigrant parents who still work the family's 120-acre farm in central Wisconsin. Growing up, she helped pluck peppers from the vine and prepare huge feasts for family events.
Professionally, she's worked at Aquavit and worked her way up to the head of the pastry program at La Belle Vie before opening and launching the pastry and bread program at Spoon and Stable. She then helped open Bellecour, the bakery that launched a thousand croissant cravings.
Through it all, her professional specialty was pastry. But at home and with her family, the cooking was all savory. The menu at Diane's Place is going to meld the two.
The restaurant will seat 65, with an additional event space that's already available for booking parties up to 200 people. "When we looked at this space, it was just perfect," Moua said. "I've always wanted to do events. The Hmong community — we cater to the masses. A funeral, a dinner — big crowds."
The cafe will be open all day, seven days a week, from grab-and-go and counter-service breakfast and lunch to full-service dinner. "I'm trying to do everything," said Moua. "I don't want to do five days a week and have days where my friends in the industry can't come in."
Some of those friends from the industry are helping make Diane's Place something very special. Heather Ann Mady has come on board as general manager. She's already handled hospitality at La Belle Vie (where they met), Saint Dinette and most recently Mucci's in St. Paul.
Putting together the beverage program are Robb Jones and Tyler Kleinow of Meteor Bar. The drinks will be fun, "I love my drinks," said Moua. "Working with Robb is going to be amazing. My Hmong girls love, love, a Sex on the Beach. Now that I'm older, it's too sweet for me. Take that idea and make a variation on it with coconut milk in it."
Her Food Building neighbor Marco Zappia of 3Leches will be providing drinks for the event space, and the N/A beverages behind the Diane's Place bar.
But it's the dishes coming out of Moua's kitchen that are most exciting. Breakfast will still include pastries, but not just a chocolate croissant.
"I travel to New York all the time, and you'll see Korean American bakeries, Chinese American bakeries, but never Hmong American bakeries," she said. So alongside the chocolate croissants, there will be pandan-stuffed coconut croissants. In addition to typical American breakfast dishes, there will also be brunch soup — Moua is a fan of morning pho. There will also be an Asian-style chicken soup with scratch-made noodles.
"For dinner I'm going old school," she said, referencing a dish her dad would make out of necessity that became something she and her siblings would clamor for. "You know when a plant grows, the older, tougher leaves, outer leaves?" It's something some discard, but, "They would render them down with pork fat. Now, it's a delicacy. It's so good with a little sticky rice and pepper."
Speaking of peppers, Moua is famous in some circles for her love of the spicy stuff. While not all the food will be hot, there will be a variety of pepper sauces with tamarind, herbs, shallots and peppers.
The other artisans inside the Food Building are set to collaborate with the chef. There will be Hmong sausages from butcher Erik Sather's Lowry Hill Provisions, for example, and meat and cheese boards will sport Alemar cheese.
It's the best of all worlds. "I'm very traditional in my culture," said Moua. "And I'm modern, too. I'm in the middle."