"I'm not a writer, I'm a cook," said Yia Vang.
He's the chef/owner of Union Hmong Kitchen, and the force behind Vinai, which is slowly but surely coming to life in northeast Minneapolis. Vang has been cooking professionally for 15 years, and he recently began sharpening his storytelling skills after a group of Chinese art students asked him to contribute to their magazine.
"My first thought was, 'I have to get in some writing exercises,' " he said.
His first was a dispatch to his parents, one that grew into a vision statement for his soon-to-open restaurant.
"Vinai is a love letter to my mom and dad," he said. "So I sat down and literally wrote them a letter, telling them who they are to me, and described the unconditional love, grace and redemption that I see in them. Those are the pillars that Vinai will stand on. It's the vision stuff. I sent the letter to my business partners, the design people and the architect."
Vang then turned to essays. This one, posted late at night on Facebook ("bad grammar and all," Vang said with a laugh) grew out of a question he was asked during an online panel discussion, one that got him thinking about the power of legacy.
"Every dish has a narrative," he said. "When people eat food that's different from what they're used to, they should ask the question, 'What is the story behind this dish?' Research it. Follow the little bread crumbs. Maybe they'll discover that, as much as the world is telling us that we're different, that we can also find commonality in our humanity."
Essay by Yia Vang • Special to the Star Tribune
Earlier this month I was asked if we could make our Hmong sausage into a vegan sausage. This question was innocent enough and I believe there was no ill will or malicious intent with this question. But it did get me thinking … a lot of times we (as Hmong people) are asked by mostly white diners … "can you make it less spicy" or "can you take this or that out of this dish." We've been also bombarded with comments on reviews saying "this place doesn't have enough vegan or vegetarian options … we won't come back."
There's the concept in the service industry that "the customer is always right." I don't believe that the customer is always right. As a customer of a dining establishment (especially establishments that are run by BIPOC owners) ask yourself why these dishes are made in the way that it is made before you ask them to change it … dig into the story behind the dish. This is a mixed message to us (BIPOC people) because what has been said publicly is "be who you are … don't change for anyone"… which is great … but when you ask us to make changes on these dishes that have deep, deep meaning to us … what you're really saying is "please can you change who you are to be authentic enough for my pleasure and taste palate because I'm uncomfortable meeting you where you are when it comes to your food."
Why won't I change my father's Hmong sausage recipe? Because it's the way he taught me how to make it. It might be a simple answer, but you have to understand my dad didn't teach me how to throw a baseball or ride a bike because he didn't know how to. Actually, that made me feel my "All-American" childhood was different. At times I would also feel shame because I wasn't like the other kids. Part of that shame grew to resentment towards my father and being Hmong.
He taught me how to cook … before I knew how to shoot a basketball … I knew how to break down a primal cut on a pig. As a kid growing up, I was more comfortable holding a boning knife than holding a baseball. Making Hmong sausage the way that we make it now … it's my father's legacy and that is why I won't change it for anyone.
Coming to this country and bringing his family here is all he has! My father didn't have any land or property to his name when he arrived here. All he had was his determination, grit, and never giving up on us and making sure he taught us everything he knew. For me and him we connected over the wood fire and butchering on those Saturday mornings when I was supposed to be watching cartoons and eating cereal like a normal 10-year-old kid. So as an adult I see the way I make this dish as a redemption of my actions and thoughts as a kid. I get to redeem all those times I was embarrassed for being Hmong or all those times for telling my teachers that my parents couldn't make it to school events because I didn't want them to know that they couldn't speak English. This is my way of saying "I'm sorry Mom … I'm sorry Dad … I hope you can see that I've always loved you guys but I didn't know how to show it"… but I know how now … and I'm not ashamed anymore!
So this Hmong Sausage is special to me and it's deeper than any food trend or marketing ploy! There's a reason for the coarse grind … there's a reason for the amount of pork belly to pork shoulder and there a reason to the aromatics that we put in it! These reasons are what gives this dish so much soul … so before you ask someone to change something for your comfort or "palate" ask yourself … What is the story of this dish? … Because we believe every dish has a story and if you follow it long enough and close enough you'll get to the people behind the dish!
Chef Yia Vang posted this essay on social media on Feb. 26. Vang is the chef/owner of Union Hmong Kitchen and the yet-to-open Vinai.