In Conversation: Chef Yia Vang

When James Beard Award–finalist chef Yia Vang invites you to go on a literal wild-goose chase, you go. That’s how I find myself sitting with a 12-gauge shotgun in a bunker underneath a windblown prairie covered in goose decoys somewhere outside of Fergus Falls. As far as goose hunting goes, it’s actually kind of luxurious—the underground bunker, from which our guides are peering out of trapdoors to call in the geese, is dug into a hill like an elaborate WWI trench. With a couple of electric heaters built into the walls, it’s nearly toasty down here. And if you get the shivers, there’s actual French toast (and hot coffee) available. Honestly, it almost feels like cheating at hunting. “It’s TV magic,” Vang explains. “Everything is fake!”

Vang is here with a swarming crew of cameramen, set coordinators, and sound guys filming the latest episode of Feral, his new show produced by Andrew Zimmern’s Intuitive Content, which debuted on the Outdoor Channel just after Thanksgiving. The be-camouflaged showrunner, Hayden Mauk, looking like a general in his tall black rubber boots and a brimmed cap with long muffs, is laying in the cut just off camera, directing Vang and his local guides through the beats of their various scenes. This crew already has 15 episodes under their belt, and whether they’re stalking pythons in the Florida Everglades, axis deer in Texas, or Canadian geese in Fergus Falls, the format is the same: The locals take Vang into the field and then, whether the hunt is successful or not (TV magic), Vang cooks up their quarry, usually right out in the field—or, in this case, on the griddle that was used for the French toast.

Vang is a big Hmong dude, with a bald head and a Thelonious Monk–style underbeard atop his sturdy body. His backstory is inspiring; he was born in the Ban Vinai refugee camp in Thailand before immigrating to the U.S. at the age of 5 with his parents, coming of age in the rural areas of central Pennsylvania and Wisconsin before moving to the Twin Cities in his early 20s. His ursine warmth and jocular energy translate pretty damn adorably on camera—no doubt that’s why he’s become a bona fide TV personality, with his own TPT show, Relish, as well as a memorable stint on Iron Chef before landing Feral. He’s had a big couple of years in the kitchen as well—Union Hmong Kitchen, his popular food truck, has evolved into a James Beard Award–nominated restaurant in the North Loop’s Graze food hall.

Between potshots, we talk about bridging the city-rural divide, representing his culture on-screen, and why it’s been so challenging to open Vinai—the fancy Hmong restaurant he’s been hyping for years.


Three things about Yia Vang

  1. Vang’s tri-tip steak with his signature Tiger Bite sauce made the cover of Bon Appétit’s May 2020 issue.
  2. Vang’s parents are still involved with both Union and Vinai catering. “They just made 250 steamed buns for Vinai’s Thanksgiving kit.”
  3. In 2021, Vang became a U.S. citizen—the last of seven siblings to do so.

I know you grew up in rural Wisconsin, but you’ve always seemed like a city guy to me. Yet on Feral, you’re relating to these rural hunting guides, and they’re relating to you.

I consider myself a country kid who had to live in the city. When this show was first presented to me, I said, “Wait, we’re going to go into the woods to hunt and kill animals, and then we’re going to cook them up?” I’m like, this show is so Hmong it’s not even funny. I’m doing everything that my parents and their parents have been doing. One of the greatest strengths of the Hmong people is their ability to adapt to any culture that was around them because they had to do that for the sake of survival.

Because they’re a nomadic tribe?

Yeah. To survive, you have to adapt. That’s what my parents did when they came to America. Growing up out in the East Coast in Pennsylvania, all our neighbors were white—Amish and Mennonites—and we connected with them over food. That’s what the show is about. Hmong people are natural hunters and foragers; that’s what our people are doing for generations and generations. Trace it back to 7,000 years ago in the foothills of the Yellow River and what’s now known as southern China—our people are from that area.

With people that I meet, I want them to feel like they belong. Because I know what it feels like to be out in the cold like that.”

— Yia Vang

I listened to an episode of your podcast Hmonglish, and your guest, the professor Lee Pao Xiong, mentions that after Suni Lee won the gold medal and was given her parade, she addressed the crowd in English instead of in Hmong, and there was some blowback to that.

Yeah, she was born [in Minnesota].

So, you speak Hmong yourself, but Suni’s generation, just after yours, has maybe lost some of their cultural identity. And I think in some of the places you’ve traveled to for the show, there may be similar feelings about the pace of cultural change. Can you relate?

I guess I haven’t really thought much about that. But if I go in with my own prejudice because we’re in the backwoods of whatever ’ville, and I’m just like, “Dang, man, I bet you they just see the Asian guy and are like, ‘Oh, is he Chinese?’”—right away, I go in with my own insecurities. The best thing that I can do is think through that the morning before. Because dude, if you have two people that are coming in that are scared of each other, nothing’s going to happen. I’d rather go in there going, “Hey, man, I want to get to know you and the ways that you do this.”

You’ve written movingly about how much you look up to your father, who was a war hero in the Secret War in Laos, while noting that you weren’t ever that macho yourself. You couldn’t ride a bike, and you weren’t a great baseball player growing up or whatever. And now, you aren’t really a master hunter, you know what I mean? But your talents shine in the second half of the show, when you’re cooking.

When the producers and I first went through the show, I don’t think we knew exactly what was happening. Our first episode was in Destin, Florida. You have to scuba down 120 and 150 feet to spear the lionfish, and I don’t know how to swim. When I got into the water to snorkel, I was deathly afraid. I was on this little floaty board, and I’m like, “Oh my gosh, I have no idea what I’m doing.” And I just embraced the suck. When I got in the water with this guide, Alex [Fogg]—he’s a pro swimmer–scuba guy, and he’s just like, “Yeah, man, no matter what happens, I got you.” And I was just like, “OK, cool.” I just believed that. But then we got to the cooking part, where I just felt comfortable. I joked, “Man, I was made for the land, not the sea.”

Did you “embrace the suck” as a kid?

I just wanted to belong. That’s it. I wanted to fit in as a kid. We grew up around predominantly white communities.

You’re a big dude. Did your size help with navigating that at all?

No. So it was really funny, too, because to Hmong kids, I stuck out like a sore thumb. I was a big guy. But to white kids, I wasn’t white. So, I felt like I straddled two cultures.

Did it feel like you were always trying to win both groups over?

Completely. But I never thought about that until I got older. Really, as I think about it now, it’s this idea of, like, I want to belong. And I know what it feels like to not belong to a tribe or to a group. So, knowing what it feels like to want to belong—it’s about redemption, right? So, with people that I meet, I want them to feel like they belong. Because I know what it feels like to be out in the cold like that.

You’ve been on TV for a while now: Iron Chef, Food Network, Good Morning America. Do you feel a responsibility that comes with that kind of visibility?

Yeah. What’s really cool is there are Hmong moms that stop me at the grocery store to say, “Hey, my boy watched you on Iron Chef, and he said, ‘Mom, I could be like that.’” I’m not saying this to pat myself on the back, but it didn’t hit me until then. So, man, I know that all these accolades that come, it’s not me, it’s for my parents. I tell people I’m merely a reflection of them—you run so far from who you are that you actually run in a circle back to it.

Wasn’t there a time in your life when you weren’t doing everything to honor your parents in your cooking—when you were trying to get away from the cooking you grew up with?

I live in two worlds. One world says, “Be independent, progressive, think for yourself—it’s about you: how are you feeling, take care of you, value yourself.” And then I live in this other world, where everything you do reflects on your people. Like, if I go and really screw up bad, it’s not going to be Yia did this; it’s going to be Yia the Hmong chef did this. It’s like with Suni: “Oh, well, you won, you’re the greatest in the world, but still, kid, you still can’t speak Hmong? Are you even really one of us?” We have this thing I jokingly call Hmong Facebook. It’s like Black Twitter, right? The moment you get into Hmong Facebook, man, there’s drama!

Your booth at the State Fair was a massive success this year. Your style of Hmong cooking obviously has mass appeal.

I did my research. If you look at it, the Hmong people have been in Minnesota since ’75. We are the first Hmong food vendor in here, and it took nearly 50 years. And I’m not knocking the Minnesota State Fair; it was just something that wasn’t on their radar. But I love being here for the fact that there’s probably a family in Alexandria that has never heard of Hmong people, has never heard of Hmong food, has no idea. And the State Fair’s a different beast, dude. There’s, like, State Fair royalty. You get there, it’s like, you don’t mess with Sweet Martha’s.

Your lines were just as long!

Thank you so much. One of the things I was excited about was being able to showcase Hmong food and culture to people outside the Twin Cities. To me, that meant a lot more. These people from rural areas like meat and potatoes, right? If you look at Hmong food, it’s meat and potatoes. That’s what I love about food as a common denominator: We’re not as weird and strange as we think in our heads. And I know that there are places that white people won’t go, but it’s okay for me to go into that place and introduce myself and introduce our food. That’s how I feel about Feral. I know that the dude from the Everglades with the “Don’t Tread on Me” hat isn’t going to come up to the Twin Cities and meet up with me. But this show has made it possible for me to go to them.

So why do you think you’ve had such huge success reaching these broad audiences, but you’ve struggled to open an actual brick-and-mortar version of Vinai, your upscale Hmong restaurant concept? What’s the holdup?

I don’t think there’s a holdup. I mean, we’re going through this process with it, but we’ve had financial issues. When I was younger, it was like, “F the system.” I’ve learned you got to play the game a little bit, right? And when I think of Vinai, I don’t like calling it “fine dining” or “elevated Hmong food” because it is built on the backs of the food that we ate as Hmong kids growing up. So, I always say, “This food, it’s always been great, but it’s never been respected.” 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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