How to show love: Cooking

Yia Vang, ’04, is a co-owner of the pop-up restaurant Union Kitchen

If you know where to look on Friday nights, you can find some authentic, Hmong-inspired food. Yia Vang, ’04, is a co-owner of the pop-up restaurant Union Kitchen.

“Pop-ups were really cool out West, but we didn’t know there was a name.”

“Pop-ups were really cool out West, but we didn’t know there was a name,” he jokes.

The menu rotates through seasonal offerings, such as bok choy, broccoli and root vegetables, along with a variety of proteins. But there’s a catch to eating there — you can’t eat alone. You have to come with people because that’s part of the story Vang and co-owner, Chris Her, tell with their food.

THE COOK AND THE COMMUNICATOR

Vang putting together Beef Ribs.

Vang grew up cooking in kitchens and restaurants, which he hated. “Because you work when your friends play,” says Vang.

But no matter how hard he tried to get away from the kitchen, he was always drawn back. “It’s like that ex-girlfriend you always break up with, then date again, then break up,” says Vang. “Summer comes around and you’re like, ‘hey, what are you doing?’”

That’s why Vang pursued his degree in communication studies at UWL. It would be his escape from cooking — especially cooking Asian food. With his degree in hand, he moved to the Twin Cities to work with non-profits — his chance to change the world.

Unfortunately, he wasn’t having luck finding that perfect job and wound up back in the kitchen, running a food program at a large church. “I was essentially the lunch lady,” jokes Vang.

This is where the idea of what he’s doing now started. Vang, alongside one of the neighborhood outreach pastors, worked together to put on parties and gatherings at backyards and other areas. Back then, it was called “Crowded House.”

“That changed the way I view food,” shared Vang. “Before it was a $10 job. Now there’s an idea that food has a way to change how people communicate with each other.”

As odd as it sounds, it became a perfect fusion of Vang’s skills in the kitchen and his degree from UWL. He remembers a lesson from his first communication studies class, determining what is more important, interpretation or intention. “You can do all you want to make food, but if the people eating it don’t interpret it, it’s not right,” he notes

So Vang found himself back with that proverbial ex-girlfriend one last time. But this time, it was on his terms. “You cook from who you are,” says Vang. “I’m Hmong and the way we care about the people around us is food.”

Vang learned that every day from his parents. No matter what happened or how hard life was, Vang’s mom always had food on the table. She continues that today whenever her grandkids are around, or she visits them. “That’s how she showed she loved us,” says Vang.

MORE THAN JUST A MEAL

Vang looks at every dish he creates as part of a story — a narrative to create relationships. “Food brings people to the table, but the people keep you there,” he says.

That mindset inspired Vang and his co-owner to serve their food family style — large portions for guests to share. It’s their way of forcing people to not eat alone.

The motivation for the serving style comes from the heart. Vang remembers growing up — both in a refugee camp in Thailand and then in Port Edwards, near Wisconsin Rapids. He believes his parents sacrificed everything, so he and his siblings could have the American dream.

To this day, they continue helping. His dad is the reason he learned how to cook on a grill. His mom, the inspiration for so many recipes, still helps by making her “Momma Vang’s hot sauce” and steamed buns.

“My mom will never have an article written about her in Food & Wine Magazine, but if I do, I get to talk about her,” says Vang. “I get to talk about her legacy.”

One day, that dream may become a reality. But for now, Vang will keep cooking at his pop-up, working towards the brick and mortar and, most importantly, sharing the story of his people and his family.

“Cooking was that ex-girlfriend, but now I put a ring on it,” he jokes.