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On DEI: Yia Vang, Chef, Owner Union Hmong Kitchen, Vinai

Yia VangYia VangYia Vang doesn’t disparage formal or corporate diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. Such programs, he says, can have value for raising awareness about workplace inequities and creating a more level playing field. But for Vang, who was born in a Hmong refugee camp in Thailand and immigrated to the United States as a child, food trumps formal initiatives for fostering understanding and appreciation of diverse peoples and cultures.

Based in Minneapolis, Chef Vang owns and operates Union Hmong Kitchen and the forthcoming Vinai, named for the refugee camp where his parents met and married after the end of the Vietnam War. He has twice been nominated as James Beard Award Best Chef, Midwest, and Union Hmong Kitchen was nominated as the foundation’s Best New Restaurant in 2022. As he’s grown his business and gained national recognition, however, Vang’s greatest satisfaction comes not from awards and accolades but from creating platforms from which to share Hmong food, flavors, culture and stories and, in so doing, honoring his parents’ legacy.

“We have a mantra that says, ‘Every dish has a narrative.’ If you follow that narrative closely enough, you get to the people behind the food. And once you’re there, it’s actually not about the food, it’s about the people,” Vang notes. “For me, those narratives trace back to being at the table with my mom and dad, to hearing their stories and how they helped us survive hard times. Their stories are my stories and the food that I’m doing is true to what I grew up with. People come to our restaurant because we serve really good food, but they stay for the stories and that’s a great catalyst for cultivating relationships. Food and the narratives behind it, if we actually have curiosity and listen, can teach us so much about our shared humanity.”

As passionate as Vang is about sharing Hmong food traditions and culture with customers, he’s also excited to build his business with diversity and inclusion as cornerstones. Stressing that his restaurant is not staffed exclusively by Hmong cooks making Hmong food for Hmong people, he notes, “Our whole point is to share. It’s exciting because we get to teach our food to whoever wants to come in and listen and learn. I love the fact that we have all these different cultures on our team checking out Hmong food, discovering things that are similar in their cuisines, things that resonate with them. It opens up conversations about areas of our lives where there’s common ground and unity. A restaurant, after all, is a little ecosystem. We need each other. We either all fall apart or all get better together.”

Vang’s top strategy for nurturing a healthy, diverse and inclusive ecosystem? Listening. “The greatest thing we can do is to listen to people’s stories and avoid the temptation to interject ourselves into those stories,” Vang says. “The minute we do that, even if it comes from a good place, we stop listening. Please, just listen and let other people’s stories shine and sink in.”

Yia Vang

Chef, Owner

Union Hmong Kitchen, Vinai