Who Owns Asian Food?

From left to right, moderator Andrea Nguyen, and panelists Raghavan Iyer, Ann Ahmed, Hai Truong and Yia Vang // Photo by Ariana Lindquist

“When you realize a life was given so you could have life, it changes the way you live. It also changes the way you cook.”

– Yia Vang, at the April 8, 2019 Lynhall panel discussion “Insiders or Outsiders: Who Owns Asian Food?”

 

The challenges of cooking Asian food in America defined a conversation about food Monday night at the Lynhall in Minneapolis. Panelists including Raghavan Iyer (Pizza Karma), Hai Truong (Ngon Bistro), Ann Ahmed (Lat14) and Yia Vang (Union Kitchen) dove into questions of race, food, immigration, culinary appropriation, and the knotted mess that is the word “authentic.”

The discussion was moderated by Bay Area–based writer and author Andrea Nguyen, who did a post-panel signing of her new book,Vietnamese Food Any Day.”

The discussion about the evolving profile of Asian and Asian-American cuisine is something that The Growler is committed to covering—see our Future of Food dinner featuring Ann Ahmed, our review of Lucky Cricket, our Minnesota Spoon profile of Christina Nguyen of Hai Hai and our profile of John Ng of Zen Box, our review of Raghavan Iyer’s restaurant Pizza Karma, and our profile of Yia Vang for more context and powerful stories of food, family, and identity.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

ANDREA NGUYEN: I’ve had the great fortune of working with the Splendid Table over the years during my career, and they introduced me to Anne [Spaeth]. We started talking about doing something at The Lynhall and she described this as a community space.

And then she said, ‘What do you think about that Lucky Cricket thing?’ Most of you are food people, and so you’re aware of the debates that went on about authenticity with regard to Lucky Cricket. Lee Dean of the Star Tribune and I had the great fortune of dining there this afternoon for lunch, and what I really thought was so weird about the discussion about Lucky Cricket was: Where were all the Asian people? You’ve got a lot of them here, and Minnesota has developed over time to reflect a lot of the demographic changes that have happened.

With that in mind, I said: ‘Hey Anne, let’s bring some Asian chefs and restaurateurs to the Lynhall and let’s have a discussion: Insiders or Outsiders, Who Owns Asian Food? I don’t want to spend time talking about Lucky Cricket that much. I don’t want to focus on that restaurant, I don’t want to focus on Andrew Zimmern, I want to focus on other people you’ve had in your community for years and let them speak and have honest conversations.

[Nguyen then explained that she would be introducing the panelists by reading from a negative crowdsourced review of each of their restaurants.]

NGUYEN: I want to start out with Hai Truong, he owns a wonderful restaurant, Ngon Bistro. It’s a modern Vietnamese restaurant. And here is the Yelp review:

I visited this place for lunch. There are many Vietnamese establishments in the Twin Cities area. Unfortunately, this place isn’t one of the more authentic Vietnamese places.

Ngon doesn’t do anything revolutionary with Vietnamese cuisine, although it does taste alright. I’m not saying the food is bad, it just cannot be seen as a traditional Vietnamese restaurant. This can be seen in the portion sizes, which are very small for the charged prices, as well as their clearly Western influence (I think I remember some sort of burger option on the menu, which does not belong in an authentic Vietnamese place’s menu). Most authentic Vietnamese places usually give a very generous amount of food for their price. Maybe this place was going for a fancy Western take on Vietnamese (as there are some French influences from when Vietnam was ruled as a French colony), but even then there is not too much to get excited about when ordering.

If you are perhaps new and cautious about trying traditional Vietnamese flavors, maybe this place would be better for you so you could segue into real Vietnamese. However, because the Twin Cities is filled with so many quality Vietnamese spots, I’d suggest finding another location.

HAI TRUONG: That actually kind of sounds like my mom wrote it.

We’ll be eating at [my mom’s] friend’s place, and she’ll be like: ‘Oh. She could have done this better.’ A lot of times, for me it’s like a big mistake asking, ‘How was it?’ She’ll be like: ‘Mm.’ [shrugs]

Can’t you say a good thing? It’s your friend.

As far as the Yelp review, it’s actually one of the most common things that we get. For us, it’s either you love us or you hate us. I don’t really have a problem with that. I feel like I would be doing something wrong if I was just all right all of the time.

The portion size and cost being authentic—I think that’s where we kind of tap into, what does that meal cost you, and who is being hurt by that? Oh yeah, that’s not big enough, that should be this cheap. The pho is supposed to cost $7, mine is $13–14. We use organic, sustainable, local [ingredients]—everything is going to cost more. That’s reflected.

We have a full staff. My parents owned Caravelle Restaurant, so I grew up in the industry. My parents worked, brought us up, put us through college—I went back to the restaurant industry. With that, I know what it takes to work every day. I wanted to be in the industry, but I didn’t want to do that—how do you have a sustainable ethnic restaurant? Where the question is: What makes it ethnic, or authentic, comes into play.

Hai Truong, left // Photo by Becca Dilley

Hai Truong, left // Photo by Becca Dilley

Where does the food come from? What are the costs that come into play if it comes from a [local] farm? Labor costs, are you paying a fair wage? I talked a little bit about this to everyone else, the dirty little secret of what gets you your cheap food—are people being paid fairly? To expect things like that, to expect these costs, to expect these portions—someone is losing on this whole thing. And that’s where it hurts the community. A lot of these reviews I get are from the Asian community, on portion size. That perpetuates people not being able to spend time with their family, being there to work constantly for your cheap, large-portioned food, and I think that’s something that really needs to be talked about for traditional, authentic food.

With this review, there are certain things—we all love food here. What we love inspires us to create. When we first started we were Ngon Vietnamese Bistro, and I just sort of took out the ‘Vietnamese’ part and we became Ngon Bistro. I live in a vibrant community. There are lots of things that inspire me. And I travel. I don’t want to limit the things that inspire me—I want to push beyond. We are a modern Vietnamese restaurant—I say it’s French-Vietnamese with a Midwest pantry.

This is what I have to work with, this is what I have to create with. I work with farmers, I work with things within season. Is this ingredient Vietnamese? No, but I’m going to take the spices and the flavors I grew up with and infuse that in there, but also what gets inspired… just like the burger comment. I did make a burger! It was fun. I really wanted a Big Mac. This was a while ago, I made it, I made the special sauce, I came up with my own hot sauce, named after my son called Wrath of Khanh.

Then the Twin Cities Burger Battle started contacting us and we did three years of the Burger Battle for fun. One year it was that, the other year I was like: ‘How can I infuse pho into a burger?’ So I made a pho burger. I took the noodles and fried them, I took the basil and lime and made an aioli with green onions and cilantro—I tried to infuse the flavors in a burger. There are things like that—is it authentic? No. Are the flavors good? I enjoy it, lots of people enjoy it. For me, if you go to a place and say, ‘Is this authentic?’ or you question the portion size, I’d say approach with an open mind, and ‘Is this good? Did you enjoy this?’

NGUYEN: We have a lot of discussions about authenticity, and it’s such a messy, dirty word. I used to write for a magazine called Saveur, and the tagline had ‘authenticity’ in it, and we’d go ‘Ooh, how do we define that?’ One of things…

RAGHAVAN IYER: How about the word ‘delicious?’

NGUYEN: Right! Right! We use it all the time, but how do we define authenticity? One of the things that Hai does, is he’s also making this modern food, but if you go to Vietnam, you see it! People are playing all the time. When I researched my pho cookbook, there were pho cocktails in Hanoi.

TRUONG: We did one. We did a Hot Toddy with pho broth.

NGUYEN: Yeah! So I went home and there’s a pho michelada in the book. So I think sometimes with authenticity, when we think about it, we think about it as being a fixed thing, but it’s moving. So I’d like to move on to Ann Ahmed, who owns Lemongrass as well as Lat14. Her [TripAdvisor] review goes like this:

I experienced a disconnect at Lat14. The concept is somewhat interesting: exploring the food of Asian countries along the 14th parallel, including Thailand, the Philippines, Laos, and Cambodia.

Judging by the layout and decor, Lat14 is clearly positioned as an upscale Asian fusion dining experience, and the prices reflect it. The problem is that pricey menu items are just humble offerings found on the street in these Asian countries.

Was it good? Yes, what we ordered was OK. Was it as good as the same dish bought on the street? Not in my experience. Was it a value? No. What makes street food good is not just the taste, but the simplicity and straight-forward nature of the dining experience. Gussying up street food in an upscale environment is, to me, a disconnect. Not impressed.

ANN AHMED: When I thought about this, one of the things is—I can’t really blame this guy, he takes a trip, he’s on the streets of Asia, and he has these wonderful memories. It’s something he remembers. But when I think of my upbringing, my childhood, we’ve been here for more than 30 years. And my mom has always been in the restaurant business. I blame her for that. She works these long days, and she’s making all this food, and I feel bad and say: ‘Mom, what can I help you with?’ just to get things done. And she puts it on the menu for $2. I’m like: ‘You made me do that for 12 hours and you’re charging two bucks?’ There is a labor in it.

When you think about it, it’s fresh ingredients. We never took shortcuts—it’s still fresh papaya. Is there an option of getting frozen papayas? Would that make it cheaper? I’ve seen avocados come out of a bag, but the thing is, with Asian food, when you think about the history of how we got here—it’s a lot of assimilation, a lot of adaptation. Thirty years, people weren’t into Asian food, and that’s why we priced it so low. Just [so] that somebody who’s not within your race will buy it. And then you look at trying to sell it to somebody who’s within your demographics, that’s within your race—they’re in the same struggle you are, they just got here. They probably got a job as a janitor or they probably got a job at the flower factory, plucking plastic flowers into foam. Does that justify you charging a lot?

That’s where the standard came from. So I don’t blame this man for thinking Asian food should be at the cost of street food all the time, just because when we got to the U.S. that was the only way for us to display our food. Because we were trying to fit in. And not only that, my mom doesn’t have a business background. She doesn’t have the business savvy that I do.

The sausage platter at Lat14 // Photo by Kevin Kramer

The sausage platter at Lat14 // Photo by Kevin Kramer

I’m running all these numbers, calculating, ‘Ooh, that portion cut is five cents, you can’t have more than two.’ These are all the things that add up. For her, it was survival mode. She had three jobs, and she’s still going home and cutting pork skin to make nam khao. And yes, nam khao’s on every menu and there are different prices for it. But because this man is in my restaurant and paying $12 when he got it for 50 cents on the streets of Thailand, it’s overpriced and he’s not impressed. You know what? He doesn’t know that the disconnect is within him. Does he know our community and the struggles?

NGUYEN: One of the things Ann hasn’t touched on is that she’s Lao. Nam khao is a Lao dish. But it has become subsumed under the rubric of ‘Thailand.’ So much of the food that we love as Thai food is Lao food. You’re serving Lao food, baby, but you’re couching it as Thai food! Can you tell us more about that?

AHMED: I opened up my first restaurant 14 years ago, it’s in Brooklyn Park, it’s a super hip area! But the thing is—14 years ago, nobody knew what Lao was. If I said Lemongrass Lao Cuisine, everyone’s really going to be popping in, lines out the door? No, that was not the reality. Yeah, I was a little smart—no, I’m not going to put ‘Lao’ on this because it’s never going to work. I’m not going to be able to stay afloat.

So, I saw Lemongrass Thai Cuisine. And people came in, still looking for chow mein and orange chicken … it got them in the door. Once again, it’s about educating. One of the most successful Thai restaurant owners is Andy Ricker, and he’s so successful because he educates. And that’s what we need to continue to do is educate people about our food. It’s okay to talk about it. It’s okay to say, ‘This nam khao really originates in Laos, and much of the population of Northern Thailand are Laotian, they’re Isaan people.’

I was hiding. I was like: ‘I don’t want them to know I’m Lao at this Thai restaurant. I was afraid I was going to fail. My thing is—now, I’m comfortable educating people and I’m comfortable about sharing my story and the audience is ready. They’re ready to learn more about us and about our food. We opened our restaurants because we’re passionate about it and because we wanted to share. It’s something very near and dear and when people write these reviews it’s hard. When I first got my first review for Lemongrass, I shut myself down for a week. I didn’t know what to do. I felt personally attacked, and like I’d failed. And it’s from a complete stranger! That is a lot harder than when it comes from someone I care about, like my mom. She’s real harsh, but these reviews are worse.

Just the other day, my husband decided to delete the Yelp app on his phone because he’s crazy—the first thing he does in the morning is check Yelp to see what kind of reviews we have. And that was not productive. I was like: ‘Dude, we’ve got to get on with my day. We’ve got to get the kids ready. We don’t have time to deal with this man and him being not impressed with us.’ But we do read these because we want to learn from them and we want to be better and take what we can from it.

TRUONG: I did that the first year, just deleted everything. But just to let you know: [it took] five years before people stopped asking for chow mein and sweet and sour pork.

NGUYEN: That brings me to my dear friend Raghavan Iyer. I’ve known him as a fellow cookbook author, teacher, and consultant. He’s always been telling me to come to Minneapolis, and well—here I am, Raghavan! And here you are, going to talk about your latest project, which is Pizza Karma out in Eden Prairie. These are his recipes and his concept and it’s such a wonderful concept for pizzas. So, this is what someone recently wrote, just back in March:

Fusion of Indian and Italian food. Modern, clean, very well designed place. Also earth friendly.

My review of this place is comparing this to desi pizzas available in San Francisco Bay Area. So please bear with me.

Ordered the pan seared slices of potato and veggies. super thin pizza. The taste is neither Indian nor Italian. The toppings were very spicy and too sour. The base is not an authentic naan. Naan needs to be soft and crispy, it was none. It not even tasted like the base of thin pizzas I have tried in Europe. I will not call this a naan pizza. Definitely a Tandoori roti pizza. Cheese still needed 1 more minute in oven.

Definitely well tried but needs more work. The garbanzo beans were very well cooked and taste. I will recommend them to create a garbanzo pizza.

Will be back to try the paneer pizza soon.

Hit was the automatic hand washer near the cooler. Takes 12 secs to clean hands.

IYER: Whatever his name is, I would say the first words that come to mind are: ‘Dear F.U…’

It is, in many ways—obviously my background has always been as a teacher, and one of the things I learned early on is to ignore reviewers. If you were sitting there trying to answer every reviewer, you would go crazy. There’s always somebody who hates what you do, and hates your guts—it’s not worth your time to do that.

What it all boils down to is the belief in what you’re doing and the integrity of what you’re doing, and you just keep with it. Like many of the others on this panel, I hate the word ‘authentic,’ I hate the word ‘classic,’ I hate the word ‘spicy,’ because they’re all so misused and misconstrued. I remember talking to somebody—and, of course, Indians are very opinionated and then some—I go to these book signings and have these heated discussions with Indians and one of the guys said, ‘You’re not doing Indian food, you’re doing fusion, and it’s not classic.’ And I said: ‘Sir, can you define what classic means?’ He said, ‘Well, you know, this is what my mother didn’t do…’ And I said: ‘Sir, I ain’t your mother.’

I said: ‘What you find, to me, is a country that’s 6,000 years old and you see every invasion and every foreign power that goes through it has an influence in terms of techniques and ingredients and so on.’ So is it fusion? India has been doing fusion cooking for 6,000 years. You think about potatoes. The latest book I did was all about potatoes. Potatoes didn’t come into India prior to the 16th Century, which also brought at the same time as tomatoes and chilies. So this guy talks about, it was too spicy and as a teacher, I cringe inside. Because to me, ‘spicy’ does not equate to hot. ‘Spicy’ equates to a world of spices. And so oftentimes if I feel very persnickety and bitchy at a restaurant and somebody says ‘How spicy would you like your food?’, I would say: ‘What spices are you using?’

And they would say, ‘We really meant hot,’ and I’d say: ‘Then ask me how hot I would like my food, that is a more appropriate question.’ But it’s very rare I’m bitchy, you know that.

NGUYEN: Very, very rare.

IYER: Here is another example of—I’m sorry, but the customer is not always right. Everybody says the customer is always right. But not really. In this age when everybody has a platform to stand on and spew whatever they want to spew without any knowledge of what they’re talking about—and as an educator of almost 30 years, I always feel the best thing to do is to educate your audience. Whether they are restaurant goers, or your readers, or people who watch you on television, it’s all about education. And so, you know, for somebody to say, ‘You’re not doing Indian food.’ Yeah, hello? Have you looked at the menu? It’s Pizza Karma, there’s not one word that says it’s Indian.

NGUYEN: Explain Desi pizza.

IYER: Desi is a Hindi word which loosely translates to ‘homeboy.’ Desi food is Indian food or Pakistani food or Bangladeshi food. So when they talk about Desi food, I’m the first one to say Pizza Karma is not an Indian restaurant. It was never designed to be an Indian restaurant, it really looked at the concept of pizzas in a very different light.

You look at how a restaurant defines pizza—we’ve got Ann Kim here who has amazing pizza restaurants around town. And her restaurants define them as wood-fired pizzas. You go to Black Sheep and it’s coal-fired pizzas. And I said, over the years, I’ve always realized that nobody has done tandoor-fired pizzas. These are not naan pizzas. The tandoor in one shape or size or form is used as a live fire cooking technique in over 80 percent of the world. But you look at people who want to pigeon-hole you into a category. But I look at this when I wrote the potato cookbook and I was on a 45-city book tour, and reporters said, ‘Wow, we love Indian potato recipes!’ And I said: ‘Well, you’d be disappointed because this book has only two Indian recipes in it.’ The remaining 73 recipes are potato recipes from around the world.

So what I wanted to showcase at this pizza restaurant was the medium of cooking that dough qualifies what that restaurant is all about. It’s all about the pizza, but it’s also all about the global nature of that dish.

Pizza Karma’s Pulled Pork Pizza // Photo by Becca Dilley

Pizza Karma’s Pulled Pork Pizza // Photo by Becca Dilley

I wanted to really showcase the true global nature of that cooking instrument. When we opened there were a few people from Shanghai and they looked at it and their eyes lit up and they said: ‘Oh my God, that’s what we have in the streets of Shanghai!’ If you look at that cooking technique, it’s used in 80 percent of the world. But they look at you, they look at your brown skin and the fact that your name is Raghavan Iyer and they look at the fact that you have written four books on Indian food [and they assume] that’s all you know. But it’s the other way around. I have stepped into the world of the European-American market.

I hate the word ‘Asian-American,’ because it’s 48 countries in Asia you’re talking about. I hate the word ‘Mexican-American.’ Everybody is qualified except for European-Americans. So now, on purpose, I always say European-Americans because they too are from a different country. It sets the field on a more equal platform. All of a sudden it’s not like it’s them against us, we’re all ‘us.’

So how do you portray that with food? When it comes to stepping on the other side now, it’s about the integrity of what you’re serving. You believe in good food, you believe in integrity. That’s what you find in Pok Pok in Portland, with Andy Ricker. David Thompson, who did a huge book on Thai cooking. This European guy who lived in Thailand for a long time and did a big tome about Thai food. That to me is—that’s gravitas. Lynne Kasper in the audience—she did an amazing book called “The Splendid Table,” if you’re not familiar with it. But again, these are individuals who spend years of research on something so they have the ability to talk about it with some knowledge and some authenticity. I think this is where the word authentic can come into play. They have credit. They have clout to do it.

I did a book on curries called 660 Curries. So I know a little bit about spices and I know a little bit about Indian food, but I also know a fair bit about working with foods from around the world. So to me, to qualify Pizza Karma as an Indian restaurant that wants to be an Italian restaurant… I had a discussion with a food critic on Twitter—I won’t mention the name, and he said ‘does a naan pizza count as being a pizza?’

He was trying to be cutesy with the word ‘naan.’ So I said answer a question for me: ‘When you take flour, you take a leavening agent, and you take salt, and liquid, and you make a dough out of that and you put it in the oven, and you bake it—that’s a pizza.’ And he goes: ‘Good point.’

The chile-spiked spinach greens // Photo by Becca Dilley

The chile-spiked spinach greens // Photo by Becca Dilley

The concept of who owns Asian food—everybody owns it. Who owns Italian food? Everybody owns it. It’s what you do—if you do it well—but don’t sit there criticizing saying, hey, you’re not doing Asian food but I’m going to teach you how to do Asian food because a European-American guy knows how to do Asian food. You can’t put down, and you can’t talk about these phenomenal immigrants who came to the U.S. from these 48 countries and they did food, and yes—Laura Chin is here, whose mother was Leeann Chin, one of the most phenomenal businesswomen … and [Leeann] said, ‘What I serve at my restaurant is not Chinese food.’ She said she gave people what they thought they wanted.

You have to feed the people, but you have to be honest to your food and you have to understand what you’re doing and be okay with that. At the end of the day, can you walk away and have a Teflon coating, and say, you know what, they’re going to express their opinion no matter what it is, but in reality, they don’t understand where things are coming from. If I were to sit there and critique this guy—I could do it in an educational setting, but to do it in a Yelp setting… it is about nobody really owning anything. It is about the globality of it.

NGUYEN: What I’d like to talk to Yia Vang about is his experience in crafting his Hmong cuisine.

There are 66,000 people of Hmong heritage in this area, and they are stateless people, they’re people with no flag. Yet they’re some of the strongest people and bravest people who have lived off the land. I’ve had the great joy of spending time with Hmong farmers in the Central Valley of California when I reported a story there. They were fierce. I asked the man how to prep something in his kitchen and he whipped out a machete. And Yia’s like: ‘That’s right!’ He’s doing something so beautiful, as a young person forging his cuisine here in Minneapolis.

So I wanted to ask him to answer the question—because he’s been spared of Yelp (until soon, I think)—to tell us what you see and what your strategies are for crafting your idea of Hmong food.

YIA VANG: Yeah, uh, if you start out as a pop-up, people can’t locate you so they can’t do Yelp reviews. And if you just keep moving constantly… [audience laughter]

One of the things I always get asked is, ‘What is Hmong food?’, right? It becomes this really awkward eighth grade dance where … ‘Uh, where do I put my hands?’ You try to explain it’s not Thai food, it’s not Vietnamese food, it’s not Laotian food, but it’s kind of like Thai food, it’s kind of like Vietnamese food, it’s kind of like Laotian food. So you end up talking yourself in a circle. I don’t know if we have a Hmong Council somewhere, but even they don’t know what it is.

So over the last four years of what we’ve been doing, my cousin Chris [Her] and I, with some friends we’ve come up with this thing: Hmong food isn’t a type of food, it’s a philosophy of food, it’s a way of thinking about food. When you think about it that way, it frees you. The word ‘Hmong’ is loosely translated to ‘free’ or ‘freedom,’ and a lot of times growing up I would have kids ask me, ‘Hey, like, is it weird that you don’t have a country?’ As a kid, yeah, that was weird. But as I’ve gotten older, in that sense of having freedom, some people might see that as a negative, but I see it as a plus. Freedom means without borders, and I have that chance for creativity. The one thing I’ve learned over the last 30-some years of being alive is that freedom comes at a price, right? That price was my mom and dad.

If you guys are familiar with the history of the Hmong people, the first Hmong people came into the Twin Cities in 1975. It was right after the Vietnam War. The Hmong people were considered hill people—the hill people of Laos. They traveled from all over, they have been traced back to Western China in 2,000 B.C. Our people are agricultural people, so we go where the land is. Eventually, we ended up in the hills of Laos. If you know anything about the terrain of Laos—you don’t have a lot of good seasons in the soil. You only get two seasons and then you have to move to another place.

Yia Vang preparing a dish // Photo by Wing Ta

And while this was happening, we drew these kind of connections. We’re a restaurant searching for a home and in a funny way, our people were a group of people searching for a home. So what happened is the U.S. government, the CIA, came in and said: ‘We’re not allowed to have boots on the ground,’ so they found this group of indigenous people in the hills of Laos called the Hmong people and said: ‘Hey, can you be our proxy army?’ My dad would tell stories of U.S. CIA caseworkers and special forces guys who would come in and train them. Their main job was to rescue downed U.S. Air Force pilots. My dad and my brothers at age 12 or 13 joined the fight, as all able-bodied males did. There was a handshake deal that was made, win or lose, whatever happens in this country, you guys have free citizenship in America. America loses the war, pulls out, and leaves the Hmong people behind and the Communist Party came through and just slaughtered our people.

When that happened, the Hmong people needed refuge. Refugee camps were set up in Northern Thailand across the Mekong River. And my mom would tell stories of how the men had to escape—my dad and his friends would spend months in the jungle eating roots of trees to survive and escape to the refugee camps. I heard that story, and when you’re in a refugee camp—I was born in a refugee camp and it wasn’t until I was five that moved here—when I hear all of that, it makes sense to me when my mom said to someone interviewing her, ‘What was it like to come to America to be free? What are your thoughts?’ When my mom said this, and it changed my view of life. She said, talking about her and my dad: ‘We knew when we came to America, our life was over, our life was done. But by coming here, we know that our kids’ lives just only began.’ What they did was they traded their life for mine.

My dad had this potential to be this great man in Laos, a well-respected man in his village—he threw all of that aside to work a job getting paid barely seven bucks an hour cleaning toilets so his kids could have a life. When you realize a life was given so you could have life, it changes the way you live. It also changes the way you cook. It changes the why of how you cook.

I don’t really get annoyed by this ‘authenticity’ stuff… Hmong people will write things on our Facebook pages and tear us a new one about how we’ve sold out, and bastardized our food for our own glory. Let me tell you, there’s no glory in this. [audience laughter] At midnight you’re stuck scrubbing a pot that you don’t know why one of your line cooks burned. You want that glory? Take it.

What we’ve coined at Union Kitchen is that every dish has a narrative. Every dish. Not just a Hmong dish. You follow that narrative long enough and you get to the people behind that dish. It’s not about the food, it’s about the people. We firmly believe food is the catalyst to cultivating great relationships. You want to know the story of my people, of my mom and dad—know our food. My mom made sure there was dinner on the table constantly—every night. And the fear of ‘we don’t have enough money,’ we didn’t have to take on that fear. She protected us and made sure we were always well-fed.

I get to tell that story through a noodle dish we make. It is stupid easy to make that noodle dish, but when I make it, it has so much meaning to me. All I really want to do is share that with people. If you want to look at that and say: ‘That’s not authentic!’ I guess? Sure, not hurting my feelings. But in this noodle dish, there is a deep soul love that comes from my mom. I know that there’ll be young people out-cooking me, and I’m okay with that—they’ll make their lavender foam and do whatever they want, and that’s cool, and they’ll have some fancy show. But you’re not going to tell the story of my parents better than me. Because I lived it. Because I’m still there.

We have this dish called Hill Tribe Chicken—again, stupid easy to make. It’s like chicken over wood fire, you grill it, my mom has this hot sauce, you put the hot sauce on and eat it with sticky rice. It’s pretty easy to make. That dish comes from this idea… I played football in high school. Every Friday night I’d come home from football games. I’d get home maybe 10 or 10:30pm. My parents couldn’t come to my football games because they were working late. But every time I came homethere was always one whole chicken and a pot of fresh rice every Friday night during the football season that was always out there every night. It sounds silly, but when I eat that Hill Tribe Chicken I go back to that. That was my father saying to me: ‘I love you. I love you not because you made this many tackles or you had a great game. I love you because you’re my son.’ So when you realize that… this food, it tells the story of our people. If you take time to listen, you can see the history of our people.

The Kaymayan Feast // Photo by Wing Ta

The Kaymayan Feast prepared by Yia Vang // Photo by Wing Ta

Our people are what I call a progressive people, a people in progress… because we’re not there yet. When you don’t have a home of your own, or a flag of your own, or an anthem, what do you do? You have your food. And what’s going to help the next generation is passing that food on to the next generation. I’m merely building my layer for the next generation. Because my parents? They built a strong layer, and they got us here to America, where we’re free to explore our dreams. They left everything in their homeland. People always ask us: ‘Do you ever want to go back?’ And my mom’s like, ‘No… this is awesome here!’ My dad’s like: ‘We don’t get shot at!’ But we can do that [go back] with our food.

I really encourage you guys to listen to the food that’s put in front of you, because it tells you stories about the people it comes from. I know that growing up a lot of my white friends would tell the story about a Hmong kid who they’d become friends with, and they’d go over to their house, and their mom fed them whatever. Because that was our language of love, and how we loved each other. Even today, my mom feeds my nieces and nephew, and she doesn’t call them ‘my grandkids,’ she called them ‘my kids.’ The same hand that fed us when we were kids is feeding my nieces and nephew.

Every time we’re over there, my mom says: ‘Hurry up, eat, there’s still something to eat.’ And that’s the same feeling we want people to have when they visit us—here’s a shameless plug—at Sociable Cider Werks where our food trailer is. We want that same feeling when you come over—come learn from my mom and dad’s story.