PARK RAPIDS, Minn. — Hmong chef Yia Vang of Minneapolis is touring the state for a video series called "Culinary Campfire."

In addition to highlighting the beauty of various locations, the videos will provide Minnesota campers with ideas for enhancing their own campfire cooking experience through menu items featuring local ingredients. The promotional videos are being produced in partnership with Explore Minnesota.

Vang will be in Akeley, Minn., this weekend, cooking a breakfast of pork belly hash with veggies, duck egg and coffee over an open fire while highlighting the beauty of the campground around him. Vang is planning to stay overnight at the campground and said he is looking forward to experiencing the beauty he has so far seen only in pictures.

“To enjoy a campsite that is lakeside just makes it feel like a classic Minnesota camping experience, so we are excited to be so close to the water and the scenery,” he said. “Akeley is just about three hours from the Twin Cities, making it a perfect distance to feel like we are far enough away from the cities for a weekend in the woods, but close enough to make it an easy trip out.”

The first half of the "Culinary Campfire" series features Vang cooking swordfish tacos with jalapeno cream sauce at Lebanon Hills Regional Campground in Eagan, Hilltribe chicken with kale salad and lemon ginger sauce at Chester Woods Park near Rochester and grilled pork coppa with tiger bite sauce and sticky rice at Boom Island Park in Minneapolis. The first three cooking videos are posted at www.exploreminnesota.com/culinarycampfire. The Akeley video will be available for viewing this summer.

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Carrying on the culinary traditions of his family and the Hmong culture are important to Yia Vang. He is pictured here with his mother Pang Vang (Photo courtesy of Eliesa Johnson)
Carrying on the culinary traditions of his family and the Hmong culture are important to Yia Vang. He is pictured here with his mother Pang Vang (Photo courtesy of Eliesa Johnson)

Vang was born in a refugee camp in Thailand, where he lived until his family resettled in Wisconsin. He started his career in the restaurant business working as a dishwasher.

After becoming a chef, he worked at various restaurants in the Twin Cities before starting his first restaurant, Union Hmong Kitchen in Minneapolis, which was named best restaurant of 2019 by Mpls.St.Paul Magazine. He was also voted “Best Chef of 2020” in City Pages.

Vang has been featured on the cover of Bon Appétit magazine as well as in The New York Times and National Geographic. He hosts a television program, “Relish,” and co-hosts the podcast “White on Rice.”

Later this year, Vang plans to open a new restaurant in northeast Minneapolis, Vinai, named for the refugee camp where he was born. The restaurant will feature a woodfire grill. The food served will celebrate his parents’ legacy and combine local traditions and fresh seasonal food with his family’s Hmong heritage.

The name for Yia Vang's new restaurant that will open in Minneapolis later this year is Vinai, the name of the refugee camp in Thailand where he was born. (Photo courtesy Vang family)
The name for Yia Vang's new restaurant that will open in Minneapolis later this year is Vinai, the name of the refugee camp in Thailand where he was born. (Photo courtesy Vang family)

Vang said he is looking forward to the campfire cooking experiences throughout the state.

“Cooking at a campsite is simplicity at its best,” Vang said. “It’s about thinking ahead and being prepared, so as you’re making your packing list, that’s a part of it. Then you’ve got everything you need and can relax, get the fire going, and cook. It's great to make dishes that really play off of the surroundings — fresh, raw ingredients combined with the smokiness of a campfire.

“We cook a lot over fire, but we aren't always lucky enough to cook in such a peaceful place as nature. Cooking over fire is an important part of cooking for the Hmong people, and I grew up cooking over fire with my dad and uncles. They showed me how to think of the fire as a kind of ingredient to any recipe, and ways to use it to add to the flavor of whatever is being prepared..”

During May, which is Asian American and Pacific Islander History Month, Vang and other Twin Cities chefs are doing a virtual cooking series called “Minnesota Rice: Love our People Like You Love our Food."

Videos will be released throughout May, and all funds raised will support the work of the Coalition of Asian American Leaders.