Christina Nguyen knows food. But the chef/owner behind two of the Twin Cities most popular restaurants, Hai Hai and Hola Arepa, wasn’t sure what to do amid the recent rash of anti-Asian violence across the U.S. “So many of us in the community were feeling disheartened and a little helpless, like we need to do something and we don’t know exactly what,” she says.

Nguyen started brainstorming. “Selfishly, I was like, man, it would be great to get together with my Asian friends and cook and share some time together because we’re all feeling this so much. And then we were like, okay, we should figure out a way to raise some money.”

Minnesota Rice

The star of a few recent online cooking videos, Nguyen quickly realized the medium might offer the perfect outlet for sharing stories from fellow Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) chefs. She turned to chef Yia Vang (Union Hmong Kitchen, Vinai) for advice, and the two collaborated to create Minnesota Rice, a fundraiser benefitting The Coalition of Asian American Leaders (CAAL).

Christina Nguyen and Yia Vang during filming for Minnesota Rice. Photos by Lauren Cutshall.

“We’re just chefs and we know how to cook, we know how to talk to people about our food, but we have no idea about the kind of support the community needs,” Nguyen says. “But [CAAL], they’re the ones who are in tune and talking to people all the time and actually helping out the community in real, tangible ways and creating policies. So we were like, okay, let’s try to do something to get money into the hands of the people who are really taking action.”

The project is a collection of seven food and cocktail how-to videos, which will be released to subscribers throughout the month of May, which is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. With a one-time fee of $100 for viewers to access the videos, 100% of the proceeds will go directly to CAAL.

“Love our people like you love our food.”

Nguyen, Vang and the other chefs involved hope the project goes beyond the financial benefit to CAAL. Created in Nguyen’s home kitchen, the videos not only share cooking tips and recipes, but also the stories behind them. “These dishes are delicious and they’re amazing, but we want you to know that there are people behind them. There’s soul behind them. And that is actually why we’re excited to be able to share ourselves, a little bit of who we are, our humanity, through the foods that we’re making,” Vang says.

Yia Vang, John Ng and Linda Goh. Photo by Lauren Cutshall.

“Eating at Yia’s restaurant or eating ramen at Zen Box is not an anti-racist action on its own,” Nguyen adds. “I think the people are like, ‘I’m not racist. I eat ramen. It’s cool.’ And I think that so many of us were feeling like, well, you’re down for our food, but are you down for our people and the people who make it, the people behind the food?”

Yia Vang with Ann Ahmed. Photo by Lauren Cutshall.

The people behind the food and drink at the heart of Minnesota Rice are offering up a diverse and delicious menu. In addition to Nguyen and Vang, participants include Ann Ahmed, Jonathan Janssen, Ann Kim, John Ng and Linda Goh, and Dustin Nguyen. The collaboration has been a hit with food lovers in Minnesota and beyond. To date, Nguyen and team have raised more than $50,000 for CAAL – and that amount continues to climb.

The project also comes at a time when many in the restaurant industry are fighting to survive. The COVID-19 pandemic forced many businesses to close and put countless people out of work. But despite the difficult year they’ve all had, Nguyen says that the people behind the food community always find ways to help each other out. “It felt really crazy, especially coming out of a pandemic when everybody is just burned out. It’s hard coming from a place where I just don’t know if I have more to give, but it kind of fills up your soup pot in a way when you’re running on empty. Doing stuff like this makes me feel like I’m replenished. I can give more.”

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This story is made possible by the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund and the citizens of Minnesota.

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Relish host Yia Vang spends some quality time in the kitchen learning the secrets of his mother’s delicious Hmong-style steam buns. Prepare to be delighted – and hungry.

If a “pancake-like bite, overflowing with flavor,” sounds like your kind of tasty, savory treat, then prepare to make Chef Christina Nguyen’s Vietnamese Banh Khot recipe in your kitchen.

“This journey of love is a layered one, akin to two rivers running parallel: a yearning to discover my Vietnamese roots, and a desire to better understand my parents and their painful pasts. As these two streams of soul searching converged into an ocean of historical and personal knowledge, I came to love myself and my heritage almost as much as a spicy bowl of homemade phở.” Discover how writer Anh-Hoa Thi Nguyen came to have a deep appreciation of her heritage in “Love from Saigon, Minnesota.”