In the opening scene of Yia Vang’s television series “Feral, ” the Twin Cities chef learns how to hunt and capture lionfish, a species invasive to the Gulf of Mexico, and then creates a dish with the exotic creature as a nod to his Hmong heritage. From Burmese pythons in the Florida Everglades to wild hogs on a family farm, Vang hunts, forages, and cooks to both tell a story and find an adventure. The eight-episode “Feral” debuted in November on the Outdoor Channel and was recently renewed for a second season to air at the end of this year.
“I think it’s kind of fun because growing up I loved hunting and fishing, and I was never able to get super into it,” says Vang, owner of Union Hmong Kitchen in Minneapolis and a 2022 James Beard Award finalist for “Best Chef” in the Midwest category.
Born in a Thai refugee camp, Vang’s family immigrated to the United States when he was 4 years old. Vang says he strives to integrate his Hmong roots into all that he does, which started with preparing traditional Hmong recipes he learned from his parents. His endeavors intersect culture, food, and family, and “Feral” is no exception.
While the cooking aspects were obviously familiar to Vang, he says “Feral” exposed him to new skills. His first shoot in Destin, Florida, where he embarked on a lionfish scuba dive, presented him with some unique challenges, as he found himself on a boat in 95-degree humidity after departing Minneapolis.
“It was the most miserable time being out in the elements, but I also think that set me up for the rest of the show,” Vang recalls. “I was completely out of my norm.” Vang picked up the methodology behind doing a television show, such as learning what your director wants, figuring out beat sheets, and deciding how best to conduct an interview.
In the first season of “Feral,” Vang says some of his favorite proteins to prepare were Chinese mystery snails invasive to Clear Lake, Wisconsin. In another episode, he worked with fresh iguana. He says both provided him the opportunity to connect to his family roots, as Hmong people are “still known as hunters and foragers.” His parents also shared with him recipes—he charred and roasted the iguana with lemongrass, ginger, and garlic, for example—and stories about the dishes they made when they were younger.
“The connection I have with my parents was recipes … it was this amazing thing, that I’m cooking the same recipe they made 60-something years ago in Laos,” Vang says.
Vang also appeared on screen last year as a contestant on Netflix’s “Iron Chef” reboot, where he lost but received some glowing reviews from the judges. Previously, he hosted four seasons of Twin Cities PBS’s “Relish” program highlighting Minnesota chefs and their heritages, and the locations featured in “Feral” have affirmed Vang’s belief that food can bring people together, regardless of background and culinary culture. He says filming for the second season has wrapped, but a run date has not yet been announced.
“One of the greatest things about this show is that I get to meet people all over the country,” he says. “We all get to cook and eat together at the same table.”