The Twin Cities’ newest cooking school, Hot Wok Academy, launches Aug. 1 with in-person classes, field trips to Asian markets and a YouTube channel.
The man behind the school, Ming-Jinn Tong, isn’t a professionally trained chef. But he is an experienced community builder, a child of immigrants from a Chinese-speaking family, a communicator and someone looking to make a fresh start after a rather public parting with his last employer.
As a child, Tong would follow his Taiwanese mother around the kitchen, soaking in the sights, smells and tastes. “My earliest memories are working in the kitchen with my mom,” he said. “Washing vegetables and marinating meat were my first jobs.”
After college, he moved to Taiwan for a year to live with his grandfather, who was from China. “Not only did I get to learn the dishes he made, I learned about how he taught,” he said.
Tong returned home and began work as the outreach pastor at Bethlehem Baptist Church’s downtown Minneapolis campus, where he fortuitously crossed paths with chef Yia Vang nearly a decade ago. The two hit it off immediately, and began using food as a tool for community outreach. That included work for Crowded House ministry, which fed and fostered community through pop-up dinners and brunches after church services.
As Vang was learning about feeding people and establishing the roots of what would grow into his restaurants Union Hmong Kitchen and Vinai, Tong was paying attention. “That was where I learned the difference between home cooking and commercial cooking,” he said.
In 2021, tensions at Bethlehem Baptist Church began to affect Tong’s day-to-day work as a pastor and ultimately ended with his resignation. Tong said the move left him feeling untethered; his identity and core beliefs were tied to his life as a pastor. A husband and father of three in his early 40s, Tong’s planned three-week hiatus stretched on for months. Finally, he was able to figure out his other passions — and his next chapter.
“I settled on five things I love. I love Christ — the church I have problems with, but I love Christ. I love my family. I love thinking and talking about culture,” said Tong, who also works as an intercultural coach. “I love communication, and thinking things through. And the last one is cooking. The third arm of my passion. Not just cooking, but teaching. I love teaching food.”
Homing in on those passions, Tong worked as an instructor at Cooks of Crocus Hill and found that he loved sharing food and knowledge with an eager audience. Knowing that he wanted to expand his reach and bring in chefs with different skills, the idea of creating a cooking school soon formed.
Tong’s Hot Wok Academy will cover a wide swath of Asian cuisine and culture, with three ways for students to participate.
Traditional in-person classes ($89) will be held at Elim Church’s commercial kitchen (685 13th Av. NE., Mpls.). Tong is bringing in other culinary professionals, including Vang, Union Hmong Kitchen’s chef de cuisine Mike Yuen, Trung Pham of Pham’s Rice Bowl and Tran Truong of Meat Asia in New York City. Initial classes will teach how to make Laotian lumpia, double-fried Korean chicken, sizzling beef bites inspired by the night market in Taipei, wontons, pot stickers and more.
There are also Pin Programs, six-week courses ($499) that do a deep dive into a cuisine or method. One will study the types and ways noodles are served around Asia. Another will teach participants how to cook with a wok — including what type of wok to buy and how to get the best flavor from yours.
Lastly, there will be online cooking videos that are being filmed by a local production company and housed on YouTube.
Tong and the instructors also will lead excursions to the Twin Cities’ many Asian markets. On the itinerary are places like United Noodles, where Tong said his mother would shop because of the ample selection of Chinese ingredients. Other markets will vary from the large ones where you could lose yourself in rice varieties to small family-owned stores with specific ingredients.
Getting ready for the launch has Tong excited about his future and this new era.
“I’d spent 12 years of my life as a teacher, but I’d never taught food before,” he said. “When I put those two things [teaching and cuisine] together, it was incredible.”
685 13th Av. NE., Mpls., 612-234-1234. For a full list of classes or to register, go to hotwokacademy.com.
Joy Summers is a food and drink reporter for the Star Tribune.
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