Hot Luck Fest’s First Hmong Chef Puts a Spotlight on Southeast Asian Cuisine

James Beard–nominated pastry chef Diane Moua comes bearing passion and passionfruit.

Chef Diane Moua
Chef Diane Moua | Photo by Gemma Weston Photography, courtesy of Kayla Hui
Chef Diane Moua | Photo by Gemma Weston Photography, courtesy of Kayla Hui

Brown sugar boba tortes, cupcakes with Thai tea buttercream—pastry chef Diane Moua’s Instagram displays a drool-worthy grid of desserts. Rhode Island-born but Wisconsin-raised, Diane Moua is a Hmong chef who has contributed to Minnesota’s culinary scene for the past 21 years through her mouthwatering pastries. She’s on a mission to do more than just bake. She’s trailblazing a path for Hmong chefs while sharing the vibrant flavors of Southeast Asia at this year’s Hot Luck Fest (May 25–28).

Founded by Aaron Franklin, James Moody, and Mike Thelin, Hot Luck Fest is a food and music festival which takes place annually in Austin. Additionally, it hosts pop-ups in various cities. This year’s fest will again showcase the best of the nation’s culinary talent. And Moua will be the first Hmong chef to participate in the festival, confirms Hot Luck Fest.

Eating at Hot Luck Festival
Photo by Anne Ousey, courtesy of Hot Luck Festival

Although there are approximately 327,000 Hmong people in the United States, Hmong and Asian people are still underrepresented in the culinary scene. So, “to be a part of Hot Luck Fest is a huge honor,” Moua tells Thrillist.

Moua didn’t get to Hot Luck Fest overnight. Her journey began over two decades ago in the kitchen of Tim McKee, the Midwest’s first James Beard Award–winning chef, where she interned and worked for him for 12 years. Afterward, Moua trained with Gavin Kaysen in 2014, helping to develop pastry programs as executive pastry chef for his restaurants, Spoon and Stable and, later, for Bellecour and Demi in Minneapolis.

Moua has been nominated for an impressive five James Beard Awards, twice as a finalist for Outstanding Pastry Chef. She has a new Minneapolis restaurant opening in the works this year.

Chef Diane Moua
Photo by Emma Weston Photography, courtesy of Kayla Hui

The camaraderie and teamwork of the culinary scene are what initially drew Moua to the kitchen, but it was the opportunity to share the vibrant tastes of her culture that captivated her. Growing up on her family’s farm in Wisconsin, and in the presence of her mom’s home cooking, Moua was constantly surrounded by passion fruit, tapioca, coconut, and sesame, all of which are widely used in Laos and Thailand. “My mom made a lot of sesame balls because she worked a lot, so she would make it, freeze it, and deep fry it when we wanted them,” says Moua.

Moua showcases these flavors today in her elevated desserts and pastries, adding her own twist. Among her creations are her crepe cakes, a fusion of French crepes, cream, and the tantalizing flavors of coconut, strawberry, and lemon. Additionally, Moua crafts pavlovas—which are filled with passion fruit (one of her mom’s favorite fruits) custard and topped with strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries.

Get a taste of Moua’s dessert at this year’s Hot Luck Fest (tickets here): passion fruit sesame meringue, a dessert that takes two days to meticulously prepare. The process involves crafting the passion fruit curd, toasting sesame seeds, preparing the shortbread, and allowing the curd to rest. “There’s just something about letting the curd sit for 24 hours before you mix it; it gives it [the curd] a velvety texture,” says Moua.

The choice of sesame and passion fruit in Moua’s creations is far from coincidental; it pays homage to her upbringing and the Southeast Asian flavors that shaped her culinary journey. “It’s a representation of what I’ve known,” says Moua. “I learned techniques and apply flavors that go back to my roots.”

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Kayla Hui is a contributor for Thrillist.