WASHINGTON — When Noobtsaa Philip Vang moved to D.C. from Minnesota to attend graduate school at Georgetown University, the first thing he missed was his mom’s cooking.
“I was like, ‘Man, I wish I could just find a grandma or an auntie in the neighborhood and just buy some of her food,’” said Vang, the son of Hmong parents who came to the U.S. from Lao as refugees after the Vietnam War.
What he didn’t understand is why a business model like it didn’t exist — especially in a city, and an era, where everything from sake to spa treatments are available with the click of an app.
So in October 2016, Vang launched Foodhini, a meal-delivery company that features family-style dishes from global cuisines, all made by emerging immigrant chefs. The business finally gave Vang a taste of home, and it also provided aspiring cooks in the local immigrant community a chance to showcase their food and culture.
“There was a great opportunity here to help create jobs for people just like my mom, because she had a very hard time when she came here,” Vang said.
Syrian native Majed* attended five years of culinary school and worked in restaurants in Syria and Jordan before he and his family moved to the U.S. 10 months ago. After originally settling in Arizona and working at a Mexican-American restaurant, Majed now spends his days at Foodhini, whipping up dishes such as shawarma and moussaka out of Union Kitchen’s Ivy City warehouse.
“I want people in America to taste Syrian food,” said Majed, who, after years of studying how to master French, American and Turkish cuisines, is now making food from his homeland.
Meals made by Majed that are delivered to the doorsteps of hungry Washingtonians may look and taste like fattoush salad and shish taouk, but Vang says they’re so much more than that.
“Food is the first step in learning about a person’s background and learning about their story,” Vang said.
“Everybody is coming from different places and different parts of the world, so it’s really a way for them to come here and to do something that’s familiar to them, something that they’re really good at, and to be able to share that with other people.”
In addition to Majed, Foodhini employs two other chefs — Vang found them by word-of-mouth or through churches active in refugee resettlement — including Chef Mem, who specializes in Laotian cuisine, and Chef Ghosoun, a Syrian cook.
Vang estimates Foodhini fills between 100 and 140 orders per week. Customers place their meal-for-two orders at least 24 hours in advance, choosing three dishes from the chefs’ rotating menus for a total of $39.
Popular items include Mem’s Khao Poon Nam Pah (a Lao noodle soup), Ghosoun’s fresh labneh and Majed’s chicken shawarma. And while Vang appreciates positive feedback from customers, his chefs cherish it even more.
“They just love that people who aren’t from Syria or aren’t from Laos or aren’t from Thailand are eating the food and liking it,” Vang said. “If they know somebody likes their food, then they know they are connected in a way.”
As of now, Foodhini only delivers in the District, but with plans for an upcoming expansion, Vang is hoping to service additional neighborhoods in the Metro area soon.
“It’s giving us a lot of momentum — what’s going to be the next cuisine, who’s going to be the next chef — and that’s really exciting,” he said.
*Editor’s Note: The last names of the chefs were withheld from this article.