Written by Lauren Burke Photographed by Isabel Yu
Noobtsaa Philip Vang, founder and CEO of Foodhini, is on a mission to make food relatable. Launched in 2016, Foodhini delivers authentic, home-cooked, multicultural meals to doorsteps around the DMV. The food is delicious. I mean, we’re talking delicious. But taste is only one small part of the picture. Foodhini meals are crafted by emerging chefs, each of whom has a unique story of how they came to be in DC. Some, like Syrian Chef Majed, came to the United States as refugees. Others, like Foodhini’s inaugural chef and Lao food expert Chef Mem, were born in the States, lived abroad, and returned many years later. While stories like these are in the background of many food businesses, Foodhini exists to bring them to the forefront. At the heart of this mission is Vang’s own connection to immigrant and refugee communities. As the son of a Hmong refugee mother who came to the US from Laos after the Secret War, Vang has both witnessed and lived through many of the social and economic challenges common to the immigrant experience. Though Vang always appreciated his mother’s home-cooked Hmong meals, it wasn’t until he was a grad student at Georgetown University that he realized how skills like hers could power a social enterprise. Missing both the taste of Hmong cooking and the warmth of a love-filled meal, Vang had the idea for Foodhini. He figured if he could provide resources to talented chefs like his mother and share the magic of an authentic, home-cooked meal with customers, he could build a bridge of opportunity and understanding for immigrant and refugee communities.
Today, with four talented chefs and a staff of about six others, Foodhini is doing just that. The small-but-mighty company churns out 80 to 120 delivery and catering orders a week on top of serving lunch Monday through Friday in a new micro-kitchen retail shop at the Foggy Bottom Wholefoods. The family origins of Foodhini are apparent in just about every aspect of the company’s business. Each Foodhini order includes a handwritten note from the chef, which Vang says allows customers to experience not just the food, but also the person behind it. “Part of the reason why a home-cooked meal is so special is because you know that person has put their love and their care into this food for you,” he says. “We want you to have that experience in your own home with our food.”Knowing even the smallest details about the meal, like where the ingredients come from or how the chef learned to prepare it, can make a huge difference. “It really brings the human part of the food out,” says Vang. There is also an important human aspect to Vang’s interactions with the chefs, which go beyond the typical workplace relationship. “I’ve helped one of our chefs buy a car for the first time. I’ve helped them try to figure out language classes to take, or their taxes, or just try to figure out how to adjust to this new place,” Vang says. “It reminds me of my own experience helping my aunts or uncles, or my grandparents, or my mom and my dad.” Providing these additional resources is critical to building the foundation for Vang’s ultimate goal for Foodhini chefs: long-term economic stability and upward mobility from a job that they enjoy.
The chefs return the love, too. Chef Majed, who heads the WholeFoods micro-kitchen and has been with Foodhini for nearly two years, says working with the company is more than just a job. “Noobtsaa is not just the founder,” says Majed. “He is like a friend, like a brother. And everyone in Foodhini … we work together like family.”
Through its meals, Foodhini is rewriting the narrative on immigrant and refugee communities. In showcasing their culinary talent, Vang hopes to teach others what he already knows very well: skill and talent know no social or economic hierarchy. It sends a powerful message. “Wherever you came from,” Vang says, “you are able to add value, you are able to contribute and enrich the community that is already here.”
At the same time, Vang wants to ensure that the spotlight for immigrant and refugee community foods is being shined on the right people.“We’ve heard stories of, you know, pho restaurants being started by white guys, and stuff like that … ‘authentic pho’… and that’s cool. Everybody can make Pho … but I want to put the spotlight on people who normally don’t get it,” he says. The road that got Foodhini to where it is today wasn’t necessarily straight or easy. In undergrad, Vang studied engineering and viewed that as a path to a life-long career in the field. When he started at Georgetown, he had no intention of starting his own company, let alone launching an entire meal delivery service. An open mind and a desire to learn, he says, are what allowed him to dream up Foodhini. “Never stop trying to learn and discover new things. When you are learning about something new, or discovering something new, it’s always hard. It’s always challenging. But that’s also when you’re growing the most.”Vang says to put yourself in uncomfortable situations constantly" and to be persistent even when it feels like no progress is being made. If it’s a true passion piece, it will be worth it in the end. “I get to work on something that I truly believe in. I get to work on something that I love. I never say I hate my job. I don’t. It’s hard. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, professionally, but—I love it.”
Readers who’d like a taste of Foodhini can head to foodhini.com or visit WholeFoods Foggy Bottom, Monday through Friday, 11:30 am to 2:00 pm.