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Noobstaa Phillip Vang missed his mother’s cooking. He had just moved to D.C. from Minnesota to attend Georgetown’s MBA program, and craved the Northern Vietnamese Hmong food that his mom and aunt used to cook at home.
Uber and Airbnb were taking off at the time, and Vang wondered if he could connect people with chefs in a similar way. He was also thinking about his mother’s experience coming to this country and how difficult it was to find a job. She didn’t speak the language or have many technical skills. So Vang wanted to start a business that could hire immigrants like his mom and help them land on their feet.
Vang began developing the business plan for Foodhini in his classes at Georgetown. He was eventually accepted into a business incubator for social ventures called Halcyon, which enabled him to rent commercial kitchen space at Union Kitchen.
The first chef he hired, Mem, is a cook who made a name for herself in the community with her Lao cuisine. She had the capabilities to prepare the dishes Vang ate growing up. Then, through his church, Vang met Ghouson, a Syrian chef who excels at making falafel.
Foodhini is a food delivery service that connects you with the chef who cooks your meal. First you select your chef, and then you choose three dishes from the chef’s menu. Three dishes feeds two people, family-style.
Mem, for example, cooks Laotian dishes like khaw mee, a cold noodle dish, and nam khao, a rice dish you eat wrapped in lettuce. Nam khao is traditionally prepared with meat, but Mem’s version is vegan, made with crispy tofu.
Foodhini has been open for about eight months now, features three chefs, and has plans to add more as the business grows. Vang says some people find Foodhini after hearing about the food. Others find it while looking for ways to support D.C.’s refugee community.
The chefs’ biographies are as varied as the immigrant experience itself. Mem is Chinese, Native American, and Italian. Born in America, she lived in Thailand, the U.S., and then after she married, she and her husband moved to Laos where she learned to cook Laotian food from her mother-in-law before returning to the U.S. several years ago.
Ghouson and Majed are both Syrian refugees. Vang says their eagerness to jump in and start working is typical of the refugees he’s met since starting Foodhini. They want to work, but it’s not always easy to find a job so quickly, he says.
Majed moved to Maryland about two months ago with his wife and two young children. The professionally-trained chef attended culinary school in Syria and then worked at a restaurant in Damascus from 2009 to 2013. But his mother and father worried about him living in Syria, so finally he fled the country for Jordan, before eventually moving to the U.S. to live in Tucson. His wife didn’t like the heat and he had family in Maryland, so they moved here.
While Majed would eventually like to see more of the United States, for now he is focused on putting down roots here. He’s looking forward to his kids going to school here after moving around so much. His favorite dishes to make are baba ganoush, shawarma, and Syrian dishes that highlight vegetables.
Foodhini’s chefs change their menus weekly, though you do have to plan ahead since there’s no same-day ordering (you can order as late as 7 p.m. the night before). Vang says that’s because “some dishes take time.” The cost is $39 for two, including tip and delivery fee. The food arrives with a handwritten note from your chef, as well as pointers on cooking and eating. Some notes, for example, encourage customers to eat with their hands.
Vang says it’s an honor to work with these chefs. He’s always looking to connect with new talent by working with refugee placement groups like Catholic Charities and the International Rescue Committee.
Vang hopes Foodhini will continue to grow in the D.C. area. The business also offers catering, and he’s planning several pop-up dinners with local restaurants to help spread the word. Eventually, he’d love to see Foodhini expand into Chicago, Los Angeles, and his hometown of Minneapolis. Each location would be unique, featuring chefs from the local immigrant and refugee communities.