February 2, 2017

D.C. Food Startup Connects Refugee Chefs To Home, A New Culture

By Elizabeth Weinstein

Foodhini's Chef Ghosoun, a recent refugee from Syria, prepares dishes in the startup's Ivy City kitchens, located at the local food incubator Union Kitchen.

Foodhini's Chef Ghosoun, a recent refugee from Syria, prepares dishes in the startup's Ivy City kitchens, located at the local food incubator Union Kitchen.

From the lobbies of Dulles airport to the privacy of family living rooms, the Trump administration’s ban on travel for some immigrants and refugees has had powerful ripple effects in the D.C. region.

But for Noobtsaa Philip Vang, founder and CEO of the meal delivery service, Foodhini, the ban struck both a personal and professional chord.

Vang’s family were Hmong refugees from Laos who settled in the U.S. after the Vietnam war. And since his graduation from Georgetown University in 2016 , Vang has dedicated himself to building a socially minded business based on the skills of refugees.

Foodhini employs four people: two Syrian refugees, one Iraqi refugee and an American with roots in Southeast Asia. Visitors to Foodhini can order Syrian and Laotian cuisine freshly prepared by these chefs for delivery in D.C proper.

I spoke with Vang about his unique business and how the new restrictions on refugees are affecting his small workforce.

Weinstein: There are so many meal delivery startups out there, but yours started in 2015 with a real social mission in mind. Tell us how Foodhini got started.

Vang: I’m originally from Minnesota and I came out to D.C. in 2014 for business school at Georgetown. I come from a family of refugees. My mom and dad came as Hmong refugees after the Vietnam war from the country of Laos. They settled in Chicago and kind of moved around and ended up in Minnesota. That’s where I grew up. So I moved out to D.C. for business school and I was just missing my mom’s home cooked food.  And it was that simple. I was just thinking “Man, I wish I could go down into the neighborhood and find an auntie or a grandma and just order some of their food.” And so that’s how the idea started. I was thinking “Why doesn’t some kind of network or app set up to help create a chance for people to try different kinds of food and things that remind you of home?” And I thought of my mom’s story as a refugee and how when they came to the states she didn’t have any language skills in English or a very high education. And the same thing with my dad. And it was very difficult for them to find good work that could help them support the family. And they worked a lot of odd jobs to make ends meet for us. And I said “Wow, wouldn’t it be great if we could create a platform for people like my mom to use the skills they already have — which is cooking great food from their native countries — and be able to sell it to people via online in meal delivery?” (Especially given the wake of Uber and Lyft and all of these platforms now.)  So that’s how the idea started.

Weinstein: Why is food such a good way to connect refugees and immigrants to this country and the people here?

Vang: When you eat something good you know it’s good. You don’t have to say anything, You don’t have to communicate. Food is the great equalizer. If we all share a meal together it’s something very special. When communities of diaspora have to relocate to America as refugees or as immigrants that’s one of the things they’re still able to hold onto — it’s a part of them and part of a culture where they’re from. It’s comforting to them and comfortable to them. It’s not something they have to learn anew. The American palate has definitely grown and evolved over the past 30-40 years and it’s the right timing where people are looking for that unique dish or that special food they can’t find anywhere else. And we have this huge untapped talent pool of immigrant refugee chefs that have those skills and can meet that demand. I think food itself is something that everybody understands because everybody eats and everybody knows when something’s good.

Weinstein: How many people does Foodhini have on staff and how many of them are immigrants or refugees?

Vang: Right now we’re growing, which is really great. We’re able to employ three refugees so far — one from Iraq and two from Syria. Our first chef I consider a person of diaspora. She was actually born in the states. She grew up half Chinese and half Italian. Her mother took her back to live in Southeast Asia for a good part of her life. And she moved back to the states and her stories of coming back here and trying to find footing here again really expresses what we’re trying to do and the communities we’re trying to impact. And the Syrian chef that we’ve been working with, Chef Ghosoun, we’ve been able to connect with her community and we’d like to start creating opportunities for them as well.

Weinstein: How did you find these budding immigrant chefs?

Vang: Initially it was very organic. Some friends and people who were interning for me would say “Oh my gosh, I know this amazing chef who makes food for parties and community gatherings. You really need to meet her.” And one of the chefs would make a few dishes and we’d try it and instantly we’d know this is very good, this person is very talented, and we need to feature them and showcase them. More recently we’ve been trying to create partnerships with organizations doing refugee resettlement like Lutheran Social Services and Catholic Charities. I’ve tried to create a more robust pipeline of people. Our most recent Syrian chef, Chef Ghosoun, I met through my church. I go to NCC (National Community Church) here in D.C. and a lot of the community is doing refugee resettlement work. I saw them talk about some of their work one Sunday and I said “I need to reach out to them and ask if there’s a way we can work together and collaborate.” That’s how I met Chef Ghosoun. A few weeks ago she made me a huge spread of food on a Sunday night … and the rest is history.

Weinstein: Can you share a little of chef Ghosoun’s story?

Vang: They were in Syria over the southern part near the Jordan border. And I don’t recall their city, but it was the main city where the protests started. They lived there as long as they could, but she had some health issues as well. So things got really bad and she wasn’t able to find any support to take care of her health. So they decided to leave and move to Jordan where they settled into a refugee camp. They had been there for almost three years before actually coming to the states. They arrived in the states about six months ago in the Hyattsville area.

Weinstein: I know she doesn’t speak much English. How do you communicate with her in the kitchen?

Vang: It’s a mixture of me trying to learn some Arabic and her son — I’ve been able to hire her son on as well — working with us.  He speaks more English and we’re able to communicate together. And I’m able to tap some of my friends from business school. A few of them are from Lebanon and Egypt so I’m able to work with them to create some systems to help translate. I’ve picked up a few words to move things along. The same goes for them. It’s been really neat to go through that experience of working with them and creating food together. And not really sharing the same language, but we share the language of food.

Weinstein: Can you describe Syrian cooking? What are some of chef Ghosoun’s most delicious dishes?

Vang: My favorite dish of hers is called Mandi. It’s a chicken over rice dish that she infuses with a ton of different spices so the rice is very flavorful, very savory. A few of the things she puts in there are nutmeg, coriander and cumin. So a lot of different flavors in the rice and then she actually steams it with charcoal to give it a smoky taste and smell. She puts it all into a pot with the chicken and allows it to just simmer for a while with the charcoal to give it that smoky taste. It’s just phenomenal. In general, the ingredients are tons and tons … I talk with Ghosoun’s husband about this all the time … when they were in Syria they had an olive farm and they grew a ton of olives and made a ton of olive oil. Because in Syrian cuisine they use olive oil a lot. Olive oil is a main staple. In the kitchen we use a lot of tomatoes, a lot of lemons, and a lot of mint and parsley.

Weinstein: Tell me a little about how your chefs are compensated and what kind of training, benefits, and support you offer to these new arrivals to the country.

Vang: Our goal is to get to the point — obviously we’re pretty young — but we’re working to the point where we can provide a living wage to the chefs. That means a wage of $25 to $29 dollars per hour. And that’s our goal because I think these individuals are very talented. They have a skill set you can’t find anywhere else, so we think they should be compensated for that. Right now we’re bootstrapping, but we’re paying our chefs $17 dollars an hour and trying to build off of that. So if we can increase our sales and our marketing and get the word out and get people behind it, we’re going to be able to reach that goal of getting to those living wages.

Weinstein: Has Foodhini been affected at all by this new travel ban on immigrants and refugees?

Vang: I’ve talked to Ghosoun’s family about it and some of their friends. It’s very frustrating right now because given the circumstances of the Trump executive orders, it puts families in a bind. Especially trying to resettle here in the United States and trying to create a new life for themselves it makes it harder for them. Especially the talks of looking at eliminating the refugees and immigrants who are coming to the United States who are looking to use social services …  a lot of the benefits that the refugees get upon arrival are very limited. They’re expected to be self-sufficient very quickly. The picture is not very realistic — it’s not really showing what’s going on. A lot of people I’ve met with and talked with still have family in Iraq and Syria and obviously they can’t travel anywhere, they can’t go anywhere. So that’s very troubling. At the end of the day they’re just people trying to start their lives in a new country.

Weinstein: Has the refugee ban and these newly restrictive immigration rules made you think differently about your work and the mission of your company?

Vang: It’s strengthened what we’re trying to do and our mission. Obviously we want to create a space for newly arrived Americans to get off the ground and build themselves up and create opportunities for themselves. But I think at the same time I’m trying to see how we fit into the bigger picture of these discussions about rights and being given a fair chance. So it’s evolving every day and I’m trying to figure out how we become a part of that larger dialogue and also stay true to our mission. But I think at the end of the day we are trying to create opportunities and chances for people like Ghosoun to come here and to be able to dream again, to hope again, and to build something again for themselves.

Weinstein: What’s next for Foodhini?  Do you hope to add more ethnic cuisines to your offerings?

Vang: We’re definitely looking to bring on board a few more chefs. We want to feature a few more cuisines — I’m trying to build some connections with some of the communities from the African continent like from South Sudan, or Ethiopia, or some of these countries in South America or Central America. That helps provide more flavor to the menu, but it also gives us a chance to work and partner with a lot of the communities here in D.C.