Photo/IllutrationFoodhini founder Noobtsaa Philip Vang speaks during a recent interview in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Carter Rice)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

Tucked away in an industrial brick building in the Ivy City neighborhood in Washington, D.C., is an inviting and spacious kitchen with large windows lining the walls, allowing in plenty of natural light.

In this kitchen, just miles from the White House, where immigration policy is a signature issue of the Trump administration, five refugee and immigrant chefs prepare meals.

The chefs, hailing from Eritrea, Iran, the Philippines, Laos and Syria, are employed by Foodhini, a Washington, D.C.-based food delivery business.

Each has their own work stations stocked with spices, ingredients and cooking supplies where they cook dishes from their native countries.

Foodhini’s goal is twofold: to provide livable wages to immigrant and refugee chefs, and to share authentic cultural dishes with the D.C. community

It is engaging in culinary diplomacy by using the shared experience of food to break down cultural barriers and connect immigrants and refugees with local communities.

“We're using food to connect people versus just serving food,” said Foodhini founder Noobtsaa Philip Vang. “And I think that's one of the really beautiful things, that what we're building is that we're creating those connections and those relationships.”

IGNORING TRUMP'S BARRIERS

Foodhini officially opened months before the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Vang acknowledged that the Trump administration’s strict immigration policies have created barriers for the chefs.

Some of them, including Syrian chef Majed, have been unable to reunite with family members.

However, the Foodhini team does not dwell on the administration’s immigration stance. Rather, in spite of the challenges that they face, the team members remain focused on moving forward with their mission.

“I think it really shows this is the time for us to be here,” Vang said, “This is the time to exist and to be servicing our community.”

Foodhini is based in Union Kitchen, a commercial kitchen space shared by businesses in the local food industry.

Foodhini connects the chefs and customers through its website. Customers can browse each chef’s page, which includes their biography and their menu. The Foodhini menu is updated weekly. Customers can order meals through the website at least 24 hours in advance and must place a minimum order of $15 (1,600 yen) for delivery.

Foodhini team members will deliver their order directly to customers' homes, along with a note introducing the chef and explaining the background of each dish.

Currently, Foodhini delivers throughout the Washington, D.C., and nearby Arlington, Virginia, area.

“We get two types of customers,” Vang explained, “We get people who come for the mission and then they're introduced to really delicious food, so it’s kind of the best of both worlds. Then you have people who come because they hear it's delicious food, and then they learn, ‘Oh my gosh, oh this is like a really cool mission’.”

MISSING HOME COOKING

Vang, the son of refugees of the secret war in Laos, was inspired by his family’s experience of trying to start a new life in the United States. When he moved to Washington, D.C., in 2014 to attend Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, Vang missed his mother’s home cooking.

When he couldn’t find authentic Hmong restaurants in the D.C. area, he wondered if he could connect with local chefs to find the home-style Southeast Asian food that he craved.

Recalling the educational and cultural barriers that his family faced when they moved to the United States, Vang realized that he could create a business that lifted the barriers between immigrants and the local community.

“Foodhini is creating a space for people like my mom and my dad to make a living and to do what they ... already know what to do,” Vang said, “Which is to cook their native foods, and at the same time, actually be able to share their culture and their food with the greater community.”

In the fall of 2016, Vang was able to further cultivate his idea through a Halycon Incubator fellowship. The Halcyon Incubator is a program that helps budding entrepreneurs develop their business ideas into sustainable ventures.

Founded by Sachiko Kuno, the Halycon Incubator supports entrepreneurs who strive to promote the social good. Fellows receive coaching from firms in the D.C. community, field-specific mentoring and a stipend.

With the support that he received during his fellowship, Vang set the foundation for his Foodhini venture.

“It's a great program because they really support you, put the right people around you, and give you an opportunity to actually be up on a stage and to really share your idea,” Vang explained, “So they were a huge catalyst for us.”

Initially, Vang considered creating an online platform that would allow customers to order directly from a chef working from home.

However, when faced with legal regulations surrounding home-based food businesses, Vang realized that he needed a kitchen space. As a startup company, Foodhini didn’t have the financial capital to build its own kitchen. Fortunately, Vang was able to connect with Union Kitchen.

As a food business accelerator, Union Kitchen uses its commercial kitchen space to build and launch local businesses. Vang knew that Union Kitchen was the ideal location where Foodhini chefs could cook and sell their products.

BUILDING A DIVERSE TEAM

His next step was to find the chefs for his business. The International Rescue Committee, as well as local churches and synagogues, were key partners in identifying potential refugee and immigrant chefs. Through these partnerships, Vang built a team of chefs.

One of those chefs was Yebralem, a refugee from Eritrea, who was busily preparing ali cha (beef and potato stew) and shiro (chickpea mash) on a recent day. Her workweek is busier than usual, as she is the featured chef of Taste the World, a weekly subscription program for Foodhini.

“Foodhini is family,” Yebralem said with a smile, “I am happy.”

Recounting the long journey that brought her to Foodhini, she said, “food is my nature.”

In her native Eritrea, Yebralem had cooked for weddings, catering for groups as large as 400 guests. Political instability within Eritrea forced her and her family to flee, first moving to South Africa before ultimately moving to the United States as refugees nearly three years ago.

Yebralem’s first job in the United States was in pre-packaged food manufacturing. She was introduced to Vang through the International Rescue Committee.

For her interview with Vang, she prepared a variety of Eritrean food, including specitini (chicken and tomato stew) and zigni (spicy beef stew). Yebralem joined Foodhini in the spring of 2018.

Although it has been easy to find fresh meat and vegetables, finding authentic Eritrean ingredients in D.C. has proven to be a challenge for Yebralem. She makes certain ingredients, such as butter, from scratch. Yebralem has been able to find many of the spices that she needs in Ethiopian grocery stores. Though there are variations between Eritrean and Ethiopian cuisines, the ingredients and dishes are very similar.

Above all, Yebralem is intent on making her customers happy. For example, she will modify her recipes for vegetarians, using potatoes in her stews instead of meat. If a customer prefers a lower spice level, she will adjust it accordingly.

“If you like it, I’ll do it like that,” she said.

If one of the Foodhini chefs receives a large order, the other chefs will help them fill it. Yebralem has taught the other chefs how to cook her dishes, while she in turn has learned how to make Iranian and Syrian food.

“It's been really cool to see some chefs experiencing foods they'd never had before, and vice versa, and them working together, cooking together,” Vang said.

LAUNCHING PAD FOR CHEFS

Vang and his partners are intent on creating sustainable job opportunities for the Foodhini chefs. Each chef team member is salaried and can receive health-care benefits. Vang envisions Foodhini as a launching pad for his chefs, allowing them to one day branch out and start their own restaurants or business ventures. Building the connection between the D.C. community and the Foodhini chefs is a key component of Vang’s vision.

Foodhini is one successful model of culinary diplomacy, which is the use of food to create cross-cultural understanding. Culinary diplomacy can be a component of a high-level government engagement (such as a state dinner), or it can be a form of citizen diplomacy in which individuals contribute to international relations.

Food businesses around the world, such as food trucks and pop-up restaurants, have employed refugees to raise awareness of the global refugee crisis.

Based on Foodhini’s customer feedback, its customer base is diverse, spanning a variety of age groups, career paths and ethnic backgrounds. But what the customers do have in common is an awareness of the challenges that refugees face as well as a desire to be involved in the refugee community.

“It really is working,” Vang said, “We're connecting people who normally probably wouldn't be able to connect, and so, I think the chefs really like being able to know that the people enjoying their food are not just people like them, it's actually people that are very diverse and people beyond their normal day-to-day, and I think for them to know that they're able to build upon that and reach a broader community is something really, really special.”

GOING NATIONAL IN THE FUTURE

Foodhini has already seen significant growth. In 2017, Foodhini delivered approximately 30 to 40 meals per week. In 2018, the number of deliveries averaged between 100 and 130 meals per week. In addition to delivering meals, Vang wants to strengthen the connections between Foodhini chefs and customers in other ways going forward.

Foodhini is now in the process of moving into its own commercial kitchen space. Vang intends to hold pop-up dinners and cooking classes in the new kitchen so that both sides can meet face-to-face. He also wants to hire chefs from South or Central America to give Foodhini a broader global perspective.

In the long term, Vang aims to expand Foodhini nationally. He envisions the same concept spreading to cities throughout the United States.

“Every city in the U.S. has a different community of people there, right? So if you go to Foodhini, let's say Foodhini Buffalo, it's like totally different communities than here. So you get a whole different kind of experience in a different city.

“It's just a matter of connecting people and making sure that we still provide a really good product,” Vang said, “Delicious food.”

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Carter Rice is a staff reporter at The Asahi Shimbun's American General Bureau in Washington.