Sustainable Chefs: Noobtsaa Vang

For this edition of our sustainable chef series, we’re connecting with the Founder and CEO of Foodhini, Noobtsaa Philip Vang. This series is designed to spotlight local chefs and their ingenuity as they work to reduce waste in the kitchen. You can find previous installments of the chef series so far here. 

Although the restaurants we have spotlighted so far cover a variety of cuisines, all of our chef spotlights demonstrate how these individuals use their influence in the kitchen to reduce the environmental impact of their organizations and make a positive impact in their communities. 

Foodhini helps immigrant chefs build a market for their home cooking. Because Foodhini takes a unique approach to food ”takeout”, this spotlight also carries a unique perspective. Unlike our previous subjects, who are all head chefs at their respective establishments, Noobtsaa is actually not a chef at all. In fact, with a background in engineering, he doesn’t even have a background in food service. At Foodhini, the chefs are immigrants from a variety of countries bringing a taste of their own culture to the DC area in a shared kitchen.

The mastermind behind Foodhini, Noobtsaa dreamt up the concept of immigrant chefs cooking for their community while missing his own mother’s food. A member of the Hmong ethnic group from Northern Laos who had relocated to America, Noobtsaa found it difficult to find the homestyle Southeast Asian food he grew up with. 

Noobtsaa wondered if he could find a “grandma or auntie” in the neighborhood to make authentic food for him, and the idea of Foodhini was born. 

“When I started to just really think about that, the communities that know how to make this better than anybody else, you’re looking at immigrant communities. They make this food already for all their families at home, and it’s their food to represent them, where they come from, and their stories.”

Noobtsaa Vang Head Shot

According to Noobtsaa, the other component of the Foodhini concept is to provide immigrant communities with education, resources, and employment opportunities. When talking about the challenges his parents faced when immigrating to the United States, Noobtsaa explained, “For them, finding work was very tough. They were often working multiple odd jobs to make ends meet, and yet they had this really great skill of making their food.” For this reason, the Foodhini team aims to provide immigrant chefs with the skills they would need to start their own restaurant, business, or packaged product. 

Noobtsaa also emphasizes the importance of sustainability within the Foodhini mission. By asking important questions relating to the sustainability of sourcing and linking each ingredient they use back to the farmer, Noobtsaa relates the struggles faced by farmers globally to the struggles faced by his immigrant chefs. Farmers are often underpaid and undervalued while doing invaluable work. Similarly, Noobtsaa noted, immigrant and refugee chefs that cook food from their cultures often find that their work is undervalued – especially when compared to elements of “traditional fine dining” such as those featuring French or Italian cuisine. 

Through his work to change this narrative, Noobtsaa understands the need to demonstrate the cost of ingredients to Foodhini customers and chefs alike.  “When chefs come on board we do a deep dive: What do they normally use? What are they used to using in their country?” 

Inherently, aiming to source ingredients sustainably means that the exact ingredients from other cuisines aren’t always available – especially if they require specific growing conditions that aren’t found locally. By prioritizing sourcing sustainable and local ingredients to enhance freshness and reduce the restaurant’s carbon footprint, Noobtsaa explained that it’s important to accept that, although these changes are important, finding sustainably sourced ingredients can also increase the cost of the finished product.  

According to Noobtsaa, the expectation that out-of-season food should be shipped halfway around the world to accommodate the wishes of consumers contributes to our “broken” food system and is damaging to both local communities and the environment. 

In addition to food sourcing, Foodhini is focused on improving the sustainability of its packaging. As a primarily take-out restaurant concept, the Foodhini team is faced with a unique challenge. Where other restaurants may not prioritize sustainable packaging for to-go orders, the waste produced by single-use to-go packaging is difficult to ignore at Foodhini. 

This mission to reduce customer packaging is still in development, but Noobtsaa and his team are on the hunt for the best solution. He notes that, in addition to reducing waste, “ultimately, [reusables] will actually save us cost in the end. And they are more cost effective for customers as well.”

And it’s clear that Noobtsaa believes in the importance of finding a good solution when it comes to reusable packing – something that has only become more difficult throughout the course of the pandemic. When asked what advice he would give to chefs or business owners trying to launch a sustainable restaurant concept of their own, Noobtsaa said, “If I met myself five years ago I would’ve told myself to invest in more ways to be cost-effective in packaging. We’re trying to catch up to that now, but if we would have built the business around reusables it would’ve been much easier. Try to build it in as early as possible. Because if you do it early enough it just becomes part of your business” 

Through prioritizing recyclables and compostables in the majority of their packaging, Noobtsaa notes that his team is able to minimize a large portion of their waste. Food is sent chilled, and delivered the same day it is cooked to customers, which allows the Foodhini team to avoid wasting energy to keep food warm like they would have to do in a traditional restaurant model. 

It’s impossible to deny that the Foodhini concept provides a unique layer of sustainable cooking that’s difficult to find – the ability for customers to learn the names of the chefs cooking their food provides a level of connection that is difficult to achieve in a restaurant setting. According to Noobtsaa, this hasn’t gone unnoticed by customers, and the response to Foodhini has been extremely positive. 

We definitely share this sentiment! Our team at Compost Crew is excited to see how sustainability will continue to be incorporated into the most original and forward thinking restaurants that our region has to offer. Thank you Noobtsaa, and Foodhini, for your work to make immigrant and refugee cooking accessible and sustainable. You can visit the Foodhini website to learn more and place an order.

By: Sara Mack, Marketing Manager