Two rectangular cards are stuck on Rachel May’s refrigerator door in her Washington apartment. Each card has a small picture of a Syrian refugee chef and a short bio. On the back is a personalized message: “I hope you enjoy the hummus. I made it fresh today,” one says.
The cards came with food May ordered from Foodhini, a year-old meal delivery service that hires immigrant and refugee chefs to cook traditional cuisines and tell their stories. So far, in Washington’s upscale and immigrant-embracing neighborhoods, the outreach has been a hit.
“For a very long time, I was emotional about getting a note from a stranger,” said May, an energy policy specialist who works for a think tank and lives in Shaw. “It adds a face to the food that you’re eating.”
Noobstaa Philip Vang, whose parents moved to the United States from Laos as Hmong refugees in 1976, launched Foodhini in October 2016, hoping to create new opportunities for the immigrant diaspora and introduce more authentic international food to the nation’s capital.
There are currently four chefs preparing Syrian, Lao and Tibetan food in the Foodhini workspace at the Union Kitchen business incubator in Northeast Washington’s Ivy City neighborhood. Each meal comes with a personalized message and instructions from the chef so that people who are new to a specific cuisine can eat it right.
“We are ultimately trying to connect customers to our chefs and their stories,” Vang said. “The human aspect here is really important.”
The first chef who was hired at Foodhini was not an immigrant but has spent much of her life in Southeast Asia. Melissa “Mem” Frabotta grew up in Thailand and later moved to Laos, where she learned to cook Laotian food from her mother-in-law.
Chefs Majed Abdulraheem and Ghosoun Alhumayer, who came to the United States as Syrian refugees in 2016, joined Foodhini early this year. The most recent hire is Lobsang Dorjee Tsering, who lived as a Tibetan refugee in India before moving to the United States with his American-citizen wife in 2014.
Food can be delivered Monday through Friday but must be ordered through the Foodhini website at least 24 hours in advance.
“I thought the food was delicious,” said Brandon Hatton, 28, who works for Airbnb and has had Middle-Eastern food delivered to his home on H Street NE multiple times.
“The fact that there is a mission behind the food itself makes it even better,” he added.
Mary Versailles, 58, started ordering from Foodhini after reading about it online in January. The chefs’ stories remind the federal government employee of her grandmother, who left her home in Lithuania and moved to the United States after World War II. She said she regrets that she never learned how to cook her “Nana’s lamb stew” but loves being able to help “other people keep their culture and heritage.”
“Those notes from the chefs make me feel like hearing my grandparents talk about their food,” she said.
Sometimes, the chefs write their own messages. Other times, they dictate them to Vang. They talk about the inspiration behind the food they have prepared and the memories associated with particular recipes while apologizing for their limited English.
“I am excited for you to try Syria food. I learn to cook from my mother,” wrote Alhumayer, a mother of three who spent three years in refugee camp in Jordan with her family after fleeing the Syrian civil war, then was granted refugee status and relocated to Hyattsville, Md. “In Syria, cooking is passed down from mother to daughter, generation to generation. These dishes I make for my family. The falafel I make a lot. I hope you enjoy!”
“You don’t get that when you order Chinese takeout,” said Ryan Brenner, 26, who works in international development and lives in Edgewood. “You can kind of picture them cooking the food.”
Versailles said Tsering’s Tibetan dumplings remind her of her first international trip to Nepal. Brenner said Abdulraheem’s chicken shawarma takes her back to her days volunteering in Sudan.
Other popular menu items at Foodhini include Abdulraheem’s fattoush and hummus, Alhumayer’s falafel and chicken mandi, Frabotta’s ping gai chicken and nam khao lettuce wraps, and Tsering’s ginger-glazed lamb and beef curry.
The start-up receives about 125 to 150 orders weekly, according to Vang, who hopes to bring in more chefs. He called the business his “contribution to creating cultural exchanges through food.”
“When people order a meal and eat it, they send us text messages and photos,” Vang said.
The chefs, in turn, delight in hearing from their American customers and seeing pictures of them eating traditional foods.
“Their goal is that the person who eats their food enjoys it like they do,” Vang said.