A Quest to Reinvent the Premade Sauce
From Otajoy yakisoba to Maya Kaimal tikka masala to Hamburger Helper, the dump-and-stir sauté sauce has been part of our cooking vocabulary for a generation—and for good reason. Packed with powerful flavors, and the vapors of nostalgia blowing through a kitchen within minutes, these pouches, bottles, and jars can transform a kitchen in Tulsa to a stove in Kerala, Osaka, Seoul, or Tuscany. Vanessa and Kim Pham, founders of start-up food company Omsom, grew up with these sauces in their lives, too. “Mapo tofu mixes, the Japanese curry packets, they’re incredible, and I use them—like, literally, if you walk over to my pantry, you’ll see a ton of them,” Kim reveals in a mid-December Zoom. Growing up as first-generation American children of Vietnamese refugees, for the Pham sisters, cooking served as a link to a family history while living “as the only Asian kids in a 97 percent white town.” It also fomented a lifelong love of food and inspired an appetite for food history that remains today.
After successful careers in consulting and venture capital, the sisters’ interest in cooking finally turned pro, channeled into a company whose name, Omsom, is taken from the phrase “om sòm” (meaning “rowdy” or “rambunctious” in Vietnamese). Launched as a digital venture last summer as the pandemic raged and home cooking became more essential than ever, the Pham sisters returned to their interest in the sizzle-and-braise sauce—seeing a clear lane for a company that sells kits for making perfect larb and lemongrass barbecue seasoning that could gussy up tofu, chicken, or beef, but also for starting a company that empowered Asian American chefs along the way. Omsom works directly with chefs—who are, for now, all Asian American—and for each chef “sauce drop,” the chef is involved throughout the entire process, from recipe development, to testing dozens of samples, to helping the company source ingredients in a responsible and sustainable way.
Past and current chef partners include Nicole Ponseca (Jeepney), Amelie Kang (Málà Project), Deuki Hong (The Sunday Family), and Maiko Kyogoku (Bessou), and the media attention has been extraordinary—with sales that followed. Within the first couple weeks of selling online, sauces had been shipped to all 50 states, and there is often a waiting list for popular sauces.
For our latest Futures interview, I spoke with Kim and Vanessa during what Kim describes as the company’s “Super Bowl season”—the time between Black Friday and the end of the year—about the company’s founding, a collaboration with Big MSG, and the myth that “there’s only one right way to cook.”
You each come from different worlds—worlds pretty far from food. Tell me a little bit about your backgrounds.
Kim: I’ve always been a little internet weirdo [laughs]. I love start-ups, I love the internet, and I’ve spent the majority of my career working in start-ups—really taking companies from zero to one, as opposed to one to one hundred. So I pretty much knew from a very early age that I wanted to build something; I wanted to build my own company in a space that I deeply care about but didn’t feel quite ready just yet—so I spent the first part of my career just kind of experimenting, and that actually landed me in venture capital, on the other side of the table, just so that I could, again, continue to learn from really smart founders and folks building things from the ground up.
And you were a consultant, Vanessa?
Vanessa: Yeah, that’s right. I was, like in many ways, Kim’s opposite. We’re very, very different. And one of the ways in which that manifested was that I was very much the risk-averse immigrant child of refugees that just wanted to make my parents really proud. So my whole journey prior to starting Omsom was taking the safest route, and asking, “What is the biggest name I can attach myself to?”, to make them proud. And I think, eventually, around age 24, I finally saw that that wasn’t what they wanted for me, and that’s not what I aspired to. And food has always been a huge passion of mine—it’s been a love language in our household—and I also felt like I had a really personal motivation around moving myself to a place where I would have the authority and the influence or platform to shape culture, drive conversations, drive dialogues on a broader scale. So, in the end, Kim and I got together to start a company that we believed would help us create more of that future that we really wanted to see.
You both clearly love food so much, not just as home cooks and adventurous eaters, but you saw the lane for it to be a business. You enjoy food as a business. When did you realize that you could actually make this into a viable business? Because if you look at shelves at Whole Foods, launching a food CPG (consumer packaged goods) product is quite competitive.
Kim: CPG and building a food business is really, really hard. I mean, everything is hard in 2020, but I think it was really clear that Vanessa and I share a vision of this world that we want to create, and a mission that we deeply care about, and then we would let that dictate—let that be our North Star. So we didn’t set up to be like, “We’re going to be an Asian sauce and starter CPG business.” That was never the goal. It was literally like, Vanessa and I deeply care about the reclamation and celebration of proud and loud Asian flavors and communities. And so, what does that look like?
But then, in terms of where it would have us end up, we spent a ton of time researching. So, before we even quit our jobs, we were working nights and weekends—this is pre-COVID, of course—going into people’s homes to see how they cook and think and talk about Asian food. We got on the phone with over 200 folks and just literally were like, “When it comes to Asian food, what is your experience, what is shopping like for you?” We let them tell us what they wanted or needed. And so, from there, we were like, “Okay, it looks like people really love Asian flavors, both Asian and non-Asian communities alike, but when it comes to bringing it into their own home, it’s rife with intimidation and lack of confidence, and what can we do? What do we feel equipped to do and excited about, that we can help remove the barriers around that?” So, yeah, the starter format was born from that, but we never ever set out to start a starter company. It was very much driven by this larger kind of mission that we feel could look a million different ways.
I want to ask either of you, so jump in; when speaking about “Asian cuisine,” using big air quotes because it’s certainly not a monolith, when you were speaking with these 200 people, was there a real difference or contrast among responses? Vietnamese cuisine is your background, but clearly you’re speaking with all Asian, South Asian, East Asian, Southeast Asian, chefs and home cooks—how different were these conversations about how it all went in their homes?
Vanessa: Yeah, that’s a really great question, and you can’t generalize across all Asian cuisines. What we found, actually—in terms of the folks that we spoke to, about half were Asian, and we made sure we had solid distribution across different, specific Asian communities. And what we found is that folks would be more comfortable with the cuisine that they grew up in around the house, potentially. But oftentimes, also not. Because they were like, “Well, my mom kind of has a lot of that knowledge, and I call her for it, and she doesn’t use teaspoons, so here I am just approximating.”
But what we did find was that, even for Asian folks—like, just because I’m Vietnamese doesn’t mean that I know how to make Korean food comfortably and confidently. And so we definitely found that there’s actually a huge hunger and appetite for this product, this type of product; like a shortcut—a shortcut that has your back, even among the Asian community. Which was really important to us, because ultimately, as a brand, we exist to do right by that community. And I think so many other CPG brands have undervalued the massive credibility that this community has, and the massive buying power that this community has. So that was really important learning for us through the process of, like—there’s actually a need for a product that makes things easier, even among the Asian community, because of that variance across Asian communities.
So, who are your customers?
Vanessa: Our community, first and foremost, is the Asian American community. They’re really our ride-or-dies—they’re the first on social media that are kind of on the rooftops shouting about Omsom, and we’re so grateful for that. But we do have a diverse customer base; for example, over a third of our customers live in the Midwest and the South. Which people are really surprised to hear, because they just assume, like, “Oh, you know, you’re doing Asian food, that’s probably coastal.” What they don’t realize is that in the Midwest and the South, that’s where it’s most difficult to access these ingredients. So that’s why they’re banging down our doors for this product, because otherwise they’re not having it.
A big part of the brand’s identity is collaborating with Asian chefs. Is this the future of Omsom? And also, how do you compensate the chefs? Is it a revenue share or a flat fee?
Kim: Our chef partnerships were built into our business from day one. I mean, you know, you’re a part of food media, you’ve seen these conversations we’ve had and the dialogue happening around who gets to be an expert. And even though we are first generation and daughters of refugees, we are Vietnamese, so we cannot afford to tell anyone how to eat Filipino food. I mean, even Vietnamese food, to an extent. There’s a much larger conversation to be had around authenticity. But yeah, these chefs were like—they needed to be with us from day one, building every step of the way. So, not just with the recipe of our products, but also with sourcing, they’re involved—with the recipes around how users end up cooking with the product, all the way through marketing and informing us, like, “Hey, how can we talk about these dishes, how would you translate this dish, how would you describe it?”—like, every step of the way. And that was really, really important to us—just as we think about the state of the “ethnic aisle” in mainstream grocers, it’s like stepping back in time. And I would say a large majority of those products are not made with folks like us in the room.
We just decided to work with folks who are really pushing forward this concept that there’s no one way to eat a specific type of cuisine. I think there are a lot of experts now who are like, “This is the Thai way to eat.” And I think our fundamental thesis as a brand is that there are multitudes that exist within these cuisines, within these flavors, and we’re not saying there’s one right way—we’re saying this is Nicole Ponseca’s sisig, or this is Deuki Hong’s bulgogi, and not making it about the definitive one way. We’re super thankful to be working with them. And in terms of how they’re compensated, one of our core values is that rising tides raise all boats, and that BIPOC communities can unlock one another’s mobility. So, yeah, it’s a tiered royalty fee. So, for every single product that’s sold, under their specific cuisine, they get a cut of it.
“So many other CPG brands have undervalued the massive credibility that this community has, and the massive buying power that this community has.”
I read about your Ajinomoto collaboration. How did that come about? I’m a fan of Ajinomoto and cooking with MSG; I mean, beyond debunking the syndrome myth and all that garbage, I think it’s a great product. We’ve written about it quite a bit, and so I love that you’re collaborating. How did that come about, and what is that product going to be?
Kim: It was completely like kismet, in a way. One of the great things about building the platform that we have built is that our community likes to hear from us, not just as Omsom the product brand, but also to hear about what it’s like building a first-generation, women-of-color-led brand that’s trying to do things the right way, whatever that means. And so we are given a lot of space by our community to talk about things that we care about. And I remember waking up one morning and just thinking, “I’ve gotten so sick and tired of this rhetoric around MSG,” and I even remember, growing up, our mom being a little ashamed that she was cooking with it—and we talk about quite a lot of these sorts of topics that are pretty relevant to first-gens, and so I was like, “What if I kind of just put together a post?”
So I took an afternoon and put together some thoughts around the origins of this xenophobic, anti-MSG hate. And I posted it on Instagram, and we were just like, “Well, we’ll see if our community’s excited.” And then it ended up being one of our most well-shared posts—which is so so cool, because we actually don’t even carry MSG in our existing products, but it’s just something that we care about. And a couple weeks later, Ajinomoto reached out, and they were like, “Hey, this is really cool!” And I was like, “Oh, thanks, we just really cared about this,” and they were like, “Okay, would you want to collab on something?” And, you know, actually, Pepper Thai is excited. And that was super, super cool, because the Teigens have long been our dream role models in some ways, and so it was just the most natural partnership, bred from a shared desire to not only showcase a fucking delicious ingredient but how it’s in a lot of things naturally.
“There are a lot of experts now who are like, “This is the Thai way to eat.” And I think our fundamental thesis as a brand is that there are multitudes that exist within these cuisines, within these flavors, and we’re not saying there’s one right way.”
What is the future of your distribution? Are you only selling Omsom off your website, or are you also in retail, in brick-and-mortar stores?
Vanessa: We are pretty much just selling on our site right now, and that was really intentional, because—well, one, I think going into retail as a small brand is just super, super difficult, like if you’re coming right out of the gate. But I think, beyond that—because as a brand, our mission has not just been, like, “Get this product in people’s hands,” it’s been also educating on the multitudes of Asian culture and Asian cuisine—we wanted the real estate of our own website to tell that story, and to be digitally native means to have a social media presence where we can push the boundaries on what a brand can talk about and engage their community on. It was really important to us that we start it there and really invest in that landscape. Looking to the future, I still believe that, post-COVID, at least 80 percent of grocery decisions will still be happening in brick and mortar, so I definitely see a place for Omsom in the grocery store and, ultimately, I would love to make an impact there, too, about how people talk about Asian cuisine. So we will probably look to retail further down the road, but at this point, we’re still DTC (direct to consumer).
We’re asking in all our Futures series: If you could write your dream cookbook—with no time or budget constraints—what would it be on?
Kim: I’d love to write an entire cookbook on pork belly. It’s my absolute favorite cut of meat (fun fact: I’m getting it tattooed onto me!). I grew up in a first-gen Vietnamese household, so pork belly was often the main star of our family dinners. It’s simultaneously nostalgic and decadent for me. I’d love to write on all the many ways you can cook pork belly across regional Asian cuisines—deep-fried, boiled, braised low and slow, thinly sliced and panfried. There is such magic to pork fat.
Vanessa: My dream cookbook would be all about the Maillard reaction, the chemical reaction that’s behind all the roasty, toasty, and charred flavors you get when browning food. This miracle reaction creates a myriad of new, complex aromas and flavors—and, if mastered by the home cook, they can level up their cooking game across most cuisines and a huge variety of dishes. I’d love to feature recipes from a range of chefs where the Maillard reaction is critical to execution—like fried dumplings, Vietnamese thịt nướng, crunchy toffee cookies (where we’ll deep dive into the Maillard reaction vs. caramelization), or beef bourguignon.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
SIX FAVORITE COOKBOOKS FROM KIM AND VANESSA PHAM
In Bibi’s Kitchen by Hawa Hassan and Julia Turshen
I’m a huge fan of Hawa Hassan’s work, so when I heard the concept of her new cookbook—part storytelling, part recipes from eight different grandmothers from eastern Africa—I knew I had to have it. I’ve been reading it page by page as if it’s a novel and have absolutely loved it. —Vanessa
Xi’an Famous Foods by Jason Wang
Biang biang noodles are my ultimate comfort food. Something about the chewy noodles, the decadence of the oil, and the fiery heat of the chile makes every bite the perfect bite for me. —Kim
Koreatown: A Cookbook by Deuki Hong and Matt Rodbard
During the pandemic, I’ve been really missing my regular smoky and savory Korean BBQ dinners and late nights at my favorite 24-hour spots in K-Town. This book has helped me re-create some of my very favorite Korean dishes at home. —Vanessa
Dishoom by Shamil Thakrar
I used to live around the corner from Dishoom in London, and this place is absolutely an inspiration. Their black daal is what dreams are made of. —Kim
Night + Market by Kris Yenbamroong
Every time I touch down into LAX, the first stop is always an N+M. Kris Yenbamroong’s mall pasta is dead perfect in its simplicity. —Kim
The Noma Guide to Fermentation by René Redzepi and David Zilber
Fermentation is one of my favorite scientific processes in cooking—organoleptically, it produces such bold flavors and smells. Practically, it preserves food wonderfully. The team at Noma provides a fascinating and functional guide in this cookbook that can be enjoyed by beginners and experts alike. —Vanessa
Futures is our monthlong series of interviews with the individuals and organizations reshaping the way our culture cooks, eats, and thinks about food. Read last week’s interview with the editors of Pass the Spatula, a student-run food magazine based in New York City.