Omsom Is the Fiery and Fun New Pantry-Essential You Need to Know About
Omsom’s mission is to reclaim and celebrate bold Asian flavors and communities.
“We were walking down this quote-unquote ethnic aisle in a mainstream grocery store and we did not feel represented, seen, or heard by these products,” Kim Pham, one of the co-founders of Omsom, recently told me over a video call. “The products in there are old school, feel diluted, and frankly, they’re just not good … A lot of those products in that aisle are not made with folks like us in the room. From that mission, we were born to essentially reclaim and celebrate Asian flavors, Asian cuisines, and therefore Asian communities.” Omsom is a new pantry product created by co-founders (and sisters) Kim and Vanessa Pham that captures the vivacious flavors of Vietnamese, Thai, and Filipino cuisine in easy-to-use packets.
The sisters began their careers in business and management consulting. Despite this, food -- and building the company of their dreams -- was always in the back of their minds.
“Food has meant so many different things to us throughout our lives. When we were younger, it was a way to connect with our parents. It was a love language,” Vanessa explained. “With language barriers sometimes, it’s really important for us to have that love language. As we’ve gotten older, I think cuisine has really been a way for us to connect with our identities as first-gen Vietnamese Americans.”
Though food is a significant part of the business Kim and Vanessa wanted to create, neither have culinary backgrounds. This is where the chefs, referred to as “tastemakers” by the sisters, come in. Kim and Vanessa partnered with three New York City-based chefs: Nicole Ponseca of Filipino gastropub, Jeepney; Jimmy Ly of Madame Vo and Madame Vo BBQ; and brothers and chef duo Chat and Ohm Suansilphong of Fish Cheeks, to create the recipes that serve as the backbone of Omsom.
“Not only are these folks running these incredible restaurants and have these incredible menus,” Kim explained, “they’re also redefining and pioneering what it means to eat modern Thai, modern Vietnamese, and modern Filipino.” To these chefs, their food doesn’t have to be hole-in-the-wall to be authentic, nor do they need to subscribe only to familiar take out staples like pad thai and banh mi. Instead, working with Kim and Vanessa, the chefs developed something entirely new: a shelf-stable “starter” sauce packet that captures the evocative flavors of their cuisines with the ease of, say, a can of tomato sauce. It’s like having the ability to recreate restaurant-quality Thai, Vietnamese, and Filipino food in a neatly packaged rectangle.
Though using Omsom is incredibly simple thanks to the instructions and protein recommendations on how to recreate the dishes that come with each pack, formulating the actual recipes was no small feat.
"We were born to essentially reclaim and celebrate Asian flavors, Asian cuisines, and therefore Asian communities."
“For us, it took a while to develop the recipe -- about six months. There were a lot of speed bumps,” Ohm Suansilphong, the executive chef and co-owner of Fish Cheeks, told me. “When I cook normally, I use whatever fish sauce I can find at the market. With Omsom, their ingredients are very, very clean. They were strict on that, so we had to juggle their ingredients with what tastes we were looking for.” This meant going back and forth with Kim and Vanessa on a particular lime juice for months, tasting and retesting the recipe for their larb starter.
“Our name is on the product, too, so if it’s not good, we’ll also lose face,” Jenn Saesue, Fish Cheeks co-owner, chimed in. “If people try it and don’t like it, then it wouldn’t be okay.” Despite the struggles, both Suansilphon and Saesue sang praises about working with Kim and Vanessa. “They pulled through; they’re very hands on… It was definitely a fun project,” Saesue said. “They’re doing a great thing. I appreciate that they’re trying to work with other chefs and allowing us to represent our own food.”
Nicole Ponseca echoed this very sentiment. Though she couldn’t recall an exact timeline, she mentioned that creating her sisig starter -- a garlic-forward blend of chilies, cane sugar, and porcini mushrooms that is punched up with mouth-puckering calamansi puree -- took between six months and a year. Throughout that time, Vanessa and Kim made sure she “felt supported, positivity, and encouragement to make sure it [was] right.” To Ponseca, it wasn’t just about representing herself and her restaurant. Perfecting the sisig starter went much deeper. “I feel a pressure with my community. Being Filipino, our food is only beginning to emerge. [It’s] such a new cuisine in terms of mainstream matriculation that I also [felt] a pressure to not disappoint my fellow Filipinos,” Ponseca explained.
Jimmy Ly, the chef behind Madame Vo and Madame Vo BBQ, was “stoked” about working with Kim and Vanessa because developing his signature barbecue marinade, a savory fish sauce and sesame oil mixture kissed by the subtle aroma of lemongrass, into a shelf-stable sauce packet was a challenge he had yet to encounter. “This was a whole other game; they gave me factors that I had to include to make it work and give it better shelf life,” Ly said. “For me, what was most important was to capture the essence and capture the flavor of what I wanted. I wanted it to be full-bodied and very bold. As a chef, that’s how I express myself. I cook the way I eat.”
All three chefs emphasized the camaraderie they felt working with Kim and Vanessa, citing it as a true collaboration where their voices were heard and understood. Ponseca reflected on how the timing of Omsom’s launch feels particularly weighted. “It’s so timely and political now [because] in my honest experience, I haven’t had the opportunity to work with more women or [entrepreneurs] of color,” she said. “It was like carrying torches; there’s a lot of torches that I feel this brand carries.”
Ly agreed. “I was really excited for what [Kim and Vanessa] represent and what they wanted to [uphold] for the Asian culture and restaurants. I’ve had so much love and I’ve always believed in them.”
Launching a new business is a challenge in itself, but doing so in the middle of a pandemic amidst rising racial tensions in America is something Kim and Vanessa say they could never have predicted. The pair has struggled with delays for packaging and ingredients, lost access to photographers and videographers for the sake of maintaining social distancing, and exchanged a vision of clean-cut imagery for a DIY-approach. It’s hard to believe, however, that there have been any hiccups at all, seeing as the product itself -- right down the packaging and fun website -- is thoughtful and intentional.
“The creative direction was always like ‘how can we showcase unapologetic Asian flavors?’ That has to be mirrored in our colors, it has to be mirrored in our website experience,” Kim explained. The sauce packets arrive in a neon-colored box doused in highlighter shades of yellow and orange that’s intended to look like a matchbox, hinting at the fiery starters inside. “It all stems from our name. Once we realized that we’re going with this rowdy rambunctious energy, [we] just pulled that all the way through.”
"People are rediscovering the joy of cooking at home which is really cool. It’s wonderful to be a part of that journey."
Despite the hurdles the sisters have faced together, they’ve learned to recognize some of the positives. “I don’t want to say there’s a silver lining because the world is going through a collective trauma right now,” Kim started, “but in a lot of ways, people are rediscovering the joy of cooking at home which is really cool. It’s wonderful to be a part of that journey.”
For a company that’s only been around for roughly a month, the response has been heartening for the sister duo. Their initial launch sold out, receiving buzzy reviews by food writers. Ponseca herself said she was “pleasantly surprised to receive tags on social media and private messages” singing praises for her sisig starter. Saesue and Suansilphong said that not only is their starter perfect for making larb at home, but customers can also boil the sauce with hot water to make a DIY tom sap soup. For these restaurant-owners, the starters have served as another opportunity to connect with their customers in the midst of the pandemic.
“It was kind of a bummer because we wanted it to be this beautiful, crisp clean launch,” Kim said. “But I think that folks are also getting sick of perfect, manicured content. It’s not the world that we live in anymore. We’re just learning how to ride the wave of it all and stay as close to the community as possible.”