Growing up in Pembroke, Massachusetts as the daughter of Vietnamese refugees, Kim Pham and her sister, Vanessa, struggled to fit in.
“My parents wanted a little suburban situation and didn’t realize how hard it would be. They wanted somewhere safe—the American dream—and tried their best to set my sister and I up for success,” Kim says. “We faced a lot of racism and feelings of being othered.”
The whole family spent their days assimilating in their predominantly White suburb, where her father worked as an engineer and her mother was an accountant. Kim and her sister were Brownies in a local troop, earning badges and selling cookies.
But each evening, no matter how long or how hard, Kim’s mother made a full Vietnamese dinner for the family and they all sat down together.
“Food was how we said, ‘I love you,’” she recalls.
Looking back on their childhoods as 20-something professionals living in Brooklyn and working in consulting and finance, Kim and Vanessa realized they never saw their heritage reflected on their local grocery store shelves growing up. All the Asian ingredients were watered down, adjusted for the “American” palate, and sequestered together monolithically as part of an international aisle.
The sisters decided to create a product line that would highlight the intensity and beauty of the different flavor profiles from around the region.
“We thought, ‘Let’s make it really easy for people to cook loud and proud Asian meals at home,’” Kim explains.
They partnered with celebrated young Asian chefs from across the country to make a line of starter sauces that home cooks could simply add to meat and produce. These sauces eliminate the need to hunt down harder-to-find fresh ingredients such as Thai chili, lemongrass, and galangal which, in most parts of the country, would still require going to a specialty grocery store … if they’re available at all.
Their partners are all young and buzzworthy, and several of them—including Amelie Kang of Szechuan-style dry pot restaurant, Málà Project, and Nicole Ponseca of Filipino restaurant, Jeepney—are Manhattan-based women.
Kim and Vanessa named their line Omsom, a Vietnamese pejorative that means “rowdy” or “rambunctious,” which is what their mother would call the sisters when they were being too loud. “I love the idea of reclaiming this term,” Kim says, “It felt so true to me.”
“People have a very East Asian-centric view of food—mostly Chinese,” she explains. “Part of our mission was that we really wanted to showcase the multitudes in Asian flavors and Asian stories. We launched with a set of Southeast Asian sauces: Thai, Filipino, and Vietnamese. We wanted to showcase that there are so many different cuisines.”
For better or worse, they launched in May 2020—just two months after the start of the global COVID-19 pandemic. They faced supply chain and investor issues. Kim, Vanessa, and their marketing director were isolated in their homes and learning how to work together remotely. But New Yorkers were still sheltering in place—and getting tired of their cooking repertoires.
They sold out on their website in just 72 hours.
“On months two and three of the pandemic, folks were looking for how to spice up their home cooking,” Kim laughs. “But we also struck a chord with Asian communities that had felt flattened for so long.”
Soon after, their products were available regionally, mostly in small independent gourmet shops that feature specialty ingredients.
“[On our blog], we were talking about the demonization of MSG, but we were also talking about the larger Asian renaissance. From David Chang of the Momofuku restaurant empire to Crazy Rich Asians—there is a parade, and we were one of the first brands to loudly and proudly own our place in it.”
This summer, Omsom will launch nationally in Whole Foods stores across the country.
For Kim, who is now 29, the authenticity of the business she and her sister were building resonated throughout her life—professionally and personally.
“As we started to build the brand, I thought, ‘In what ways have I not been proud and loud to myself? In what ways have I dimmed or turned down parts of my soul?’ It made a lot of space for me to find my truths—and one of them was that I am queer,” she explains.
“I had always kind of known that I wasn’t fully straight. I am bi and there’s a lot of biphobia that permeates society. Gradual digging made me realize, ‘Here is a thing that has always been here’… but now I can say that I am bi with pride.”
In addition to owning and celebrating her own identity, Kim also started presenting herself to the world differently.
“I started accessing all of the parts of me that I think were hidden, including my style,” she says. “My style pulls a lot of references from subcultures, including punk and goth. I am building the company of my dreams… and the company of my dreams would allow its employees to dress fully as themselves. [Becoming an entrepreneur] changed my self-expression and my understanding of self.”