Debbie Mullin, WEI Kitchen

Los Angeles, CA

Maker Profile: Debbie Mullin, Wei Kitchen
It’s late afternoon again, and the sun is making its slow, sweet sojourn across the kitchen.
Tiptoeing across the stovetop, then the pantry doors, and finally the counter, it catches two bottles of amber vinegar and shallot oil in its midst. These tall prisms, long­necked and regal with their glassy exterior and warm hue, become a kind of kaleidoscope bathing everything around the room in a golden glow that would make even the Versailles jealous.
# For just a few minutes each day, I’m reminded that good ideas – like the sun’s afternoon light – travel far to reach those they’re likely to inspire the most.
Debbie Mullin was half a world away when she was struck by the idea of selling her family’s Vietnamese pantry staples. Working for the World Bank in finance and international development, she traveled from Mexico City to Kathmandu, constantly immersed in new cities and food cultures – but nothing made her feel at home like one of her family’s staple ingredients.
“When I lived overseas, the first thing I would do was make my own batch of homemade shallot oil. Nothing felt right until I had a full bottle in the pantry. In many ways, Wei Kitchen came from my own desire for quality food that represented ‘home’ while I was away, but also my desire to share simple Vietnamese ingredients with the rest of the world.”
With one foot in the kitchen and one foot out of her corporate career, Debbie found herself looking for new ways to discover independence while also building a profitable business. She dabbled with the idea of developing apps, launching consulting firms, writing books, and developing websites, but nothing else had the kind of traction and tradition that making Vietnamese staples accessible and affordable did.
# Food was already a way of life for Debbie, so turning her love of food into a profitable business was a natural progression that seemed right.
“In the back of my mind, I always thought that this would be a great business idea. The oil and vinegar products we produce deliver all the complex flavors of Asian cooking without the heavy lifting that intimidates a lot of American home cooks.”
Looking at Wei Kitchen now, you could say that the homegrown brand was generations in the making. Born into a large Vietnamese, Chinese, and Jewish­American family Debbie calls obsessive about food, Debbie was exposed to the complexities of each culture’s cooking early on, steeped in the work of making flavorful food from scratch.
“I grew up eating and cooking with Vietnamese cuisine adapted to American ingredients. Making ingredients from scratch was common in our family, and something I was exposed to early on,” she explains. “When I left home, it was kind of like culture shock. I always wondered why I could never find high­quality Vietnamese ingredients in stores and I was always disappointed in the quality, which motivated me to make apply the same artisanal, small­batch production methods to the foods and flavors I remembered always seeing in our kitchen.”
Debbie remembers one day, after bottling a batch of shallot oil with mock bottles and labels, inviting her mother over for dinner. As soon as she walked in, she spotted a bottle of the golden­colored oil on the counter, asking where she was able to buy such a commodity.
“How much do you think I paid for it?” Debbie teased, knowing her mother had no idea about her new experiment.
Her mother, notoriously frugal for as long as Debbie could remember, studied the bottle and pursed her lips. This was a woman who could fry shallots with her eyes closed, and knew the value, time, and energy that was required to produce the flavorful oil.
“Hmm. I’d say $15?”
“When I heard my Mom, who has always prefered making her own ingredients over buying high­end goods say that, I knew I had not only a unique business ­­ but a lucrative business ­­ on my hands. To know someone so frugal as my Mom could appreciate the labor intensive process behind my product and to know that this type of customer would would be willing to pay top dollar for it blew me away.”
Shallots, known in Vietnamese as Hanh phi, are one of the ingredients that always take Debbie back home. Introduced to Vietnamese cooks by the French, the onion­meets­garlic hybrid is often the star of the show on favorite dishes like chicken pho, oxtail soup, prawn and noodle salads, and sticky rice. Small yet bursting with a mighty crunch, fried shallots and the oil they leave behind are a labor of love that most cooks today simply don’t have time for – but are knocking down doors to get ahold of.
“Shallot oil and amber vinegar are great ‘gateway’ foods that introduce a lot of our customers to high­quality Asian cuisine. You can make the things you’d usually make, like scrambled eggs or a salad dressing, for example, but replace them with our products to infuse that unmistakable Asian flavor into them. You get all of the flavor and quality without the hours of extra work.”
Wei Kitchen has received remarkable acclaim in the year and a half since its first bottling. Selected as a Top 5 Trend at the Fancy Food Show 2016, Winner of the Good Food Awards 2016, and recently mentioned in the New York Times food section (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/03/dining/chinese­food­modern­american.html?_r=1), Debbie is quickly rising in the ranks of young Asian­American chefs who are redefining what fusion cooking means by making previously prohibitively time­consuming foods available and accessible to American consumers.
“People are excited by what we’re doing because it’s so different. Before artisanal and small­batch foods were available, the only options to access Asian foods were to visit an international food market, where people aren’t typically educated on how to use the ingredients, where they come from, or what their story is. This contributes to a lot of the overwhelm when it comes to Asian cooking, and a major reason why people are hesitant to try making these dishes at home.”

Debbie explains that as demand grows, the company is trying to solve questions of supply, specifically regarding large­scale factory production. In order to make larger batches of Wei Kitchen shallot oil and amber vinegar, factories have suggested that she add shallot “essence” or artificial flavoring, which compromises quantity for quality.
Soon, Wei Kitchen will be launching yet another Vietnamese­inspired food offering, this time a ready­to­drink cold brew coffee beverage that has become a steadily growing market (http://www.economist.com/blogs/prospero/2012/01/coffee­vietnam). Although Vietnam is the world’s second largest coffee producer, it’s character gets lost in the export process by being ground and added to cheap, low quality brands reserved for coffee pots rather than quality brewing techniques. Debbie explains that it’s her mission to pay homage to the great culinary potential that Vietnam has to offer ­­ just like she’s done with her shallot and amber vinegar oil ­­ by introducing new exotic flavors to Western palates. By encouraging others to try authentic Vietnamese coffee and making exotic products more accessible to American consumers, Debbie hopes to stand out as a food brand that bridges the gap between cultures.
Wei Kitchen’s new challenge? Go direct to factory with beans from international suppliers that can guarantee the beans are all­natural without additives.
“Coffee from Vietnam is very unique, and many Americans don’t get to experience its depth of flavor, as most beans tend to be made for instant coffee. Vietnamese beans are rich, and often roasted with butter and mocha flavors. Right now, finding the right partners to supply us with coffee beans made for cold brew is our goal.”