NYU alum’s business partners with immigrant chefs to spread the sauce around
With help from her aunt and a childhood friend, Steinhardt alum Ashley Xie’s school project has become a business that supports immigrant chefs by helping their sauces reach a national market.
Mar 2, 2022
Anyone who has tried their hand at cooking knows that the sauce is the hardest part of a dish to get right. Too much salt, too little garlic — it’s a complicated yet sacred element that creates the identity of a culture’s cuisine.
Ashley Xie, an NYU Steinhardt graduate, understands this struggle and wants to use her passion for Chinese cuisine to help both home cooks and professional chefs enhance their dishes. In her experience, sauces are something that immigrant chefs in the United States want to share with a wider audience, but most are so busy creating recipes and running their businesses that they don’t know where to start. That’s where Rooted Fare, Xie’s business, comes in.
Rooted Fare works with immigrant chefs around the country who want to sell to a bigger market to get their sauces into stores. Chefs share their recipes with Rooted Fare, which then handles the marketing and manufacturing. Finally, the company partners with stores to sell the sauces online and on shelves. Rooted Fare shares the profits with the chefs and brings them more visibility.
“The chefs don’t have the time to learn how to market their sauces,” said Xie, who graduated in 2020 with a Masters of Arts in food studies. “We found that they prefer a hands-off approach, so it’s more about us doing all that work.”
Xie initially came up with the idea for Rooted Fare in a food business class during her final year of graduate school. She worked on it as a class project, and when the end of the term came, her professor told her to keep going.
Xie’s first endeavor was partnering with a Nigerian food truck chef. Her friend was hosting a party for the end of the year, which Xie thought would be a perfect place to test her idea. She worked on making and bottling a sauce with the chef and brought it to sell at the party. It sold incredibly well, and both she and the chef profited from the experiment.
“I thought, ‘Okay, this idea has legs,’” Xie said.
Due to COVID-19, Xie moved back to her home in the San Gabriel Valley in southern California, so she couldn’t continue working with the Nigerian chef. Nevertheless, she continued to work on her business and found her next opportunity close to home: her aunt, Wenling Peng, and her aunt’s noodle shop, Cup Noodles Shop in Rancho Cucamonga, California.
Peng worked in her sister’s restaurant for many years after immigrating to the United States in 1999 from Chongqing, a major city in China’s Sichuan province. After initially working in her sister’s restaurant for many years, she decided to open her own restaurant. Peng was thrilled to work with Xie on getting her product into stores.
Xie and Peng worked together to develop Chinese sauces like roasted peanut dan-dan sauce and black sesame crunchy butter. The jars can be found in stores across California, from Oakland to Palm Springs — as well as some special stores throughout the country and Rooted Fare’s online shop. For Lunar New Year this year, the two created a do-it-yourself kit for buyers to make black sesame tang yuan, sweet glutinous rice balls filled with smooth black sesame. It’s a traditional Chinese dish to serve during Lunar New Year celebrations, and something Peng’s mother was known for in Chongqing.
Chinese culture was a key facet of Xie’s upbringing. She remembers going to Chinese school after school every day and hating it. Since then, though, she’s grown more appreciative of her childhood experience.
“Chinese school is a shared Chinese American thing for many second-generation people,” said Xie. “The only way to really communicate with our parents was to go to Chinese school and learn the language.”
In 2020, Xie reconnected with one of her old Chinese school classmates, Hedy Yu. As the two were catching up, Xie sensed an opportunity.
“I asked her directly, ‘Do you want to work on this with me?’” Xie said. “And she said yes.”
Together, they applied to NYU’s $300K Challenge, an entrepreneurial competition held by the NYU Entrepreneurial Institute. NYU students, faculty and alumni enter their business ideas and undergo intensive workshops to try and bring them to life. At the end of the grueling eight-month process, the finalist teams pitch their reworked start-up ideas in hopes of winning a combined $300,000 in prize money.
“It put us through the wringer a bit,” Xie said. “There were a couple times I wanted to give up. But Hedy was always there to support me, and it was through that process that I realized she would be a great co-founder.”
Yu was thrilled to take the role. The two childhood friends are now roommates, working on expanding the business together from their California apartment.
Rooted Fare is unique for its personal touch. Because of Chinese school, Xie said, both she and Yu can communicate with immigrant Chinese chefs in a language they’re comfortable with.
“We get to put [our chefs] at the forefront,” Xie said. “That’s why it’s their story on the jars, not ours.”
Rooted Fare is making it easier for immigrant chefs to share their sauces with buyers all across the country. Xie’s welcoming attitude and eagerness help them ensure their sauces are tasted and their stories are heard.
Contact Jules Roscoe at [email protected]