Chef Chat

Chef Chat: Christine Hà Sees Things Quite Clearly

A rising star about to open her first restaurant.
A rising star about to open her first restaurant. Photo by Julie Soefer

click to enlarge A rising star about to open her first restaurant. - PHOTO BY JULIE SOEFER
A rising star about to open her first restaurant.
Photo by Julie Soefer
The world might get a lot more done if we all had just a little sprinkle of Christine Hà on us. She'd make a great general because she's good at assessing, dividing, and conquering; like her own fears. Looking back, a phone interview was a great way to get to know her, voice to voice, the distraction of sight removed.  Her tone is strong, realistic, positive. She's easy-going and quick to laugh.

Born in Los Angeles, Hà moved to Houston as a small child. She studied at UT Austin, receiving a Bachelor of Business Administration in Finance and MIS, and later from the University of Houston, a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Fiction and Nonfiction. For the latter degree, she was reading Braille, because in 2004 she was diagnosed with Neuromyelitis Optica, which left her almost completely blind by 2007.

Close your eyes and reach for the nearest sharp object. That's right, that's right, nope. Frustrating, but not impossible. A self-taught home cook, she learned the best way there is, by making mistakes, and in 2011 was the first blind contestant to compete and win MasterChef. Hà now regularly judges for the franchise.

Since winning, she has gone on to write a cookbook and star in her own Canadian cooking show, Four Senses, which is geared toward a vision-impaired audience. In 2014 she won the Helen Keller Personal Achievement award and travels frequently for public speaking, including several TEDx talks.

Her blog, The Blind Cook, is a great read. There she collects recipes, anecdotes, and overall good feels. This Fall, she'll open her first restaurant, The Blind Goat, located in Bravery Chef Hall. In a phone interview, the Houston Press caught up with Christine Hà.

HP: What's something you are encouraged not to do because of your disability, but you do it anyway?

CH: (Pauses) Cook.

HP: Walked right into that one. What would you rather, get burnt or cut?

CH: Oooh. It depends, how massive is this injury? (Laughs) I think if it was a small injury I'd rather be burned, but a large injury (laughs), I'd rather be cut.

HP: Can you hear your fingers singe before you feel yourself touching something hot?

CH: I don't think so, I think it might be different for me, because I'm visually impaired, but it doesn't register until it actually happens. I can understand if a person sees it as they are about to touch something hot, but for me I don't feel it till after.

HP: I like your writing, it's sassy, I was reading some of your Houston Press stuff…

CH: Oh yeah, that was a while ago. That's when I was still in grad school and was freelancing for fun. I was always interested in food and it was something I liked to do on the side.

HP: You have a great voice.

CH: (Laughs) Thank you. Around 2011, I think I had to take a leave when I went on MasterChef, because I couldn't bring my laptop, and then when I came back it was just too busy with school.

HP: Real fast, what's your ingredient of the week, this week?

CH: This week? Kimchi.

HP: How did you meet your hubs?

CH: I met him through a mutual friend and the funny story behind that was, he had told our friend he thought I was cute and wanted her to introduce me to him and she had said, "she's four years older than you, so go find someone your own age." But then he still pursued me, and I guess we get a long, because my maturity level is probably the same as his (laughs.)

HP: Younger men are the best.

CH: Very true.

HP: What's your favorite kitchen task?

CH: Surprisingly, it's cleaning up, because it means I'm done.

HP: Have you been working on the Blind Goat menu?

CH: I've been doing a lot of recipe development. I want to do creative rice or noodle bowls for an all-day menu for people who want a quick lunch or take out in the evening. Your choice of vermicelli or a broken rice bowl, choose a protein and it comes with sauce, roasted peanuts and fresh herbs.

We want to have more of a refined dinner menu, small shareable plates, that will be more nhau food; food that you would eat while you're drinking. Something I really loved, when I go back to Asia, especially Vietnam, the idea of sitting around at night, having beers at little tables, and sharing different seafoods and other small plates.

I think we'll do grilled scallops with kimchee butter. I want to do a spin on the Korean cheese corn. They're all going to be plates that I myself would love to eat while having a nice glass of sparkling or a beer or a cocktail. I just experimented yesterday, actually, with some goat skewers.

If we can get it to pass code, I think also do a fun communal dining experience. I want to be able, in the summer, to do a tabletop grill. Something I really loved growing up in my home is when we would do grilled beef in butter. You would melt the butter on the table top grill and grill really thin slices of beef, wrap it with rice paper, fresh herbs, vermicelli, but I want to do a twist on it, instead of regular pickled carrots, I'd want to pickle it Kimchi style. A nod to my in-laws, add a little bit of heat. I think it will be fun, something a lot of people like to do when they get together, is cook.

HP: Go-to cocktail?

CH: Lately, dirty gin martini.

HP: Gin of choice?

CH: I love all sorts. I think my standard will be Beefeater, but at home I have all types. We have a Bombay Sapphire that was only available in London, there's Hendricks in our house, I don't know, I'm not super picky about it.

HP: Can you walk me through how you write a recipe?

CH: Yeah, so, I get a lot of inspiration from my travels. I love to travel and try new foods because I feel like that's how I learn about a particular culture or region. So, I'll come home and think about it like, okay what did I really enjoy, what do I want to try and re-create. I'll pick apart what I tasted thinking this is what worked, this is what can be improved. Then I'll do some research online. I come up with my own method, then I'll test it in the kitchen and usually the first time it'll be pretty traditional. I try to get it to how it should taste, and then after that, I put my own personality into it by switching out certain ingredients for more locally or what I think tastes better. Put my own southern Asian flare into it.

HP: I bet your kitchen is badass, what's your favorite tool?

CH: My favorite tool, my go-to tool is my 7.5 inch Asai, Japanese knife. My husband actually gave me the 9.5 inch for a graduation gift when I finished grad school, I loved the knife so much I bought a whole set. I tend to use the 7.5 inch.

HP: I was watching your TEDx talk and what struck me as so amazing is how you were able to get up there and speak without notes, how do you remember it all?

CH: (Laughing.)

HP: Are you just kind of like a natural? Do you write stuff down?

CH: Yeah, so, my process with that is, I'm definitely not a natural. When I first started doing public speaking it was actually very challenging for me, and I was really scared. But I'm the kind of person who likes to always conquer my fears, so I figured I would just keep doing it until I didn't fear it anymore.

I will think about the audience, think about the message, the theme, the time limit. Then I write down my bullet points, what I want to say, all of my ideas. Condense that into shorter bullet points and then I memorize the outline. It's about remembering the order, it makes the talk sound more natural. I think it's probably a blessing in disguise that I'm not even able to read any notes.

HP: Did you start cooking as a child? You said your mother was a great cook.

CH: Yeah, she was. I didn't take advantage of it and never learned to cook from her and she actually passed away. It wasn't until I went to college, my undergraduate, that I decided to teach myself to cook. After freshman year I moved out of the dorms and couldn't rely on dorm food anymore. I had an apartment with a small kitchenette. I decided I missed my mom's cooking and the stuff I grew up eating so I bought a cookbook, I bought some cheap kitchen knives and pots and pans. I just kind of started reading recipes that way, trying to follow it word for word and learned from a lot of mistakes.

HP: Where do you like to go eat in Houston?

CH: Oh man. I love Houston's food scene. There's just so many different things you can get. Houston's really good at doing authentic ethnic foods. I love going down to Bellaire for Vietnamese and Chinese food. I'd say my go-to for Pho right now, is Pho Dien. Lately, since it's been crawfish season, I'm always hitting up Crawfish Cafe. I live in the Heights area so there's a lot of cool neighborhood bars and restaurants here. I like having drinks at Better Luck Tomorrow. There's just so many things. I love the taco truck at Alabama Ice House. I try to discover new, hidden gems in Houston.

HP: Have you had the party melt at BLT?

CH: No, but my cousin ordered it and it smelt really good. I'll have to try that.
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