“Anyone can cook.”
Perhaps no one else better exemplifies this classic takeaway line from Disney’s Ratatouille than Christine Ha. Except, in her case, it could use a little modification. Anyone can cook, but not everyone can go on television’s hit show MasterChef and win the entire competition, all while not being able to see.
That’s right – the first-ever blind contestant on MasterChef, Ha competed during season three and beat out more than 30,000 culinary hopefuls across the country. Made even more impressive, Ha is completely self-taught. “I don’t think I’ve ever taken a single cooking class in my life,” she says.
The daughter of Vietnamese refugees, Ha was born as a seeing person in Southern California and raised in Texas, but was always reminded of her Southeast Asian roots. She grew up around her mother’s cooking, but never learned to cook from her – she simply wasn’t interested at the time. When Ha was fourteen years old, her mother passed away. Ha moved on to attend the University of Austin and pursue an undergraduate business degree, but that’s when the nostalgia for home cooking set in. So, she set to work. Ha bought a cheap set of knives and pots and pans, then began reading recipes and experimenting in the kitchen.
Sure, Ha was studying business administration, but it was during these times in her college apartment that another passion began to rise to the surface. “I was learning the science and the art of what it meant to create a meal from scratch,” she says. After what she admits were many failed attempts, she was finally able to make meals that her friends not only ate, but praised.
“I think that sparked some sort of joy, in the idea of being able to create something for others to enjoy,” she explains. “And at the same time, giving them sustenance and sitting around the table and having conversation, and spending time with each other. And that’s when the idea of cooking being a serious hobby kind of floated into my head.”
Displaying her characteristic unrelenting drive, from that point on, Ha set out to learn everything she could about the art of cooking. She bought all the cookbooks she could get her hands on. She experimented day in and day out in the kitchen. And she began losing her sight.
In her early 20’s, Ha was diagnosed with Neuromyelitis Optica, an autoimmune disorder of the central nervous system that can cause some people to lose their vision. Slowly, little by little, Ha’s sight began to fade away. Despite this heavy blow, however, Ha’s vision for her life remained clear.
Each time Ha’s vision regressed further, she had to adjust to her new normal. She pivoted her career plan, and began her graduate studies in Creative Writing. She also met her husband, who just so happened to be a big Gordon Ramsay fan.
This is when, she says, her life got turned upside down.
It started with an audition in Austin. Then, a panel of interviews with other contestants. A background check, a phone interview, talking to producers, creating a home video audition. Then, finally, if you’re lucky, a call to go to L.A. Ha got that call.
Visually impaired, Ha still can pick up bright lights in her visual field – and a film set in Los Angeles is full of bright lights, movement, and constant hustle and bustle. For her, it was both disconcerting and disorienting. On top of that, she was facing a panel of judges who were admittedly skeptical that someone visually impaired was going to compete. “I think in that moment I felt more than ever that I had to prove something not just to them, but to myself, too. That I could cook just as well as anyone else.”
And, we know where the story goes from there. A blind chef with absolutely no technical training took home the title. “I think because I lost my vision, my palette got better, because I’m able to taste the nuances of different flavors in every bite that I eat,” Ha says.
It had been her first foray into the world of television and entertainment. After that, “[so] many doors opened it was actually difficult to make decisions. You want to strike while the iron’s hot, and you don’t know how long the ride will last.”
Strike while the iron’s hot, she did. Ha co-hosted the Canadian cooking show Four Senses, and appeared as a judge for an entire season on MasterChef Vietnam. While traveling around the world giving TEDx talks, making appearances on NPR, BBC, and CNN International, she also authored her first cookbook: Recipes From My Home Kitchen: Asian and American Comfort Food. The book blended the two types of comfort food that Ha had experienced growing up: the southern flare of the local Texas home cooking at her friend’s houses, and the food her mother made for her in her own home.
It didn’t take long for her cookbook to make its way onto the New York Times’ best-seller list. “As a writer, that was a dream come true to be able to write about something that I love to do, which is cooking and food. And when that became a best-seller in the New York Times’ list, that was a feeling just as good as winning the show.”
So, what’s a best-selling author, MasterChef winning cook to do? Open her own restaurant, of course.
Ha won MasterChef in 2012, and opened her own restaurant in late July 2019. While a whirlwind of seven years passed between her win and the opening of her restaurant, the opening of this new venture was an even longer time coming. When deciding what to name the business, Ha consulted a journal she had been keeping for decades with potential ideas. Even so, the naming of the restaurant came about by happenstance.
It was leaked to the press that Ha was planning to open her own place, and she had to come up with a name right away. Because she was known as the Blind Cook, and was born in the year of the goat, one name stood out above the others: The Blind Goat. She ended up picking the name, even though she wasn’t entirely sold. Then, someone mentioned to her that goat also stood for “greatest of all time.” Combine the fun whimsy of the name with the creative spirit of the restaurant, and she realized that nothing felt more perfect. The Blind Goat was born, inside a food hall in downtown Houston.
Working together with her husband to create the business, Ha blended her journey with food into a Vietnamese and Southern fusion that did not disappoint anyone who had watched Ha on MasterChef – and anyone who hadn’t, for that matter. However, amidst the success of a startup restaurant, Ha and her husband had to swerve yet again when the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the world.
“What I’ve learned is the greatest rewards come from the greatest challenges,” says Ha, optimistic despite a heavy heart for her staff, who she refuses to take off payroll. While weathering the storm, Ha knows the key to communication is transparency with her team.
“You have to learn to adapt quickly – that’s what I’ve learned as an entrepreneur of a startup. You have to learn how to take the criticism, but at the same time understand what your vision and your message is, and if you keep your eyes on that, then you can steer your ship. If you truly believe in your vision, then other people will buy into it as well,” she explains of her leadership style.
Amidst the uncertainty, Ha and her husband are slated to open a new restaurant once they’re given then the green light. As someone who is self-described as “not very entrepreneurial,” Ha sure does seem to know a thing or two about hard work. For her, success is an intersection of three things: hard work, talent, and luck.
“Sometimes, you just have to be in the right place at the right time. I happened to try out for a season of MasterChef at the time where I was the best cook for that season. Maybe if I tried out for another season, I wouldn’t have won.”
A blind chef who can outcook an entire nation, and continue to persevere through a worldwide pandemic? Whether it’s hard work, talent, luck, or a combination of all three, we’ll let you be the judge.
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