Goats, Gratitude, Good Food

November 26th, 2019 By Marisa Jackels

Christine Ha, standing in a kitchen and wearing her Chef's jacket, smiles at the camera. Behind her is a magnetic strip attached to the wall, with several knives stuck to it. A collection of wine and champagne glasses hang upside down above the knives.

Christine Ha wasn’t intending to start a restaurant. She certainly has the credentials — New York Times best-selling author for her cookbook, Recipes from My Home Kitchen, and winner of MasterChef season 3 with Gordon Ramsay, where she became a standout star as the first blind contestant. Sure, she thought, maybe someday she’d start something of her own.

That day just came sooner than expected.

“My husband John saw Bravery Chef Hall in Houston was looking for micro-lenders and investors,” Christine said. “We’ve always wanted more food halls to come to Houston, so we wanted to invest in a concept that was opening there.”

In a turn of events, the chef they wanted to invest in ended up going to New York to work for David Chang of the Momofuku empire. Suddenly there was an open spot for a restaurant. The Bravery Hall operators turned to Christine.

“They approached me, saying they wanted an Asian concept to fill that spot,” Christine said.  “So I said, sure, let’s try it.”

That “sure,” turned into a journey that has been both challenging and rewarding; from holding preview pop-ups and choosing dishes and cutlery (an extra challenge for Christine, since she can’t see what they look like), to building a team, fixing malfunctioning equipment, designing a menu, filming a Reservoir Dogs-themed promo video, and finally opening the shop.

Oh, and there was the important process of choosing a name. They call it, “The Blind Goat.”

“The name comes from the fact that many know me as the blind cook or chef, and I was born the year of the goat in the Vietnamese zodiac calendar,” Christine explained.

The fact that GOAT could also stand for “Greatest Of All Time” was only called to her attention after the fact, she added.

“But, I’ll take it,” she said, smiling.

The Blind Goat opened its doors this year and is now an in-demand hot spot at Bravery Hall in Houston. Described as a modern Vietnamese gastropub, the overarching theme of The Blind Goat is styled after “Vietnamese drinking cuisine” (translated as “nhau” in Vietnamese). The menu includes dishes such as Texas BBQ brisket spring rolls, beef carpaccio (with Christine’s twist – corn nuts!), and, one of her favorites: dried chicken pho.

“We use local farm-raised, free-range, organic chicken, and do a northern Vietnamese style pho which is much less spiced and lighter in flavor,” she said. “It’s a pho for purists.”

Other favorite dishes are the goat curry and an apple pie that is reflective of her “Humble Apple Pie” recipe made famous on MasterChef.

“People always say, ‘I can’t believe that has fish sauce in it!’” Christine said.

The first few months have not been without their own fair share of learning moments; sharing storage space with four other vendors, figuring out a strategic menu, hiring, retaining, and training staff to execute dishes with consistent plating and taste — just to name a few.

“It’s been a crazy process,” Christine said. “Every day, it’s something new.”

But for every overwhelming moment, there are moments where Christine remembers why it’s worth it.

“When people come up after they’ve eaten, and they said it’s one of the most memorable meals of their lives,” Christine said. “That’s one of the biggest joys.”

Christine also finds joy in the fact that her story has brought greater awareness to the blind and low vision community as a whole. Since first walking on the set of MasterChef with her white cane (to the obvious surprise of Gordon Ramsay and other judges), hundreds of thousands of viewers began asking questions and learning more about what it’s like to live without sight.

As she gained recognition, Christine shared her story — how she gradually lost her sight between 1999 and 2007 due to an autoimmune disease called Neuromyelitis optica, and had to relearn ways to continue her passion for cooking. During her time on MasterChef, she used a white cane and a sighted assistant to operate the kitchen. In her personal life, she uses assistive technologies including Aira to have more independence in the kitchen, test out recipes, even surprise her husband in New York.

“Every time I’m testing new recipes in the kitchen, I have so many ingredients and equipment and tools that I’m dealing with,” she said. “Aira agents help me figure out what is what, how to start certain inaccessible appliances, and so on.”

As she saw success on the show, fans wrote letters saying things like, “you inspired me to try out for the high school soccer team.” Now, as a new restaurateur, Christine hopes her story can continue to show others that obstacles, such as blindness, can be overcome.

“Everyone is very capable, much more capable than they think they are,” Christine said. “It ain’t easy, but with the right adaptive tools, assistive technology, and supportive community, we blind and low vision folks can achieve anything.”

Learn more about the behind-the-scenes story in their video mini-series: The Making of the Blind Goat.


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