Chef Christine Ha Dishes on Winning MasterChef and Opening Her New Restaurant

Her acclaimed eatery, The Blind Goat, is reopening in Spring Branch with a whole new look and feel.

By Caleb Garling February 17, 2023

In 2012 Christine Ha snuck away from defending her masters thesis at the University of Houston to audition for the reality television show MasterChef. She had recently lost her vision to an autoimmune disorder, yet could still cook beautiful traditional Vietnamese food. Ha didn't take the audition too seriously, though, she just thought it would make good fodder for writing. But then a funny thing happened. Not only did she pass all the rounds of audition. But she won the whole show.

The saga made Ha a culinary celebrity. Now she's the author of a popular cookbook and featured in multiple Ted Talks. She also works as executive chef of Xin Chào (pronounced Sin Chao), just north of Tinsley Park, and owns The Blind Goat, her first restaurant, reopening soon in Spring Branch, the neighborhood where Ha's lives now with her husband of thirteen years.

While Ha grew up in Houston and lived most of her life in Texas her parents were a part of the diaspora that fled Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Today Houston is home to the second largest Vietnamese population in the United States. One of Ha's missions is to meld the traditional dishes of her parents' generation with the modern dining palettes of Houstonians. She's even reinvented that old standby, queso, serving it instead as dried shrimp hot sauce with wonton chips.

We sat down with Ha to ask her some questions about life post pandemic. (Responses have been edited for clarity and flow.)

Houstonia: You won MasterChef in 2012 but didn't open The Blind Goat until seven years later. Why the gap?

Christine Ha: After I won, everyone was asking, "When are you going to open your restaurant?" and my thought was: "Are you kidding? Just because I know how to cook doesn't mean I know how to run a professional kitchen suddenly." I knew the challenges I was facing. I still consider myself very green to the restaurant business.

The Blind Goat is reopening at a new location this month. You've said on your website that it has taken longer than you'd hoped. What happened?

Part of it has been supply chain issues due to the pandemic and the war in Ukraine [the source of many raw materials used in electrical systems]. But I think anyone who's built anything in Houston, especially in the restaurant business, will understand. Before the pandemic it could already take a while to get permitting pushed through, but after it's taking even longer. It took us several months to just get the permits to break ground.

In your Ted Talk you joke that "just because I can't see, doesn't mean I don't care how I look." How do you design your restaurant's aesthetics if you can't see them?

When I could see I was a very type-A controlling person. But when I lost my vision I had to give that up and trust other people. Fortunately my husband, who's also my business partner, comes from a design background, so I trust his eye.

We're also working [on the new Blind Goat] with John Tsai of JT Arc Studio who's also very gifted in design. So my husband and I developed the concept—a beachy, chic vibe—and let him run with it.

How much are you able to work in your kitchens today?

In my home kitchen, everything's completely organized and it's just me or me and my husband cooking together. That's fine and easy. I do a lot of recipe testing at home.

When it comes to the restaurant kitchen of course it can be very chaotic. But I know my limitations. I've built a team I trust to execute my menu. I train them how dishes should taste, how they should look and the team's able to replicate that in the restaurant.

A lot of times customers come in and ask, "Is Christine back there cooking?" and my staff is laughing, "No, she's busy doing other things." I don't want them to feel stressed knowing their blind boss is around and they have to worry about safety.

You did end up finishing your masters in creative writing at the University of Houston. Do you still do any writing now (besides cookbooks)?

I've tried to continue my memoir [her master's thesis]. It's been something that I've been wanting to work on for a long time. I hope to get to a place where my restaurants are running on their own and I can focus more on creative writing.

Is there a relationship between writing and cooking?

For me they're both about storytelling and sharing yourself with other people. The frustration of not being able to get the words down on the page can feel similar to not getting a recipe right.

Your mother passed away when you were a teenager. You've lamented that you didn't get any recipes from her. What would you ask her for?

[Laughs] Her phở has been my white whale. To this day I can't get mine to taste like hers. My father told me she jotted down all the ingredients, but he lost the list. I doubt there would have been any ratios on it though.

Tell us a little more about your mission to modernize the American sense of Vietnamese cooking—that it's not just cheap noodles and white bread sandwiches.

After the Vietnam War it was my parent's generation that came over here and started restaurants and cooking in the United States. They were cooking the dishes they grew up with, but the menu kind of paused in time. They weren't really innovating those dishes. But of course there's a new generation of chefs in Vietnam and they're coming up with new dishes.

One dish that we're going to put on the Blind Goat menu is called banh trang nuong. It literally translates to "grilled rice paper" but think of a small Vietnamese style pizza. You take two pieces of rice paper, which you'd normally find on the outside of a spring roll, but grill it and add toppings. That was a piece of street food I had in Vietnam several years ago and had never seen before.

You and cofounder Tony Nguyen were just named James Beard semifinalists for the 2023 outstanding chef category for your work at Xin Chao. What up-and-coming chefs do you see hitting those kinds of heights some day?

I've been going to Nam Giao in Bellaire for years now. The chef is Ai Le. He does dishes that are local to the central region of Vietnam. They're not your typical noodles or banh mi—he cooks these other traditional Vietnamese dishes in the traditional style. You don't see them in a lot of places elsewhere around Houston. 

Filed under
Show Comments