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No Barriers Podcast Episode 73: Beyond the Kitchen with Blind Chef, Christine Ha

Continuing our Alchemy Series (sponsored by Wells Fargo and Prudential), we speak with world-renowned Chef, Christine Ha, who happens to be blind. Jeff and Erik listen as Christine talks about her artistry, her passion for cooking, and her journey to become the high-level Chef she is today.

Christine’s resume is impressive: she is the first-ever blind contestant and season 3 winner of the competitive amateur cooking television show “MasterChef” with Gordon Ramsay. She defeated over 30,000 home cooks across America to secure the coveted MasterChef title, a $250,000 cash prize, and a cookbook deal.

She holds a Master of Fine Arts from the nationally acclaimed Creative Writing Program at the University of Houston, where she served as Fiction Editor for Gulf Coast literary journal, and a Bachelor of Business Administration from The University of Texas at Austin. She is currently working on her memoir and second cookbook.

Christine’s first cookbook, Recipes From My Home Kitchen: Asian and American Comfort Food, was a New York Times best-seller. She has been featured on NPR, the BBC, and CNN International, and travels around the globe to give keynote addresses and TEDx talks. Christine has also spoken about disability advocacy at the United Nations and served as a culinary envoy overseas for the American Embassy as part of cultural diplomacy programs in Jordan, Serbia, Bosnia/Herzegovina, and Croatia. She was a co-host on the Canadian cooking show “Four Senses” and a judge on “MasterChef” Vietnam.

Christine received the 2014 Helen Keller Personal Achievement Award from the American Foundation for the Blind, a recognition formerly bestowed upon Ray Charles, Patty Duke, and Stevie Wonder among others. Christine’s first restaurant, The Blind Goat, is now open in Houston.






Youtube:  YouTube.com/ChristineHaTube






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Episode Transcript

Christine Ha: There are things that we can't deny that we need help with. And I think part of that is empowering, acknowledging, and knowing the difference of when to ask for help and when to try to do it yourself. Because I think if you go the other extreme where you try to do everything yourself, as someone with a certain disability, then it's also in a way kind of denying that disability, and then it's giving it more power.

Erik: It's easy to talk about the successes, but what doesn't get talked about enough is the struggle. My name is Erik Weihenmayer. I've gotten the chance to ascend Mount Everest, to climb the tallest mountain in every continent, to kayak the Grand Canyon, and I happen to be blind. It's been a struggle to live what I call a No Barriers life, to define it, to push the parameters of what it means. And part of the equation is diving into the learning process and trying to illuminate the universal elements that exist along the way, and that unexplored terrain between those dark places we find ourselves in in the summit, exists a map. That map, that way forward, is what we call No Barriers.

Erik: Christine Ha is the first ever blind contestant and season three winner of the TV show MasterChef with Gordon Ramsay. She defeated over 30,000 home cooks across America to secure the coveted MasterChef title, a quarter million dollar cash prize, and a cookbook deal. Christine's first cookbook, Recipes From My Home Kitchen: Asian and American Comfort Food, was a New York Times best-seller. She's been featured on NPR, the BBC, and CNN International, and travels the globe to give keynote addresses and TEDx talks, and has also spoken about disability advocacy at the United Nation and served as a culinary envoy overseas for the American Embassy.

Erik: Christine also received the 2014 Helen Keller Personal Achievement Award from the American Foundation for the Blind, a recognition formerly bestowed upon Ray Charles, Patty Duke, Stevie Wonder, some blind guy named Erik Weihenmayer, amongst others. Her first restaurant, The Blind Goat, is now open in Houston. Everybody enjoy.

Erik: Hey everyone. Welcome to the No Barriers Podcast. This is Erik Weihenmayer, and I'm joined by host Jeff Evans. And we are talking to Christine Ha today and we are so excited. Good morning, Christine.

Christine Ha: Good morning, everyone.

Jeff: Hi, Christine.

Erik: Hey, I want to hit you with a really, kind of a big question, rather than just going in such a linear fashion. But I've heard you talk about cooking sort of almost like a zen experience, right? It's like this experience where you feel aligned, and you feel authentic, and you feel joy, like taking raw ingredients, which may not be all that pretty at first. And then you're transforming them into something really beautiful that brings joy and serves other people and everyone leaves happy. Is that sort of your zen in a way?

Christine Ha: I would say yes. I think maybe the act of actually going through the cooking process may not seem so zen sometimes because [inaudible 00:03:37] go wrong on the stove or in the oven and it can be frantic. But I think the moment when I'm finishing up a dish, especially the plating process and the part where you do the presentation, that moment for me is very zen. Part of it is you know that you've reached your goal and an end point and that you can't really fix what you've already done. So you know that you're reaching the end of your task, and then just the moment of plating for me, it is like an art.

Christine Ha: Because I used to have vision, my memories of colors and how things contrast on a plate, I still remember well. So for me, the plating part is like creating the very less finishing touches on your art piece. And so for me, I tend to imagine what I want the food to look like on a plate. And I learned from my husband who was a designer about negative space and the importance of that on a plate. So then I imagine what I want the final product to look like, and then I set about recreating that image as best as I can with my fingers. And for me, something about that moment is very zen.

Erik: It's like you used to see, as you said, so you ... And by the way, for a lot of people, they didn't know plating was a verb, so that's a cool thing to learn.

Jeff: Yeah, yeah. For those of us who just do ramen noodles and elk steaks, I kind of inferred what that means, but is plating really the visual presentation to the guest? Is it more visual? Is it what it looks like when it gets to [inaudible 00:05:17]?

Erik: Yeah. It's all the colors on the plate and the spacing, and as you said, the negative space. Yeah.

Christine Ha: Yeah. I mean, plating is just the action form of getting your food in the vessel that you want to present it in.

Erik: And you could see, so you envision, right? You imagine what that plate looks like.

Christine Ha: Yeah. So I'd feel the shape. I would ask someone who has vision, what the color is. And then I would think about the food I cooked and I know I will remember what the color of most foods are, and then try to do a contrast. I usually plate on white, unless it's a white food. And then I would use a colored plate, because you want that contrast so that it stands out and then there's a pop of color. And then height on a plate is always nice too. You kind of want to build upwards for more texture.

Jeff: Erik, take notes, bro.

Erik: Yeah. No, I heard one of the chefs say that you were the most disciplined chef of what's on the plate of anyone they'd ever seen. So, how the heck did you get that kind of discipline and visual presentation of something, or is it spatial?

Christine Ha: I would say the discipline is kind of just innate in my personality. I mean, I grew up with parents that expected a lot from me. I mean, part of it is probably just being Asian American. So my parents were always like, "You need to get good grades and you do well in school. You need to excel at this musical instrument or this sport." So I think discipline is just kind of something I grew up with, just doing your best and always striving to be better. And so I think that translated into how I competed on MasterChef as well. It's just about trying to always execute perfection.

Christine Ha: And I know that that has its downside as well. And in my adult life, I think I've been learning that it is okay to fail and to make mistakes and not be perfect, but it is something hard to unwind I think after so many years of striving for perfectionism, but I think that's kind of where the discipline comes in. It's just I just have very high expectations of myself. And so I think that's just why I always practiced or always tried to be better, and that translated to how I performed in a competition and how I cooked and how I plated.

Erik: So, is that a lot of pressure because it sounds like ... Your parents came over from Vietnam, right? Is that correct?

Christine Ha: That's right, yeah.

Erik: After the war?

Christine Ha: Yes.

Erik: So you grew up in this very traditional family. Your mom didn't even let you in the kitchen, that's what I read. So, you grew up in this very traditional culture, and so that discipline, as you said, is a double edged sword, but does it create a lot of pressure and nerves inside because your parents were like, "Don't complain. We walked through the snow to get to school. Suck it up."

Christine Ha: Exactly. Except in Vietnam, it was probably they walked barefoot through the heat.

Erik: Right, through the rice paddies or something.

Christine Ha: But yeah, I definitely agree that it created a lot of pressure. I put a lot of pressure on myself even more so than probably my parents eventually did. So I guess the benefit of that is that I will always try to over-perform or over-deliver. And so I do achieve a lot, but then the downside is when I'm not the best at something or when I don't reach my goals, I think it takes more of a mental toll on me than perhaps it should. Yeah. It's definitely a double edged sword.

Erik: But you also had a nickname when you were a kid. Your mom said all you wanted to do was to play, right?

Christine Ha: Yeah.

Erik: So do you think that that's maybe there's this interplay happening between that side that wants to be perfect and disciplined and that side that wants to play and create?

Christine Ha: Yeah, I mean, I was an only child. I grew up as an only child. So I think my imagination was very healthy. I had to just imagine that I was talking to people and I made up stories, I loved to read. And funnily enough, growing up, I was quite a picky eater and I did not enjoy eating. I would rather be playing. So mealtime for me lasted like an hour and a half or two hours. So my mom would always be so frustrated, and back then she would just be like, "You need to eat all of your food before you can play." And so I kind of rebelled and I would just sit there for like two hours and refuse to eat my food, and then whine about not being able to get up and play.

Christine Ha: I know there's definitely a creative side of me and a side that loves to explore my imagination, and I believe I got that from my dad. He was an architect in Vietnam. He drew a lot, did a lot of art just for fun. And he used to write poetry. So I get the creative side from my dad and I get my studious and I think excellent side of just excelling and doing well from my mom.

Jeff: So I have a few questions from the artistic perspective, because you're an artist. And when it comes to being a chef at your level, and being an artist, and taking chances, if it falls flat sometimes, is that okay? Or are you, I know you're a restaurateur, do you try to make everyone happy and reach everybody from a culinary perspective and artistically?

Christine Ha: I feel like with food and with art, you cannot please everybody. But what I've learned from the restaurant and from being on MasterChef is that you trust your gut, you cook or serve what you believe is good and what you would want to eat yourself and would be proud to serve your family or your friends. And there will be a camp that follows you. There will be people that believe in it too. Not everybody, but there will be some. And I think that's the only thing you can do with art.

Jeff: I watched the segment, well, your MasterChef segment, and I recommend that to everybody that's listening to go check it out.

Erik: Did you cry, Jeff? I cried all of it.

Jeff: I did, I did.

Erik: I know. [inaudible 00:11:36].

Jeff: I sobbed because the one fellow was right. Your eyes are so expressive. And I don't want to take the punchline away from anybody who is going to ultimately go and see it, because then it'll build it up, but it was such a surprise to me to see how transparent you were, and looking into your eyes. And obviously the production team did great because they were really close on you and watched your emotions come out. But can I just say, I was really angry at the fellow, I don't know, the famous guy, the guy, he was talking to you, you had five minutes to cook, and you had five minutes and the guy was all up in your grill. I was like, "Let the woman work. Shut up."

Erik: Yeah, but that's TV. You got to probably do it, right?

Jeff: But I just wanted to go put a piece of duct tape on his mouth, man. Like, "She's busy, she's got things to do, bro, and you are distracting her." It was very bothersome. I was very annoyed. I've wanted you to be able to work and you're like, "Where's my green onion?" Anyway, the whole thing did ... Did you know that was ... Is that part of the whole thing? [inaudible 00:12:44] something?

Christine Ha: Yeah. I feel like it is part of production where they try to, it's almost psychological mind games, and that's a lot of American reality production, I think. But I remembered there were plenty of times when I started getting comfortable with the judges, or even the story producers because they come and that's when they get you to kind of talk about your dish and they edit themselves out, asking you questions. And I remember one challenge. They kept trying to ask me something and I was trying to cook the clams and they were overcooking, and I was so frustrated that I started just cussing at them and I was like, "Look, I need to fucking finish my dish. Get out of my fucking ..." Definitely edit that out.

Jeff: Yes.

Erik: No, that's totally fine for this podcast.

Jeff: No, no. And that's what I felt, it was ... I mean, so it sounds like they were just doing that. I didn't know if they were direct, I've never seen other episodes, so I didn't know if they're directly just sort of testing you and your ability to handle stress being visually impaired, or if they did that to everybody. So I'm glad to know that that's just kind of their MO and they weren't singling you out.

Christine Ha: No. Yeah. It was just when it was appropriate, because maybe something interesting was happening at the end, and that's when they want to come talk to you because visually it would be interesting for camera. And sometimes I don't necessarily think they do it on purpose. Maybe there's just something they want to capture and it just happens to be at a highly stressful time for the cook.

Jeff: Okay.

Erik: Hey, and by the way, I just want to ... It's really, I don't even exactly know how to phrase this, but that was a really special moment when you said, "Hey, where are the green onions?" You just mentioned that, Jeff, because I think there's this kind of beautiful vulnerability in what you're doing. And I just found that really cool. There's this cool sort of interplay between, "Hey, I'm comfortable asking where are the green onions, because I only have five minutes to do this." And then at the same time, then when I think you won the white apron, you're like, "No, no, no. Let me come over. You don't come to me. I'm going to go to you." So I noticed that there probably is this kind of a balancing act with you, and most blind people, when do you ask for help and when do you say, "Hey, no, I'm going to come and walk over to you and get the white apron." Is that something you've thought about in your life?

Christine Ha: Yeah, I think that ... I'm sure you understand, Erik, there are definitely things that we want to do to be as independent as possible, but then there are some things where you're just kind of at the ... Your wits end, like the green onion, where I just was like, "I just need to know where it is," you know? Or there are things that we can't necessarily do. It's probably not easy for us to get in a car and drive somewhere. And so there are things that we can't deny that we need help with, and I think part of that is empowering, acknowledging and knowing the difference of when to ask for help and when to try to do it yourself. Because I think if you go the other extreme where you try to do everything yourself, as someone with a certain disability, then it's also in a way kind of denying that disability, and then it's giving it more power over you because you're not really accepting it as a part of reality. So it is a careful balance to try to figure out and navigate what is it that I should take on myself and what I should ask for help for.

Jeff: It's an evolution too, right? I mean, I'm sure in the kitchen, you've probably gotten so much more independent over the past 10 years where you don't need as much oversight, right?

Christine Ha: Right.

Jeff: Just like Erik does in the mountains.

Erik: That's a sophisticated viewpoint too, because I love what you're saying about it releases you. If you don't ask for help and you realize that that's important from time to time, then it has a power over you. I really love the way you said that.

Christine Ha: Yeah. I didn't even know I could be capable of such wise words, but sounded good.

Erik: Yeah. It did.

Jeff: I was also very touched by your channeling of your mom. And I know you get asked this question a lot, but your mom obviously had a great impact and influence on you with the trajectory of your life, but also in how you handle yourself with your artistry. And you can get a good sense of how from your words and what you're doing, of how you try and sort of integrate her into what you're doing. Do you want to tell us a little bit about that and how much of an influence that she has had on you?

Christine Ha: Yeah. So my mom was kind of larger than life to me I think growing up. Of course you're attached to your parents, and I was an only child, so I didn't have any siblings. And then she got sick with cancer when I was in my early teens and then she had cancer for a year and then passed away when I was 14. And of course it's very impactful to lose a parent at such a hard age when you're going through adolescence as well. And for me, it was like my world collapsed, but at that time I wasn't willing to admit it. I don't know if part of it is just like my stubbornness of my personality or maybe being raised Asian you're kind of taught to suck it up and not complain, but my world fell apart, but I wouldn't admit it to myself nor to other people.

Christine Ha: And I remember, I want to say like maybe two days after she passed away, I already wanted to go back to school. And I think it's because I wanted to keep life feeling as normal as possible. And I understand that now, looking back in hindsight, why that's a very normal behavior, but I think my mom, being an only child, she was also very protective of me, overprotective I would say, that's why she didn't really let me in the kitchen to use a knife. She wouldn't let me near a knife. She was always worried that I would run around with scissors. She didn't let-

Erik: And by the way, that was when you were totally sighted too. Right?

Christine Ha: Yeah, this is when I was totally sighted, and she was just so protective of me. And I think her always expecting excellence from me as well, just always telling me all of her hopes and her expectations of me and why she and my father came from Vietnam to America to make a better life for their daughter, giving birth to her here, just all of these things. I think because of my relationship with my mom stunted so early in life, because I lost her early, that's just my memory of my mom, was just this larger than life person who had a lot of expectations. So I feel like I spend a lot of my life trying to meet those expectations that she had placed on me as a child. So for me, it is about performing well, treating others the way I would want to be treated, because she always taught me that too.

Christine Ha: She taught me about being polite and manners, and just striving in school, doing the best that I can in whatever competition I'm in. And eventually strangely enough, I picked up cooking, which was something that she tried to keep me away from just because she thought it was dangerous, but I had to cook in college because I needed to feed myself. And then I didn't realize I would enjoy it so much. And then I did.

Christine Ha: So I feel like because I grew up eating a lot of the foods she cooked and loving the foods that she cooked, and later in life, not being able to have this stuff that she made, that's when I spent a lot of my life trying to recreate the dishes that I remember growing up eating at her table. And so for me, cooking, especially Vietnamese food, is a tribute to her and kind of honoring her in her memory, and then just feeding other people was my way of showing I care about other people kind of the way she would for our family when she cooked for us.

Erik: As I said before, Jeff and I, we're not that smart. I'll just speak for myself. But I'm going to put this little pop psychology hat on because I lost my mom too at 16. And I imagine you're, like an American girl growing up, and all that kind of pressure. And then your mom gets ripped away from you and she didn't even leave recipes for you. So, do you think that there is kind of a finding of home of trying to like ... I don't know, we had a guest on, Rebecca Rusch, whose dad died in the Vietnam war and she went and found his remains, and a lot of her life was finding home, whatever that means, just coming home to what that feels like in terms of what feels right inside. Do you think there's kind of something like that wrapped up in the process of cooking?

Christine Ha: Yeah, that makes total sense to me. I mean, I always feel and say that I'm on this lifelong quest to be able to cook the exact way my mom did. There were a few signature dishes that she had that I have yet to this day be able to recreate exactly like how she made it. And I'm sure part of it is I'm skewed and biased thinking that my mom's cooking was the best, but I know other friends and family do agree that my mom cooked certain dishes very well. And I feel like I'm constantly chasing her dishes and to be able to recreate it to ... You're right, I mean, it's to find home and to find her.

Jeff: I think grandmas do this, grandmas and then moms in your case, they do this on purpose, because they want to leave this mysterious legacy, right? And I'm sure you hear about that in the culinary world.

Erik: And you spend your life trying to recreate.

Jeff: Yeah.

Erik: They give you a life quest.

Jeff: My grandma made fermented cheese and chicken salad, she was a Southern North Carolina woman, and she made it and never wrote it down. And I think that my mom has lost a lot of her color in her hair trying to replicate it because her kids growing up would be like, "Why can't you make it like Margie?" You know? because it just never would happen. Maybe that's-

Erik: But also back then, Jeff, didn't grandparents, like my grandma, she wouldn't tell you a tablespoon. She'd be like a little bit of this, a little bit of that. And it's like, "Well, if I do a little bit of this, a little bit of that, I'm going to destroy it."

Jeff: Yeah. It's a pinch, it's a snip, and then it's just to taste and everything. But yeah, it sounds like that's what your mama did too.

Christine Ha: Yeah. I think part of it is things do change I think depending on the rightness of a certain ingredient, when you're cooking it, the altitude you're cooking at. So, I mean, for them, it's probably they've done it so many times that they don't really need exact measurements and lengths of time or whatever. They just do it because it's innate to them. And it's just they know the recipe and the dish like the back of their hands, and things do change, which I do understand, but it is frustrating that ... Sometimes I'm like, or now I even ask my family members or my aunts who cook well, I'm like, "Can you give me the recipe?" And they're like, "We don't have a recipe. We just do it." And I'm like, "Okay. Well, I have to sometimes write a cookbook and you have to have a recipe." So for me, I think differently than that generation.

Erik: Sometimes it's better when you're eating not to know the ingredients because my grandmother, when I asked her, she'd finally say, "Okay. I'll tell you the recipe. It's 18 sticks of butter, 10 pounds of sugar, and 10 pounds of shortening." And you're like, "Oh God."

Jeff: Oh my God.

Erik: [inaudible 00:24:42].

Jeff: When watching my grandma make sweet tea, back when you were like five years old, watching your grandma make sweet tea, you're like, "Oh, that's okay to put 17 cups of sugar in there." Now I'm like, "Oh my God. [crosstalk 00:24:55]."

Erik: ... caught diabetes.

Jeff: Yeah. I can't believe our kidneys survived that actually.

Erik: Okay. So another thing I have in common with you, Christine, is I love Daredevil on Netflix. I heard you mention that in one of your interviews. God, did I love that series and the way they audio described it was absolutely incredible.

Christine Ha: Yeah. I mean, that was probably, I believe that was the first Netflix original series that they added audio description to. So for me, it was just mind blowing that it was starting to become the norm. And so I definitely wanted to tell and give Netflix some props for starting that revolution because I think it's so important. So now today, I'm trying to figure out how I can get someone to do audio description for Parasite, because I love ... I really miss watching foreign films and I can't do that anymore unless it's dubbed. And then I keep hearing from everybody that Parasite was such a great movie from last year. And my husband is Korean, so he's watched it, and I won't let anyone talk about what happens in it because I'm still waiting for someone to do a proper audio description for me.

Erik: I'm surprised they haven't yet.

Jeff: Why can't your husband translate it for you?

Christine Ha: I kind of want to just watch it on my own, because I don't think he'll do a great job. I want someone professional to do it.

Erik: Yeah. And also I've heard you changing subjects as well. I've heard you talk about the experience of eating, not cooking, but eating. Is it just me or is it really hard to be neat when you're blind and you're eating. You mentioned sushi eating and I tried to pick up a piece of sushi with chopsticks, I can't do it.

Christine Ha: Yeah. It's hard.

Erik: I have to admit, I'm defeated. I'm defeated by this process.

Jeff: I've watched you try and do that.

Christine Ha: Okay. [inaudible 00:26:44]. Let me tell you. In Japan, it's traditional for you to eat sushi with your hands. So [inaudible 00:26:50].

Erik: Thank God.

Christine Ha: That's what I do all the time. I always tell the server, I'm like, "I'm visually impaired. Can I just get a little finger towel or something?" And then make sure your hands are clean. And then I eat all of my sushi with my hands.

Jeff: I'll tell you, I've eaten sushi with Erik dozens of times over the past few decades, and it's really quite entertaining. So Erik, don't give up the chopsticks, bro.

Erik: My friend, you know our friend, Charlie Mays, I was eating sushi with him one time and he looked at what I was doing, he goes, "I think I've lost my appetite."

Jeff: Well, yeah, you're not the cleanest eater ever. I think Christine's probably got a lot more style than you do.

Erik: It's true. So Christine, how do you adapt your kitchen? I mean, measuring. I always have trouble with that stuff. Do you have it all in braille and tactile adaptations or do you just learn and memorize? How do you do it?

Christine Ha: Yeah. So for measuring liquids, it's definitely something that is a challenge, but what we did was we took a regular measuring cup for liquids and then there's that silicone putty stuff, I think it's called Subaru or something like that, you can mold it onto ... So what my husband did was he molded a little marker on the half cup mark. What I do is I use that, so I'll put my thumb on that on the outside of the cup and on the inside I'll line up my index finger. And then I'll know when I'm pouring in a liquid, when it reaches my index finger that it's about half a cup. And so with things like a fourth of a cup or a full cup, honestly, it just takes experience. I cook so much that I can kind of ... I know when I'm pouring something by how it feels, like how much is pouring out of the bottle and then kind of how long something pours that I'll know I'm kind of roughly around the mark of whether I want a third of a cup or two thirds.

Christine Ha: So, it is just experience, but there are little tricks like the putting the little silicone putty thing on the measuring cup to help. But of course it's not going to help if you're trying to measure a very hot liquid or else you'll burn your finger. But yeah, things like that.

Jeff: I saw a commercial though, where you were using technology, right? Like a Delta faucet, was that the thing you used?

Christine Ha: Yeah, we do have that as well. I use smart home devices quite a bit for either measurement conversions or setting timers when I'm cooking different things. So I do use that. I do have a sink that can be activated by just touching it. So that actually helps even if you are cited because oftentimes when you're cooking, maybe you've touched raw chicken or something and you don't want to turn ... It's hard to turn your sink on. So for me, it's like you just kind of tap it with your elbow and then the water starts running. So I do use technology. If something is Bluetooth, that's helpful because I use my iPhone or my iPad quite a bit as well while I'm cooking. And then there's just little markers too that we've put on the stove. So I can feel the bump dot stickers on my stove. So I know when it's at a medium flame. And then we'd recently just got a smart microwave, so it connects to the smart home device, and so I can tell the smart home device, "Microwave for 30 seconds," and then it'll do it. So, yeah.

Erik: And I would think we'd be remiss if we didn't talk about you went blind at 20 I think from an autoimmune disease and you were also paralyzed for a while, right? That's pretty wild dramatic story.

Christine Ha: Yeah. So I started losing vision in one of my eyes at age 20 and they couldn't figure out what it was. They knew it was an inflamed optic nerve. And I think about a year and a half later, I started experiencing paralysis. And first it was just tingliness and numbness, like that feeling when your leg is asleep, but I couldn't make that feeling go away. And then there was one point where I, like over a few days, I guess I had such bad spinal cord inflammation where within two or three days everything from my neck down was paralyzed and numb. So I couldn't use the restroom, they had to cath me. And it was a very strange feeling to know that my brain was completely functioning like an adult brain, but I felt like my body was like an infant's body that I couldn't control, and it was very frustrating.

Christine Ha: And then a few years later, they finally correctly diagnosed me with neuromyelitis optica, which is similar to MS. So it is a neurological condition that affects primarily the optic nerves and the spinal cord. Since then I've recovered well from the spinal cord inflammations, but obviously not from the optic nerve inflammation. So that's how I over time in my 20s lost my vision. But yeah, I feel like that experience at the time, of course wasn't a good experience, and it still isn't, but I felt like it really built character and it really showed that life often isn't fair, so you can't expect it to be fair. And you just have to really learn to adapt and figure out how to live your life to the fullest in spite of whatever challenges you have.

Jeff: Well, speaking of adapting, is The Blind Goat open right now?

Christine Ha: It is open right now. We are open at 50% capacity. It's definitely a tough time for restaurants, but we are open. Of course, sales are not doing as well, and I don't expect them to with people still being nervous about going out. So I think it's going to be ... We're in this for the long haul. I think it's going to be a year or so until we get a vaccine and people start feeling more comfortable again. And now I'm trying to open this other restaurant that we had started the process of before this whole pandemic. So it's some crazy stressful times, but like I said, I think life is never fair. It's unpredictable and you just have to learn to adapt and pivot and make the most of what you're given.

Erik: Do you take on the persona of your parents, like your mom, like when maybe people are complaining, you're like, "Suck it up. I've been paralyzed."

Christine Ha: I wish I could say that. But as a public figure, I don't think I can. But you said my words for me. Sometimes I do want to say that to many people.

Erik: Nice.

Jeff: Erik will be your spokesperson.

Christine Ha: That's a good one. I should make a t-shirt.

Jeff: Yeah.

Erik: And The Blind Goat, you're not actually serving goat, right? Or are you?

Christine Ha: No, actually one of our signature dishes that's super popular is goat curry. So it's a Vietnamese curry that I normally do with chicken, but because I knew that we were called The Blind Goat and it's because I was born the year of the goat, but I knew it would be kind of fun to serve goat. And outside of America, goat is actually one of the most eaten proteins in the world. So I was like, "Okay. Let me just try to introduce goat to the mass public in Houston." So I did a version of a Vietnamese curry that I grew up eating that my mom made with chicken, but I did it with goat and it's actually one of our most popular dishes.

Jeff: Well, I'd have to give it another try, because I've eaten goat in probably six or seven different countries around the world, and it always tastes like ass. So it's always super chewy.

Erik: That's not good advertising.

Jeff: I mean, it's never cooked enough, it's too chewy. So I think I need to come have it done the right way.

Christine Ha: Yeah. You need to come eat it at The Blind Goat. I don't know if you'll love it, I won't guarantee that, but it is good goat because we do buy it from a local farm, so I think that makes a difference. And then we braise it for a while, so it is tender.

Jeff: Tender, yeah.

Christine Ha: A lot of people come in and they don't want to try goat, but when we give them a sample, they're like, "This is great." So, [inaudible 00:34:41].

Erik: Regardless, I've eaten a lot of wormy goat around the world as well. So I need to come and have a second look at goat.

Jeff: Tell us about your role as a producer, Christine, and maybe make the pitch-

Erik: Yeah. Blind Love. I want to know about Blind Love.

Jeff: Yeah, make the pitch to Erik. Let's hear it.

Christine Ha: So, the producer for the documentary or for which?

Erik: Yeah, your docuseries.

Jeff: Blind Love.

Christine Ha: No, no, no. So there's two things. So that I was a producer on as well. So that was a mini series, like a digital series that I was doing with a producer and a director that I met. Her name is Patty, she's from New York, and she reached out to me and she was like, "I ..." She is sighted. So she was trying to get someone on board to help her with the series that was visually impaired to make sure that it was portrayed in a way that was I guess not offensive to people with vision loss.

Christine Ha: So Blind Love follows a bunch of millennials that are single and trying to navigate dating life and relationships in this day and age where we have things like Tinder where you swipe left or right according to how a person looks. So how does a blind person navigate that? So I helped produce that series.

Christine Ha: And then there's, we're also working on a documentary film project with another producer, Andrew Lee, he's based in Austin, and this film project is kind of based on my life and my story. So we've been doing the shooting for that here and there. And it's just been kind of an interesting turn that things have taken because of COVID. So now a lot of it is me and John shooting at home by ourselves and the director logs in online on video chat to kind of tell us some stuff. So that I'm also a part of, but more as the subject in that project, but we are working on a documentary film as well about me.

Erik: That's cool. Yeah. Where do you find the Blind Love series that's out right now?

Christine Ha: Yeah. So that's on YouTube and it's done by ITBS, which is an arm of PBS. So you can probably search for Blind Love on YouTube and yeah, I mean, it's a cute little series. It's interesting, I'm sure. There's audio description too for those who are visually impaired.

Jeff: Yeah. Sighted or not, I think of my son who's 14 and how he's entering into the dating scene. And I just, it seems, I mean, I guess our parents thought the same for us too, but I just, I can't imagine it comes down to swiping left and swiping right. It seems a little sterile, I guess, but whatever.

Erik: Yeah. Christine, thank you so much for spending an hour with us. It was a real pleasure. We could talk to you forever, but you probably have to get back to work or something.

Christine Ha: I do. I do, but thanks for having me on it was fun.

Erik: All right. We really appreciate you being a part of the No Barriers community as well. That's really nice, and Aira by the way, which is an incredible technology for the blind. Everyone should look up Aira, A-I-R-A. It's just been a game changer for me as a blind person.

Jeff: Christine, thank you so much for joining us. You're an amazing human being and keep fighting the good fight.

Christine Ha: Yeah. Thank you.

Erik: Yeah. Well hopefully Jeff and I can get to your restaurant at some point.

Christine Ha: I know. Hopefully, that'd be great. Yeah. Let me know if you guys are ever in Houston.

Erik: Pretty dynamic person, huh, Jeff?

Jeff: Yeah. She's just got so many layers, and talents, and skills, and it's inspiring to hear somebody that clearly was impacted early on. And I love the fact that she channels her mom. That's just something that stuck with me when I read about her and saw some of her clips and so forth, but I just couldn't help it but subsequently listen to her talk just now and think about how she really just feels her mom when she's in the kitchen and let's her mom come through her artistic culinary abilities. I just, I love that because you and I are very much impacted by the maternal figures in our lives. And I think we all channel it, but you can see that she's done that and I think next level style. Yeah.

Erik: Yeah. You and I, we get this privilege of listening to people's stories. And then when you do like 50, 60 podcasts and you hear all these different stories, you begin to see some little parallels. And so one of them is fascinating and that is how somebody becomes the person they are. I mean, she's a little bit of her soulful dad and her disciplined mom, and all these talents play well and have gotten her where she is today. So, that past story and culture is all part of who she is. And yeah, I find that beautiful, that part of her quest is sort of finding her family, finding her mom again, maybe feeling close or connected to her mom and the culture, and finding home. That's really beautiful because you can't separate your success from your past.

Jeff: Yeah. Okay. I really do think we should make sure that we slot through Houston and give goat another try at The Blind Goat sometime.

Erik: Yeah. Yeah. I'm not a huge fan of goats. I need to kind of change my patterns a little bit. I'm sure her goat's totally amazing.

Jeff: They are. Then all the goats that we've had have been cooked in a bunch of dirt and you had to pick the rocks out of them. I think hers is good.

Erik: And the worms.

Jeff: Good. On that note, thanks everybody for joining us today and we really appreciate the commodity tat is the most precious to all of us, which is your time.

Erik: Yeah. And thank you to Prudential and thank you to Wells Fargo, our supporters of this podcast, awesome to have you guys aboard and part of the No Barriers community. Thanks, Jeff. No Barriers.

Jeff: See you next time.

Jeff: The production team behind this podcast includes Senior Producer Pauline Shaffer, Executive Producer Dedrick Jong, sound design, editing, and mixing by Tyler Copman, graphics by Sam Davis, and marketing support by Megan Lee and Carly Sansmark. Special thanks to the Dan Ryan Band for our intro song, Guidance. And thanks to all of you for listening. We know that you've got a lot of choices about how you can spend your time and we appreciate you spending it with us. If you enjoy this podcast we encourage you to subscribe to it, share it, and give us a review. Show notes can be found at nobarrierspodcast.com.

Jeff: (singing)

No Barriers

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