Today we spoke with Christine Ha, the chef, writer, and restaurant owner who is best known for being the first blind contestant to win MasterChef. After opening her second restaurant in September, she is facing the unique challenges that come along with the pandemic. Lucky for Christine, she knows the importance of being able to adapt to whatever life throws at her. Listen as she talks with us about the intersection of writing and cooking, the process of opening a restaurant, and her personal journey before and after MasterChef.
Christine Ha: [00:00:00] Your story is really interesting. You cook well, no one really understands how a visually impaired person can cook, I think your story is interesting and America would be interested in learning… [00:00:12][12.2]
Sam: [00:00:15] Chile verde con pollo, uni carbonaro, spicy Korean red pepper chicken wings, these are a few of the recipes available on Christine Ha’s website. You might remember her as the Season 3 MasterChef US winner, impressing notoriously tough critic Gordon Ramsay with her “extraordinary palate”, his words, not mine, or by her alias, The Blind Cook. Christine Ha is an American chef, writer and TV host. She made history in 2012 as the first blind contestant and winner of MasterChef US. Since then, she’s been featured on NPR, the BBC and CNN and travels around the globe giving keynote addresses and TED talks. In 2014, she received the Helen Keller Personal Achievement Award from the American Foundation for the Blind. She recently opened her first restaurant a year ago, The Blind Goat in Houston and is on her way to opening a second shortly. Christine, it’s such a pleasure to welcome you to the show today.
Christine Ha: [00:01:40] Thanks for having me, Sam.
Sam: [00:01:43] So you described your experience thus: “it was all kind of happening at the same time, the gradual vision loss and the learning to cook, it was a weird transition, I guess, but I just kept at it. And throughout that time, I was picking up a lot of skills with cooking, but each time I would lose more vision”. The confluence of these two, Christine, is almost incomprehensible today, looking back at that time. How do you feel about it?
Christine Ha: [00:02:12] I think it forced me to learn quickly, and at a younger age, that life is never as you expect it and that you have to learn to adapt or else you don’t survive. So I feel like, yes, it was a strange part of my life where it was just such a weird coincidence that I was just starting to pick up and love cooking and I wanted to excel at it. And at the same time that I was trying to gain this life skill, I was experiencing a different part of my life that was seriously affecting my health and my whole life, I think in a way that I thought was negative. So to try to deal with both things and kind of reconcile them was definitely a challenge. And it caused me to always feel like I was getting nowhere and having to start over and over. As soon as I would make any progress, I felt like I would take one step forward and two steps back. But I think looking back now, it was a valuable life experience and a lesson in just learning that, yeah, life isn’t fair and it’s not often going to go exactly the way you planned it and you just have to play the hand that you’re dealt with.
Sam: [00:03:24] I love that. It’s so true. I think acceptance and playing the hand that you’re dealt with, and yet that’s so hard for so many people. So you put one hundred percent into everything you do. You remarked on this saying it just proves to other people that eventually she has the tenacity and the determination to keep challenging herself and other people’s perspectives. Entrepreneurship requires one hundred percent of individuals. And yet you’ve contended with far more. Tell us a little bit about your decision to open The Blind Goat, go to and become a restaurant owner and entrepreneur.
Christine Ha: [00:04:04] Well, owning a place of my own was something that I wanted to happen even before competing on MasterChef. Initially, there were just things I wanted to do in the food industry, but I really didn’t have experience. And at the time I was taking the career track of going into creative writing. And so it was something that was in the back of my mind for quite a while. And then I went on MasterChef and then that whole thing happened. And then that did change my life and turned it upside down. But at that point, having come off the show as the winner of season three with this big cash prize now the next step, of course, people would expect me to open my own place, especially if it was something I was dreaming about even before going on the show. But I just didn’t feel ready at the time. It wasn’t— something in my gut just told me, like, not now. And there wasn’t a place that I found that was the right place that felt right. And I think if I learned anything on the show was that I should learn to trust my own gut, my own instincts more. And so over the years, I just kept doing other things until in 2018 I found a place that felt right. And I think the time was right where other things in my life were kind of starting to slow down and I could kind of take a breath again and just catch up. And then I felt like that was the moment to take on a new challenging project.
Sam: [00:05:37] Amazing. I love that you followed your intuition and did it when it felt right. So contrary to popular belief, winning MasterChef isn’t the golden ticket to immediately opening up a restaurant. In that time, you had to grapple with the reality of a business venture like that. The investment, real estate, staff, with no experience of having done that before because it was your expression of this deep passion for creating and sharing food. Tell us a little bit about how you started with this sort of passion for creative writing. It felt like the direction you were heading in. Post MasterChef, clearly, your passion for and skills in cooking became kind of more of the focus. Talk about that shift a little bit, because in a sense, it’s very nuanced, given your blog and the writing that you do. And in some ways it’s very. If you think about starting from a creative writing place.
Christine Ha: [00:06:46] Yeah, I often think about how those two things that I love so much, you know food and words, how they relate and why is it that these two things are, I guess, subjects or topics that I love to talk about, love to work in? And I realize shortly thereafter that it is about creativity. So for me, cooking and writing are both ways for me to express myself through my own creativity. I am able to create things with my mind or my own two hands, whether they be stories or dishes, and then being able to share these things with other people and relating to other people and connecting with others and learning through the process of reading other people’s stories or sharing my own or cooking for people or trying other people’s foods and dishes that they make in their own kitchen. We get to learn about each other as human beings and find a commonality that we’re all much more alike than we think we are. So for me, I think that’s what really sparks the joy in both stories and cooking for me. So that’s where I find the two arts relate. But yes, it is a very different mindset. While they’re both creative fields, there seems to be as an entrepreneur, as a business owner, there’s also a lot more analytical and stuff, all that stuff going on as well, because you do have to think like what works like with staffing, who works well together, like putting together a team and then figuring out how do you make the numbers work, because at the end of the day, a restaurant is a food business and yes, food, it can be creative, but it is a business. And the business side of it says that the numbers have to work for you to stay afloat. So then there’s the analytical side of it. And fortunately for me, I have a background in business. So my undergraduate degree was in finance. And so I have that side of me as well that likes to think about problem solving and work in strategy and stuff. So for me, management and business ownership is a different muscle in my brain that I get to exercise.
Sam: [00:09:04] Amazing, you wrote in the Huffington Post, “when people ask me how I cook without sight, I say I’ve just learned to adapt and humans are much more resilient than we think. Our bodies heal. And even when they don’t, we find a way to compensate. I’m almost certain if you were to lose your vision like me, you’d learn how to keep living life with abandon and doing all the things that you do without apology”. Successful entrepreneurs like yourself all uniformly talk about the ability to adapt as an essential skill and ability. It feels like that’s so much a part of your DNA, adaptation almost comes naturally to you, it feels like. How do you think about it in terms of all the changes that you’ve made and lived through in your life?
Christine Ha: [00:09:56] That’s funny you say that, Sam, and you point that out, because I think adaptation is really a skill I learned later in life. I think growing up, first of all, I grew up as an only child, so I never really had to share or take care of other siblings or compromise with siblings growing up. So for me, actually, I think my nature is very stubborn and I don’t like to yield to other people or other ideas. So it is something that was hard for me to learn. But I did have to learn it. And I think it was initially caused by me starting to lose my vision. Well, first of all, I think it started with me losing my mom at a young age. Of course, that’s not something you expect when you’re young and then dealing with a consequence of, hey, life isn’t fair and sometimes things happen that you don’t expect and you have to figure it out. And then that kind of prepared me for losing my vision in my 20s. And then that was also something obviously I didn’t expect to be a young adult about to launch into a career in business and then dealing suddenly with bouts of vision loss and paralysis and then diagnosis of an autoimmune condition that affects my neurological system. And so I think these two very big life events that happened to me forced me to realize that. I just have to figure out a way to continue to be a contributing member of society. So for me, I think adaptation is a lifelong process, but I wouldn’t say that it’s innate in me or my second nature to be adaptive. But I think it’s a very valuable lesson to have learned in life, and especially as an entrepreneur, because also having opened the restaurant, the first one, The Blind Goat like it was my first time owning a restaurant, my first actual business where I had employees that reported to me. And so it was a lot of just things that just happened then, too, that you have to learn to adapt. Fortunately, when we first opened, there was a lot of fanfare around it and I didn’t know to expect this, but there were a lot of people that came to try my food and to try our restaurant. And it was so busy when we first opened that we were running out of food a few hours into service every day. And then I had to deal with people who drove in from out of town and couldn’t get anything on the menu and were extremely disappointed because everything had run out so that we had to learn to adapt to how much inventory we keep. Or maybe we have to adapt the menu so that it’s easier to to hold inventory to or the inventory to execute. We have people that are upset when they’re waiting a long time for their food. So there’s all these little things that cause you to adapt. And then even now, like what I’m facing is we’ve had to kind of pivot our business model with the restaurant as well. And I have to think as an entrepreneur and as a business owner in this day and time with this covid pandemic, people are obviously not dining out. What can we do to generate new revenue streams or bring the experience of eating out to people in their home so that they feel safe and that way so that we can continue to generate money and stay alive and open? And then with the second restaurant, that’s a whole other story as well, because now who in their right mind would want to open a restaurant in this day and age? But I’d already signed the lease before this pandemic happened, no one could have really predicted how widespread this would have been. So now it’s just a matter of figuring out how to adapt to this situation so that we make it work.
Sam: [00:13:46] You’ve said so much in there, I think, to start with, I think going through a loss like you did where you lost your mother. I went through something similar when I was younger, losing my family. It feels like it’s going to kill you. But when it doesn’t kill you definitely makes you stronger and more resilient and the adaptation is sort of almost forced upon you. Right, with that experience. And then in your case, with all the various health implications of your illness and the vision loss. But you’ve just done an incredible job. And I think the key to adaptation is acceptance. And I think the ability to sort of move forward irrespective of the circumstance.
Christine Ha: [00:14:41] I mean, I think it’s a very valid point. And I also believe that if you are asking me at the time when I was going through these things if I was OK with it and accepting of it, of course I wasn’t. But years later, looking back in hindsight, I survive these things and these things have actually made me become a better person. I think that, you know, these life experiences have made me more compassionate and understanding when other people go through very hard life challenges as well. It may not be the same exact situation. Everyone’s reactions and situations and circumstances are unique to them. But you know what it is like to feel loss and to grieve. And so I think it’s made me more compassionate. It’s definitely built character and strength. And for sure, with things like resilience and perseverance, I had to learn. And I think that has definitely made me into a better person and a better business owner as well.
Sam: [00:15:41] I have no doubt. So, Christine, besides cooking, you’re passionate about storytelling. You have a blog and a YouTube channel. Tell us a little bit about how you combine these creative interests and manage your time among all of these different activities in business and in life.
Christine Ha: [00:16:01] I wouldn’t say I get bored easily, but I like to be stimulated in different ways in order to stay creative. So, for example, I love cooking and trying out new ingredients and new dishes and trying out new techniques and in trying to come up with, like, just crazy ideas and brand new dishes. But I’ve been so immersed in the culinary world for the last several years that lately it’s been nice to find time to sit down in solitude and work on my memoir and explore the creative writing side that I actually spent years in grad school studying and working on. So I also believe that as an artist, it’s very important to find other arts or hobbies that you can enjoy that have nothing to do with the current field that you are in. I think that you need to step away sometimes in order to get perspective, and it does help with the flow of creativity. So I think it helps that I have these different media of self-expression, whether it’s through social media and YouTube videos or cooking or coming up with new ideas for the menu or working on stories, blogging, writing, working on my memoir, working on recipes for a Future cookbook. All of these things, I think give me a pause and kind of an ability to just step away and do something different that may help me in the long run, come up with better ideas or bigger and brighter and newer ideas and something fresh for a different part of my life.
Sam: [00:17:47] Yeah, it’s super interesting. I am so like you in that way. It’s not about boredom, but it is about a different kind of stimulation and keeping that mix of influences very much alive, even during times when you’re super busy and executing, but just having a few things that prompt you to think in different ways and and sort of stretch your mind in different directions.
Christine Ha: [00:18:14] Definitely. [00:18:14][0.0]
Sam: [00:18:16] So it’s been an eventful and unprecedented several months and year, the pandemic, civil unrest, all of the economic implications. Food businesses in particular have had a difficult time in many cases. Tell us how you’ve ended up responding to these circumstances, as you said, with transitioning The Blind Goat, with going ahead with your plan to open your second restaurant?
Christine Ha: [00:18:47] In this time I think it’s of utmost importance. I mean, I’ve always been a firm believer in this, but I think especially during this time, it’s really important to be transparent and honest in communication and authentic. Of course, authenticity is kind of like a trite word now because a lot of companies and people try to use that word. But I think for me, I was lucky in that going on MasterChef initially it was something that I wasn’t really comfortable with, allowing everyone in the world to suddenly know who I was, because I tend to be a person that’s— I wouldn’t say private. I’m definitely very open, but I’m definitely not an exhibitionist and I’m not an extrovert. I’m actually an introvert. And so I love being anonymous. I don’t like people looking at me, knowing who I am or anything. So but for me, going on MasterChef kind of forced me into the spotlight where suddenly there were people all over the world who perhaps knew my name, at least knew what I looked like or the fact that I was visually impaired, then knew the story about my mom passing away when I was young. And so suddenly my life became sort of a public story. And so for me, it kind of forced me into this way of thinking where I was really no longer leading a private life. And so it was more important than ever, I think, to live with integrity and just be my true self. And it was okay because you know— a funny story is before I went on MasterChef, I was actually still grappling with the vision loss. And it was just a couple of years before that that I had to start learning to walk around with a cane and to depend on other people for assistance and using a screen reader with all of my technology. And I was in school and I was actually ashamed of my vision impairment. And so oftentimes I would try to make my way to the restroom without using my cane and I would end up in the men’s restroom, which is why I’m a proponent of unisex bathrooms. But I think being on MasterChef forced me into this public light. And then after that, I had to live my life in a way where I knew that everyone would know the things I said, the way I acted, my behavior online or in public or whatever, it’s going to be scrutinized. And so I felt like the only way to really live happily and reconcile that idea with the notion that I am an introvert is that I had to just be honest. And that goes with staff, with the public, with customers, with followers on social media, with my family, my friends, myself. And so I really believe in open communication, especially during a time like this when everything is uncertain for you tomorrow, the next week, the next month. So I totally believe in open communication, being honest online and with the staff and letting people know like this is our financial situation or this is what’s happening or this is how we feel. And then just trying to lead in a place from a place with integrity so important.
Sam: [00:22:07] So how did you get on MasterChef, Christine? Was that a hard decision? Was it scary to actually decide to do it once they said they wanted you?
Christine Ha: [00:22:15] So I auditioned because my husband, who’s a Gordon Ramsay fan, told me I should. So I at the time when there were auditions, I had heard of Gordon Ramsay and I kind of just knew him as this British chef that had a lot of TV shows that yelled a lot. Other than that—
Sam: [00:22:32] Definitely yells a lot.
Christine Ha: [00:22:33] Yeah. Other than that I didn’t really know much. But John, he watches Gordon Ramsay and is really entertained by him. And then we learned that there were auditions happening in Austin, which is not far from where we live in Houston. And my friends and my husband were all like, your story is really interesting. You cook well. No one really understands how a visually impaired person can cook. I think your story is interesting and America would be interested in learning. So I was like, OK, when I was in grad school at the time for creative writing and as an artist or as a writer, you try to experience life as much as you can so that you hope that it’ll turn into a story or fuel your creativity, so I said, all right, I’ll just try out, if anything, I’ll get a good story out of it or something. So I went to auditions, not expecting to get that far. Initially, I didn’t even think I would pass the first round, which is just with producers in Austin. But I did pass two or three rounds there. And then after that, they do a lot of video interviews and you have to send in stuff that you cook and they do background checks and all this. And I was like, okay, well, we’ll see if I get picked. And then I did get a call and said I was going to go to L.A. and then cook for the three actual judges from television. And so I was like, OK, well, I’ll go to these auditions, but I won’t get a white apron. I won’t make it into the show as one of the contestants. But I kept passing all the rounds and I was just kind of unbelievable. And I remember when I packed my bags to go to L.A., I packed like a regular sized suitcase. So I had a few outfits because I was expecting to be sent home within the week. So I actually ran out of wardrobe and the producers had to send me shopping to buy more clothes because I was just repeating my outfits.
Sam: [00:24:22] That’s so great.
Christine Ha: [00:24:25] But yeah, I mean, it was just something I did for the experience initially. But I am a competitive person. So once I was there, I wanted to do the best that I could with whatever limitations I had and so the rest was just kind of history, but initially it was just my friends and my husband pushing me to go for it.
Sam: [00:24:47] One step at a time, I love that. As you look back, Christine, what are a couple of assumptions that you made when you started down this path of entrepreneurship that you might have subsequently changed or pivoted away from?
Christine Ha: [00:25:05] Hmm. I mean, I feel like I knew restaurants were not an easy industry, so I knew that I was to expect challenges. I just didn’t know exactly what those challenges would be. I thought, if anything, before we opened, the challenge would be getting people in the door and just getting people even interested in trying my food because it had been seven years since I was on MasterChef, so I was just like, you know, I know there’s still people that follow me, but will they still really be interested in Christine Ha and her food? But then the challenge wasn’t that. It was the fact that we got so much traffic, but we were overwhelmed. So in a way, I had to figure out how do I manage Customer’s expectations when I have no experience in the industry, no experience as a business owner, no experience as a professional chef in a commercial kitchen. Yet how do I manage all of these guests coming in and their wait time, their food quality, just their whole experience because they chose to take their time out and spend their dollars at our place? And that’s important to me. And I know that these are things that you need customers to make your business keep going and of course, like your staff too. So it was just a matter of flipping my paradigm upside down in that it was a totally different problem. I think that I had to learn to figure out. I can’t really think of any specifics that I would say that I pivoted away from. But it was just a whole different learning experience, I think. I just thought it would be the usual challenges of H.R. and staffing and menu development. But it was like all of these guests’ expectations that I also had to manage that was very challenging for me because I was doing everything.
Sam: [00:27:05] It’s a high quality problem, you know, to sort of outperform your own expectations, but then raise a sort of different dimension of problems.
Christine Ha: [00:27:15] Yeah, I mean, it’s also a scary thing. And I think as an Asian-American woman, especially one with a disability, I’ve experienced a lot of imposter syndrome. And so I think that the fact that there was so much interest in visiting The Blind Goat when we first opened that in itself became this strange problem and dilemma in my own head as well as I mean, I felt like it did manifest in real life as well when we started getting bad reviews because people are waiting forty five minutes for their food or all the food had run out. And I feel like the higher expectations that people have of you. And of course, because I’ve won a national cooking competition, people are going to expect a certain level of food. And because it was my first place and to handle the traffic that we did, it was just of course, things are going to fall short. And then it was trying to also manage people’s anger and stuff. So it was just a difficult, I think thing for me to have to deal with was, I guess, having such high expectations placed on you and then falling short of them.
Sam: [00:28:23] Totally. What’s a lesson, Christine, that you would love to leave our listeners with?
Christine Ha: [00:28:28] I think that as an entrepreneur, it is very important to listen to your intuition and gather as much data as you can, talk to people around you for ideas and support. But I think at the end of the day, if the idea doesn’t feel right, then you have your answer. So I would say trust your gut. [00:28:50][22.6]
Sam: [00:28:51] Yeah, it’s all we have. It’s the best thing we have. Here’s something else you should know, restaurant revenue fell by as much as 40% between just mid-February and mid-March this year, and yet the tenacity of cooks and restaurant owners like Christine convinces us that the food and drink industry will find a way to get through this, whether it’s through outdoor dining takeaway or something else. Thanks to Eater, CNN and Bon Appetit for the data cited in this episode. Christine, your determination and love for food is an endless inspiration. Thanks so much for being here with us today.
Christine Ha: [00:29:32] Yeah, thanks Sam.
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