As Ha’s journey with cooking began, her vision began to fade
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Known as the first blind chef to win it all during MasterChef’s third season, Houston chef Christine Ha has wowed food enthusiasts and viewers around the world since 2012 with her ability to harness Vietnamese flavors on TV and at her local restaurants Xin Chào and the Blind Goat.
Many have heard how “The Blind Cook’s” story began, but this month, the James Beard Award nominated-chef is putting it all on the table to encourage others to share their experiences with the same rare inflammatory disease that caused her to lose her eyesight.
The chef, who grew up in Houston, has lived with neuromyelitis optica spectrum disorder, or NMOSD, for more than 20 years. Often misdiagnosed as multiple sclerosis, this condition most often affects the optic nerves and spinal cord and can lead to paralysis, sudden vision loss, or both.
A 2020 study featured in the Frontiers in Neurology journal stated that the prevalence of NMOSD can vary and is seen in anywhere between one and 10 people per 100,000, or less than 1 percent of the population. Those who are East Asian or Black experience NMOSD at a higher rate — at around 4 and 10 people per 100,000, respectively.
In Ha’s case, vision loss was her most prominent symptom, and it all started when she began her journey into cooking.
“Growing up [in Houston], I ate a lot of great Vietnamese food and I took it for granted,” Ha, 42, said. She began missing the meals her mother, who died from cancer when Ha was 14, made — particularly as a 20-year-old freshman in college fending for herself. It was then that she resolved that she’d teach herself to cook. Quickly, Ha began to revel in the joy that cooking brought her and other people, she said, but her eyesight began to fade.
When the symptoms began, Ha didn’t know what to think. “I thought it was my contact lens, so I changed it to another one,” she said. She scheduled a visit to an optometrist, who ran tests and thought it might be a brain tumor — and she was later misdiagnosed with multiple sclerosis. “It was not something I expected to hear at 20 years old,” she said.
In 2003, around four years after her first symptom, doctors confirmed that she had NMOSD. It was difficult, Ha said. Resources online about the disease were scarce, and Ha wasn’t aware of anyone else in Houston with NMOSD.
“I was feeling lost and confused during that period,” Ha said, “At that age, I couldn’t relate to anyone. I didn’t know anyone going through similar life circumstances. My coping mechanism was to try to surround myself with people that would… not necessarily understand me, but sort of be there for me.”
As Ha strived to learn as much as she could about the disease, she began establishing her own methods to ease her transition into blindness. She learned to ask for support from friends and family in different ways — whether that meant a shoulder to cry on or asking a friend to help read her mail.
Despite it all, Ha kept cooking, but it wasn’t easy.
Ha’s vision continued to gradually decrease over the years, meaning her experience with cooking kept changing. Each time she got used to a “new normal,” like reading recipes in large fonts, she’d lose more vision, and then would have to start again, teaching herself the same skills again with less and less eyesight.
“I began to depend more on my other senses — touch, sound, and honing in on my palate so I can taste things better,” Ha said.
And in 2012, while Ha was pursuing a master’s in creative writing at the University of Houston, the opportunity to audition for MasterChef fell into her lap, she said. Not expecting to win, Ha said she went in with the hope to write about the experience in school. But Ha quickly surprised herself as she began to wow the judges, and viewers around the world watching a blind cook rise to the challenge. In the final competition, she crafted a Thai vegetable salad, a braised pork belly steamed in coconut soda, and a coconut-lime sorbet using the simple ingredients and bold flavors her mother once used.
Judges called it astounding, earning Ha the MasterChef title, the $250,000 cash prize, and a cookbook deal.
The response was overwhelming. People from all over the world reached out, and though many comments were positive, Ha said she remembers some naysayers doubting that she’d ever live an independent life or cook over a hot stove or fire. Ha knew better.
By age 28, the chef lost all of her vision. As her MasterChef victory took her around the world, she learned braille and used a walking cane to assist her. She hosted pop-ups and cooking demos and traveled to show her skills on cooking shows around the country. In 2013, Ha published her first cookbook, Recipes From My Home Kitchen. Eventually, Ha said, she felt ready to open a restaurant.
In 2019, Ha opened the Blind Goat, a whimsical modern Vietnamese gastropub in Bravery Chef Hall (the name an ode to her experience with vision loss as well as the year in the Vietnamese zodiac in which she was born, the Year of the Goat). The establishment was nominated for the Best New Restaurant in America category by the James Beard Foundation in 2019, and in September 2020, Ha opened Xin Chào with chef Tony J. Nguyen.
Today, Ha, who was recently named a semifinalist in the James Beard Award’s Best Chef: Texas category, works to continuously operate her Houston restaurants Xin Chào and the Blind Goat, crafting up new dishes. The owner is slated to open a second location of the Blind Goat in Spring Branch with an expanded menu and is now looking for bids from a general contractor.
“As a woman of color and someone with a disability in this industry that’s primarily male-dominated, I’m happy to prove that this is me, it’s possible,” Ha said. It’s also given her a platform to show how those who are vision-impaired but love to cook can adapt and advocate for themselves in the kitchen.
For Ha, that means ensuring that her kitchen is vision-impaired-friendly. That means adaptations like tactile bumpy stickers that allow her to tell the heat level of the gas stove at any time. In her restaurant, adjustments include teaching staff how to work with someone who is visually impaired, scaling down how much she has to move from station to station, and ensuring her tools are in the same position as she left them, she said. Often, the process is verbal — requiring her to encourage people to feel comfortable taking her hand and putting it on an ingredient so that she can orient herself, or notifying her when they’ve moved something from her station.
Still, Ha said there’s no one right way to do it.
“I always say, you know your body best. Everyone’s symptoms and journey are different,” Ha said. “You’re your own best advocate… and it’s about figuring out the best version of yourself — whether you need more help or less help.”
Now, Ha is helping others get their bearings with her story and the focus of her most recent initiative, “NMOSD Won’t Stop Me.” This March, Ha is working with the Guthy-Jackson Charitable Foundation, Siegel Rare Neuroimmune Association, and the Sumaira Foundation to host a contest that will encourage those with NMOSD and their care partners to share their experience with the world and raise awareness. Those who enter can win a signed version of Ha’s cookbook, and a chance to attend a virtual cooking class or connect with Ha in a small or one-on-one setting.
Advocacy groups and local resources can help people with NMOSD navigate their experience, and seeking out a health care team “that’s willing to listen to you and support you” is vital, Ha said.
“You are very much capable,” says Ha, emphasizing that people who have lost a sense or have a disability can always be inspirations — heroes — to someone else.
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Houston’s Blind Chef Christine Ha Talks Losing Eyesight While on ‘MasterChef’ – Eater Houston