The culinary sign-up sheet for Bravery Chef Hall is filling up. The sophisticated food hall inside the new Hines’ Aris Market Square high-rise downtown just added Blind Goat to its restaurant lineup, a Vietnamese gastro pub created by a chef like no other.
When it comes to her senses, chef Christine Ha does things a little differently.
Ha started losing her vision at age 19, just when her interest in cooking was taking off. Rare immune disease neuromyelitis optica attacked her optic nerves, gradually reducing her vision to shadows and vague shapes.
“Cooking has definitely changed for me,” Ha tells PaperCity. The self-taught cook started out in college, thumbing through cookbooks and learning the authentic Vietnamese dishes she never got to learn from her mother, who passed away when Ha was young.
She adapted, calling herself “The Blind Cook.” Her perseverance snagged her the gold on MasterChef Season 3. Ha was the first blind contestant on the hit Gordon Ramsey reality show — and a burgeoning Houston food celebrity.
Now, six years later, it’s time for her to open up her very first space. The restaurant’s Blind Goat name refers to both her impairment and her Vietnamese zodiac sign.
“I use a lot of my sense of touch, smell, taste and sound,” Ha says. “My sense of taste has become more nuanced because I have one less sense to depend on.” Ha tastes her dishes frequently as she cooks, and her internal sense of the meal’s cooking stage is finely tuned.
Ha had honed those skills over the past 20 years, but MasterChef really enhanced them.
“It was like a crazy boot camp,” Ha says. “It was one of the most harrowing experiences of my life,” and one that taught her to truly trust herself. “I learned to be confident in what I put on the plate.”
The chef has put a lot of thought into what to put on the Bravery Chef Hall plates. It’s not totally pinned down just yet, but it’s based around Nhau cuisine. The spirited subset is all about the experience of eating while drinking with friends. Think small, shareable plates, finger snacks, fried chicken wings. It’ll be the kind of comfort food that goes well with drinking.
You can expect a major showing from Southeast Asian flavors like lemongrass, ginger, fish sauce and tamarind in dishes inspired by a variety of cuisines. But Ha doesn’t want to be pigeonholed as strictly Vietnamese.
“I like to be playful with food,” Ha says. “I was born in America. I’ve eaten all sorts of cuisine.”
Ha’s love of travel and food are intertwined. “Food has become more important to me. Traveling to me is not about sightseeing, obviously,” Ha says. “In order to learn about another culture I really need to eat their food, find out what the locals eat and eat the same thing. That’s how I sightsee.”
Blind Goat’s Food
You can expect a blend of the Vietnamese dishes you’ll only find in Vietnamese homes or in a hole in the wall down Bellaire at Blind Goat, along with things you’ve never imagined.
Seafood’s on Ha’s mind. “I’m hoping to put things like clams on the menu, maybe some scallops,” she says. Her basil clam recipe was included in her cookbook, Recipes from My Home Kitchen, part of her big MasterChef win.
Vietnamese-style beef jerky and tamarind-flavored peanuts are also on the drawing board. Of course, the menu wouldn’t be complete without its namesake Vietnamese-style goat curry. “I grew to love cooking because there is something special about being able to create something with my own two hands,” Ha says.
That goes for visual as much as for the flavorful.
Ha takes an organic, but sometimes playful approach to plating. “Because I used to have vision, I remember what colors look like and how they contrast. I’ve learned about the importance of negative space,” she notes. “So I usually believe less is more.”
She’s eager to challenge herself creatively at Bravery Chef Hall.
“I like the idea of being surrounded by other chefs. I feel like it’s important to surround yourself with creative people and people you admire,” Ha says. Other chefs signed onto the food hall concept, which Ha calls “cutting edge in Houston,” include Ben McPherson of Krisp Bird & Batter, David Guerrero of Andes Cafe and Felix Florez of Black Hill Ranch.
Ha believes cooking is a fun form of self-expression, and it’s one she’s dedicated to sharing with fans and foodies. She is a social media maven, charting her journey on Youtube, Facebook and Instagram.
“I interact with all my fans and followers there,” Ha says. “It’s my first time, so I think people might be interested in how an amateur, blind cook opens a restaurant.”