Talking with the Blind Goat
Food makes me happy. My friends have made it very clear that they know this because they constantly mock me about being a different person before and after eating. (What can I say? They’re right.) In fact, I love food so much that I received a food scholarship from Hanszen, my residential college at Rice, to eat food while traveling in Israel.
But I think my love for food is a lot more complicated than just a way to nourish myself or experience immediate gratification. First off, it’s a social phenomenon in the way that it facilitates interactions between different kinds of people and changes the way people behave around each other. Second, food intersects beautifully with my other fascination in politics. In many ways, food is a manifestation of politics, representing historical trade routes, clashes and unification among different nation-states and peoples. Insert cheesy quote from my scholarship application:
“My favorite chef turned journalist, Anthony Bourdain once said, “Is there anything more political on this planet than food?” My answer is...not really. Every single dish has a complex history that can tell you the story of its people: who were the victors in war that imposed their cuisine on conquered lands, which groups traded with one another based on the spice blends, and the technological advances made by the kinds of cooking materials used.”
People tend to roll their eyes when I do my “food schpiel”, but then can they explain to me why Pyongyang naengmyeon (a signature North Korean dish of buckwheat noodle soup) became massively popular in South Korea after the historic 2018 Moon-Kim summit? Really, food is a beautiful metaphor for life and I for one, do not believe that loving food is only a sign of vanity or gluttony. An appreciation of food is quite simply an appreciation of life.
This is all a roundabout way of saying that I was very excited to interview Christine Ha, the first blind winner of Masterchef Season 3, for a school project. For the assignment, my class was asked to creatively represent an oral history of a person’s life. Somehow, my best friend/fated project partner Valerie and I were able to set up a phone interview with Christine who was so gracious with her time even though she is super busy preparing for the opening of her restaurant, the Blind Goat.
Valerie and I had a little mini freak-out right before our phone call with Christine, but it turned out well and even after doing copious amounts of research (stalking her on social media, YouTube, listening to interviews of her, watching her compete on Masterchef Season 3), I feel like we still learned some new things about her. For some reason, I was super surprised that she sounded exactly the same as she did on TV? Anyway, Christine was very sincere and thoughtful about her responses when she talked about some pretty difficult things like losing her mom at 14, going blind due to neuromyelitis optica, and struggling with her Vietnamese-American identity.
Ultimately, Valerie and I decided to present Christine’s life as a multi-sensory tasting menu. We created a three-course sampling menu of Vietnamese iced coffee, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and apple crumble. Each dish was meant to represent a stage in her life: the Vietnamese iced coffee represented the way that her mom’s homemade Vietnamese cooking influences how she cooks now as a lover of Southeast Asian flavors, the PB&J represented the first dish that Christine learned to make in college when she first went blind, and the apple crumble represented one of the most difficult challenges on Masterchef which taught Christine to trust her cooking intuition.
But we created a unique experience by forcing our professor and classmates to rely on their senses other than sight, just like Christine has to on the daily. We ended up turning off the lights and asking people to close their eyes for the first few moments while they tasted each course. We also played the soundtrack to the Life of Pi, which was one of the first audiobooks Christine listened to when she first went blind. She said it was really meaningful for her because she was never interested in adventure stories, but during this uncharted period of her life she felt a connection to the book because she was on her own real-life adventure.
Though Valerie and I were frantically slicing PB&J sandwiches 10 minutes before class started, it was a really enjoyable experience because it was a way for us to understand a bit more of Christine’s life - a person who I deeply respect, but who is still very unknown to me. I mean, it would be naïve to say that I understand everything about a person’s life after talking to them for 30 minutes. But it was wonderful to feature an Asian-American woman who has accomplished so much in such an exclusive field.
Christine invited us to visit her new restaurant The Blind Goat, which is scheduled to open by the end of this month and I’m so excited to enjoy her delicious food! Above all, I’m really eager to see what is on her menu because I’m sure she will incorporate a lot of Southeast Asian flavors and dishes that I have never tasted before.
Hungry as always,