During National Disability Employment Awareness Month each October, we recognize the numerous contributions made to America’s workplace and economy by people with disabilities This year’s NDEAM theme is “Advancing Access and Equity,” something longtime Regions Bank community partner the Indiana Blind Children’s Foundation has been doing for 30 years. Learn how students from the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired recently gained both culinary and life insights courtesy of a best-selling author, restaurateur and someone brave enough to face a notoriously feisty chef.
She went to get an A on a paper. She left the winner of MasterChef season 3.
Christine Ha adopted a mantra of, “Be better today than you were the day before” back in 2012 – and to her own surprise she captured television’s culinary title and millions of American viewers’ hearts. During a recent cooking class with students from the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (ISBVI), Ha explained why she adopted the mantra and how it still serves her well a decade-plus later.
“Because I couldn’t see what my co-contestants were cooking at their stations, I was never second-guessing what I was doing at my own station,” explained Ha. “This helped me focus on just being a better cook today than I was yesterday, and pretty soon, the competition felt more like I was just competing against myself, trying to better today than I was yesterday. This is now core value No. 1 for all of my restaurants.”
For the record, that’s three restaurants: The Blind Goat, Xin Chao and Stuffed Belly. Ha has opened them all in her hometown of Houston since 2019. And she’s opened them to critical acclaim in being named a James Beard Foundation Best New Restaurant in America semifinalist in 2020 and a 2022 Beard finalist for Best Chef in the Texas region. She’s also written a best-selling cookbook.
Ha lost her sight at age 20 due to neuromyelitis optica, an inflammatory autoimmune disorder of the central nervous system. While it may have initially changed the way she approached cooking, it hasn’t slowed her down.
Christine’s philosophy of, “Be better today than you were the day before” is a mindset we all should aspire to.
Kathy Lovell, disabilities services and outreach manager at Regions Bank
“We visually impaired folks can pretty much do all the same things sighted people do, we just need adaptive measures and/or assistance,” she explained. “It’s OK to make mistakes as long as you try to learn from them. Be open-minded and willing to try new things and experiences in life.”
Ha’s empowerment mindset was the precise reason Laura Alvarado wanted to connect her with ISBVI students and have her serve as the Indiana Blind Children’s Foundation’s gala keynote speaker.
“Christine Ha is a trailblazer whose culinary journey lived out both on-screen and off has become a roadmap for so many individuals with disabilities whose fight to be seen, heard and recognized for their talents and skill sets over their disability is a daily shared experience,” said Alvarado, IBCF’s executive director. “She is especially blazing paths for individuals with vision impairments as she continues to be recognized for her culinary artistry, a field not necessarily welcoming to those who are blind. Christine is opening doors for the students we serve today so they can forge their own success tomorrow.”
Part of forging future career success? IBCF’s campaign to create an adaptive culinary classroom teaching ISBVI students to cook for themselves, their families and consider entering the industry as a profession.
“Learning to cook is one of life’s day-to-day skills needed to live independently. The freedom to plan your own meals is empowering,” said Kathy Lovell, disabilities services and outreach manager at Regions Bank and a member of IBCF’s “No Limits” Arts Series Advisory Committee. “Christine’s philosophy of, “Be better today than you were the day before” is a mindset we all should aspire to.”
The experience of preparing the cold noodle salad not only provided students with an opportunity to make and taste a new dish they might not otherwise try, but to also discover insights about Ha and themselves.
Here are just a few:
E.J.: “What stayed with me about Christine is that she lost her vision and still continued with her cooking journey. How far she managed to get and how big of a name she’s made for herself.”
“I had helped my mom cut stuff before this class. I’ve chopped and mixed things. I’ve stirred the meat or the noodles for spaghetti, so I had a little bit of experience. I’d like to learn more about the basics of the stove and oven.”
Leah: “Christine introduced a new recipe to us, and some of us didn’t even know what the dish was. It was really interesting how she knew how to explain everything and tell us what we needed to do, especially for the ones of us who don’t have as much vision. I was kind of surprised how much they trusted us in the kitchen.”
Minnie: “Christine’s motivation really stuck out to me. If I were in her position with fast-paced cooking like on MasterChef, I would be very overwhelmed and probably wouldn’t want to do it. But somehow, she was able to cope with that. And then after that, she even opened her own restaurants, which really impressed me.”
“I enjoyed getting to work with ingredients I had never actually seen before. I want to be less afraid of heat because I’m scared of burning myself or setting things on fire by accident. So, heat is my big thing I want to get over. I can handle cutting and all that. And I would love to learn how to make lasagna. I love lasagna.”
Want to make Ha’s cold noodle dish yourself? Here’s the recipe:
Chinese Cold Sesame Noodles
A Recipe from Christine Ha
This is a popular yet simple cold noodle salad dish from China. It’s quick to prepare and perfect for those hot summer days. This dish is also vegetarian. You can substitute peanut butter for the Chinese sesame paste and red chile pepper flakes for the hot chile oil, or omit this altogether if you don’t like heat.
Yields: 2 to 4 servings
- 1 tbsp toasted sesame oil
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 2 tsp minced ginger
- 2 tbsp Chinese sesame paste or peanut butter
- 2 tbsp light soy sauce
- 1 tbsp hoisin sauce
- 1 tbsp granulated sugar
- 1 tbsp Chinese black rice vinegar
- 1 tsp Sichuan chili oil or red chile flakes
- 6 ozs thin wheat noodles (e.g. soba); cooked al dente, rinsed & tossed in neutral oil to prevent sticking
- 1/2 Persian cucumber, peeled if desired & julienned
- 3 stalks scallion, thinly sliced (1/3 c)
- 2 tbsp toasted sesame seeds
Make Sesame Sauce. Heat 1 tbsp sesame oil in a small saucepan over medium-high heat and sauté:
- 1 minced garlic clove
- 2 tsp minced ginger
- 3 tbsp water
- 2 tbsp sesame paste or peanut butter
- 2 tbsp soy sauce
- 1 tbsp hoisin sauce
- 1 tbsp sugar
- 1 tbsp vinegar
- 1 tsp chili oil
Lower heat and cook until thickened, stirring occasionally.
Toss sauce with 6 ozs cooked noodles. Divide into 2 to 4 bowls and garnish with:
- julienned cucumber
- 3 sliced scallion stalks
- 2 tbsp sesame seeds
Serve chilled or at room temp.