Việt Nam - US culinary art envoy Christine Hà

March 31, 2024 - 08:33
Trần Khánh An talks with Vietnamese-American chef Christine Hà about the impact of Vietnamese heritage on her, her perspectives on Vietnamese cuisine, and her optimism in the face of adversity.

Vietnamese-American chef Christine Hà overcame obstacles despite being visually impaired and won the US MasterChef reality show’s third season in 2012. Hà's cookbook, Recipes from My Home Kitchen, became a New York Times bestseller. She inspires a huge number of fans around the world with her extraordinary effort, kindness and enthusiasm for cooking.

Trần Khánh An talks with Hà about the impact of Vietnamese heritage on her, her perspectives on Vietnamese cuisine, and her optimism in the face of adversity.

Christine Hà serves as a culinary arts envoy representing the American Embassy in the cultural diplomacy programme in Việt Nam. VNS Photo Trần Khánh An.

Inner Sanctum: As a Vietnamese-American, what challenges did you experience with your cultural identity while growing up? How did you fully accept and embrace your Vietnamese heritage?

When I was young, I didn't feel like I was Vietnamese enough at home and American enough at school. I once felt ashamed of what I had eaten because my classmates thought the smell of fish sauce I brought for lunch odd.

However, I learned how to unite two aspects of myself together as a Vietnamese and an American, and that is what makes me unique. It had been years until I felt more confident and comfortable with my identity and skin. I am Vietnamese by my heritage, culture and ancestors, and I am American by birthplace and upbringing.

Inner Sanctum: How has Vietnamese heritage and culture affected your cooking style and your life?

My parents are Vietnamese, and my mother used to cook a lot of Vietnamese food for me when I was little. However, I took it for granted as I assumed I would learn how to cook Vietnamese food from my mother later in life. Since my mother passed away when I was 14, I have taught myself to cook Vietnamese food to recreate the meals my mother and grandmother prepared for me. Vietnamese food has always held a particular place in my heart as I grew up eating that.

Currently, I have three restaurants in the US, two of which – The Blind Goat and Xin Chào – serve genuine Vietnamese food with a modern touch. I want to show others how delicious and creative Vietnamese cuisine can be. When I do a lot of culinary demos in America, it tends to be Vietnamese foods.

Vietnamese culture and cuisine have had a huge impact on my life. Fish sauce is one of my favourite sauces; I use it all the time, even while cooking Western cuisine.

Christine Hà interacts with the Vietnamese audience in an inspiring talk on overcoming life's difficulties and thriving in Việt Nam. VNA/VNS Photo Thanh Giang.

Inner Sanctum: How do you use fish sauce in Western cuisine?

I believe fish sauce is a universal condiment that can be used in a variety of dishes – even Italians have their version of fish sauce. For example, while creating Texas-style chilli beef, dry pepper chicken, or Italian bolognese, I use fish sauce – just a little bit – to add saltiness and umami to the flavour. When people eat it, they surprisingly notice how savoury the dishes are. If the cook uses the fish sauce wisely and not excessively, I believe it will become a secret weapon.

Inner Sanctum: Do you think the cuisine can be a source of soft power for nations, especially for Việt Nam?

Like any other country, gastronomy plays a significant role in strengthening diplomatic relationships as sharing food with other cultures fosters a sense of diplomacy. Cuisine is universal in culture and each individual's life because people learn about your origins and personality through the meals you eat.

In America, Vietnamese cuisine is becoming more and more well received. Besides well known dishes such as phở and bánh mì, I meet more people who know about bún thịt nướng [rice noodle with grilled pork] and chả cá [grilled fish]. The official upgrade of Vietnamese-US relations to a comprehensive strategic partnership can further the awareness and enjoyment of Vietnamese cuisine in America.

For me, joining the Master Chef and then opening two Vietnamese restaurants in the US has brought many people through my door to try new things. This can assist promote knowledge and enjoyment of Vietnamese cuisine in the States.

For example, many Americans may be put off by a whole fish in the dish. However, in Asian tradition, serving a whole fish represents abundance and good fortune. As a result, at The Blind Goat, I preserved the fish's head and tail while deboning the fish body to make it easier for diners to savour, representing Asian culture.

Christine Hà (1st left) participates in a cooking demonstration at the Great American Barbecue Festival organised by United Tastes in Hà Nội. VNS Photo Trần Khánh An

Inner Sanctum: How is Vietnamese food recognised in the US? Since Michelin stars came to Việt Nam, is it time to re-evaluate Vietnamese cuisine not only being eaten on a street stroll?

Many Americans are familiar with phở and bánh mì, but they are unaware of other excellent dishes. My goal is to introduce Americans to this lesser-known cuisine. The reputation of Vietnamese food – also what I love about it – stems from its "street food" element, which is prepared from humble and simple ingredients.

With these local ingredients, the overall experience of Vietnamese delicacies can be elevated by applying foreign cooking techniques and improving service quality. A part of my objective is to introduce to Americans that Vietnamese cuisine does not always revolve around inexpensive meals or street foods – it is also ideal for lavish, high-end banquets or celebrations. Vietnamese food is not mutually exclusive – it can be eaten on a street stroll and the banquets.

Inner Sanctum: What motivates you to make it so far? How do you always keep a positive mindset?

They were challenges that happened in my life. Life never happens the way you expect. The important thing is how you make it, and sometimes the challenges build character and make you grow into a better version. Life is never rewarding unless you feel challenged. I welcome the challenge and sympathise with others’ struggles.

Happiness can be found in the smallest things in life. I learn how to appreciate the smallest things in life like walking with my husband and our puppy or eating my favourite dishes. VNS