Bank of America Women’s Leadership Series Kicks Off 2018-2019 Season with Celebrated Female Asian Chefs

Christine Hà, Jenni Tranweaver, and Kiran Verma Take the Stage at Sold-Out Luncheon

HOUSTON, September 18, 2018 – Asia Society Texas Center launched the fourth year of its Bank of America Women’s Leadership Series on September 13 with a sold-out luncheon showcasing three local visionaries in Houston’s burgeoning culinary industry. About 200 people attended the event, which showcased Christine Hà (winner of MasterChef season 3 and owner of The Blind Goat), Jenni Tranweaver (chef and owner of Jenni’s Noodle House), and Kiran Verma (chef and owner of the eponymous Kiran’s), and was moderated by Vani Rao of BP America.

The three chefs shared their thoughts on succeeding as women in a male-dominated field, lessons learned from friends and family, and how their paths led them to the culinary arts. An overarching message emerged about the importance of confidence and trusting in oneself, with Tranweaver adding, “Know yourself; know which of your pains are shortcomings, so they don’t hold you back.”

Another theme was the ability to evolve to meet new challenges. Hà said, “It’s important to always stay curious and be hungry. Sometimes when you become more mature in your experience, I think you become jaded and set in your ways. You have to learn to adapt.”

Kiran Verma shared a common chef/restaurateur challenge, remarking, “People see how busy we are, but that’s still really not success. If I make this food and people are standing in line to eat, now [that’s] success.”

For the first time ever during a Bank of America Women’s Leadership Series event, the menu was inspired by the speakers. Catered by Culinaire and overseen by Chef Barbara McKnight, the menu included soba noodle salad (inspired by Tranweaver), Tandoori-rubbed chicken breast (inspired by Verma), and chocolate chunk cookies and “Humble Pie” bites (inspired by Hà).

The audience had the opportunity to ask the speakers their own questions during the Q&A session. Many members of the audience were students from local universities (UHD and the Art Institute), as it is part of WLS’s mission to support and uplift the next generation of leaders.

The Women’s Leadership Series (WLS) is chaired by Mandy Kao and Y. Ping Sun, and the programming focuses on women who are making a substantive impact in society and business. The series provides a platform for influential women of Asian descent, as well as women engaged in leading efforts reflected in the Asia Society mission, to share their personal and professional experiences.

Besides Kao and Sun, other guests in attendance were Nancy Allen, Ginger Blanton, Lisa Barksdale, Alice Mao Brams, Anne Chao, Rose Chen, Monjula Chidambaram, Cathy Cleary, Julie Cogan, Rania Daniel, Kathy Gondo, Kathy & Marty Goossen, Lily Kooros, Anu Lal, Sultana Mangalji, Sonia Garza Monarchi, Kathy McGovern, Davana & David Petree, Shirley Quan, David Ruiz, Deborah Stavis, and among many others.

About the Speakers

Christine Ha headshot

Christine Hà is the first-ever blind contestant and season 3 winner of the competitive amateur cooking television show MasterChef U.S. on FOX with Gordon Ramsay. She defeated over 30,000 home cooks across America to secure the coveted MasterChef title, a $250,000 cash prize, and a cookbook deal. Christine also has a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Houston's nationally acclaimed Creative Writing Program. During her time there, she served as Fiction Editor for Gulf Coast: A Journal of Literature and Fine Arts. She is currently working on her memoir and second cookbook.

Her first cookbook, Recipes From My Home Kitchen: Asian and American Comfort Food (Rodale, 2013), was a New York Times best-seller. She has been featured on NPR, the BBC, and CNN International, and travels around the globe to give keynote addresses and TEDx talks. Christine has also served as a culinary envoy on behalf of the American Embassy in cultural diplomacy programs in Jordan, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Croatia. She was a co-host on the Canadian cooking show Four Senses on AMI, and was a judge on MasterChef Vietnam on VTV3. Christine received the 2014 Helen Keller Personal Achievement Award from the American Foundation for the Blind, a recognition formerly bestowed upon Ray Charles, Patty Duke, and Stevie Wonder, among others. This December, she will open a restaurant, The Blind Goat, at Bravery Chef Hall in downtown Houston. Christine currently resides in Houston, Texas, with her husband and two dogs.

Jenni Tranweaver

Jenni Tranweaver immigrated to Houston in 1975 from war-torn South Vietnam. Her love of food was ignited at a young age after savoring the flavors of her mama’s cooking, helping her Má each weekend, and converting their small home into a neighborhood, homestyle Vietnamese restaurant. As a flight attendant with Continental Airlines, Jenni regularly traveled to San Francisco, L.A., and New York, where she always found herself seeking out noodle houses during layovers and wishing there was something close to home, in Houston, never thinking she would open her own restaurant. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Jenni took a voluntary leave as a flight attendant and decided this was a unique opportunity to try something new and adventurous. Mentored by Jeff Gale of Barnaby’s, along with Mama Tran and her husband Scott, Jenni opened the first Jenni’s Noodle House in the summer of 2002. Her small restaurant in a tough neighborhood began to gain a steadfast following. Seventeen years later, Jenni’s Noodle House has grown into three locations around the city, known by her fans as “Noodlehoods.”

This year, inspired by her son Logan Dream Tranweaver, her family’s desire to try something new, and Jenni’s entrepreneurial (or “Noodlepreneurial”) spirit, Jenni opened a new venture, Dream Tacos TX. Jenni is an active ally supporting marginalized Houstonians within the LGBTQ communities through Equality Texas, Human Rights Campaign, Pride Houston, and the Houston Walk for Mental Health.

Kiran Verma headshot

Kiran Verma, considered the “godmother of Indian fine dining,” has created world-class Indian cuisine at her eponymous restaurant, Kiran’s, which reopened at its new location in Upper Kirby in Houston in January 2017. Kiran is a self-taught chef who has been guided by her Indian upbringing and a love of fine cuisine. She defines her cuisine as a combination of cultures, philosophies, and cooking techniques. The restaurant is known for serving up Indian hospitality, with French sophistication and American informality. Kiran’s award-winning wine list of over 300 labels, along with monthly wine dinners, complements the delicate flavors of the food. Guests can also enjoy an Afternoon Tea service every Friday and Saturday at Kiran’s, which offers its own chai blend.

Among her awards are Best New Restaurant – Zagat 2006, Award of Excellence – Wine Spectator 2006-2017, Chef of the Year Nominee – My Table Magazine 2010 and 2013, and Participant in former First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Chefs Move to Schools” campaign.

About the Moderator

Vani Rao

Vani Rao is the Director of Diversity & Inclusion at BP America and is accountable for Business Resource Group (BRG) engagement and operations. Vani joined BP in the Gulf of Mexico in 2006, with roles in projects and engineering, continuous improvement, planning and capability. She has also been a national co-lead for BP’s Asian Network (BPAN).Vani received her Bachelor degree in Psychology from Austin College and MBA from Columbia University. She is also certified in project management and Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.

With a lifelong love for Indian performing arts and political economy, Vani is a classically trained dancer in Kuchipudi and has been actively involved with the National Model United Nations. Her current passion is supporting charitable organizations in the US and India focused on providing educational opportunities for children.

Press Coverage

Celebrity Houston chefs from Jenni's Noodle House, Kiran's and "MasterChef" raise record $220,000
Top Female Chefs Get the Spotlight in This Unusual Houston Luncheon
For the Love of Fine Food
Bank of America Women's Leadership Series Kicks Off 2018-2019 Season with Celebrated Female Asian Chefs
Bank of America Women's Leadership Series Celebrates Women in Culinary

About Asia Society Texas Center

With 13 locations throughout the world, Asia Society is the leading educational organization

promoting mutual understanding and strengthening partnerships among the peoples, leaders, and institutions of Asia and the rest of the world. Asia Society Texas Center executes the global mission with a local focus, enriching and engaging the vast diversity of Houston through innovative, relevant programs in arts and culture, business and policy, education, and community outreach.

Women’s Leadership Series at Asia Society is presented by Bank of America, with additional support from ExxonMobil, Nancy Pollok Guinee, Tiffany & Co., BP, Cathay Bank, Eagle Global Advisors, Vinson & Elkins LLP, Nancy C. Allen, Anne and Albert Chao, Brigitte Kalai, Mandy and William Kao, and others.