Christine Ha: MasterChef at the Arc
“Do what you love, and keep at it.”
It’s a Thursday afternoon and the demonstration kitchen of the ARC, as a part of the Disability Services Week, is packed with students, watching her every move. Standing tall, adorned with her white apron, she glides her fingers across the counter. She firmly clasps the handle of the knife. With her nimble hands, she proceeds to chop the yellow onion, looking up at the crowd upon finishing to say a funny remark.
“I would love to be the face on fish sauce.”
This is Christine Ha, season three winner of MasterChef and the show’s first blind contestant.
Masterchef is a competitive cooking television show originally from the United Kingdom. The competition pits 18 contestants against one another, with the top chef winning $250,000, their own cookbook and a MasterChef trophy.
In addition to her skills in the kitchen, Ha excels in her ability to tune into her other four senses — smell, touch, taste and sound. To this day, Ha continues to recreate some of her best home cooked meals by memory, doing so on a regular basis as a blind chef.
At birth, Ha was born as a physically healthy baby with full vision. However, that doesn’t mean she didn’t have hardships growing up. Ha, who lived in Long Beach before moving to Houston, straddled both worlds as a Vietnamese American. She had a tough time fitting in with the suburban predominantly white community.
“It was difficult growing up in that era. I always wondered why I didn’t look like my barbie doll, people made fun of my last name and why I had funny lunches at school. It was hard growing up in school, but life is hard in general,” said Ha.
As a child, Ha had little interest in food.
“When I was young, I was a picky eater. I always wanted to play,” said Ha. “I wasn’t into food until later when I had to learn how to cook. I taught myself just out of survival.”
Ha had a strong bond with her mother. Her mother’s love truly showed in her home cooking.
“I ate really good Vietnamese food as a child,” said Ha. “I thought everybody ate this good.”
At the age of 14, her mother passed away. Due to her abrupt passing, Ha’s mother never had the time to teach Ha how to cook. Making do, Ha took it upon herself to recreate some of her mother’s favorites. This resulted in a lot of trial and error as she ventured off to college.
It all began with her purchase of a used cookbook, a set of pots and pans and inexpensive knives. Even until this day, Ha continues to meticulously follow recipes to a tee.
“Of course I cooked a lot of bad food. I would always cook in batches and a lot of the time my friends didn’t like the food. A lot of it went in the trash,” said Ha. “The first thing I cooked successfully was a chicken brazen ginger and that actually turned out edible. So that was the moment when I thought, okay, I can really do this.”
Previously, frozen pizza, instant noodles and fried eggs were the three food groups that her diet primarily consisted of as an undergraduate. Yet, despite majoring in business, Ha’s interest always lied in reading and writing.
Ha, who at the time was in her mid 20s, went on to pursue her interests in creative writing as a graduate at the University of Houston.
It was during her college journey that Ha experienced partial vision loss. Doctors were unable to discover the symptoms. At one point, Ha relied solely on her left eye to see.
Ha was later diagnosed with an autoimmune condition, optic neuritis. Instead of targeting the brain like other diseases, this condition affects the optic nerves and the spine. It was such a rare disease that doctors had difficulty recognizing the symptoms.
“It is kind of like when you come out of a really hot shower; that fogginess is what I see,” said Ha.
Gradually, the condition resulted in Ha’s permanent vision loss in both eyes.
“What losing my vision has taught me is that it is okay to ask for help,” said Ha.
For some time during her graduate career, Ha pondered dropping out. Despite her determination wavering, Ha persevered, and gradually developed a love for creative writing.
Originally, Ha’s end goal was never to become Masterchef. Ha was approaching her final semester as a graduate student at the university . While working on her thesis in a master workshop, Ha tried out on a whim. With her love for creative writing, Ha thought it would be a great opportunity to return from the show and write about her experience.
“I told my professor, don’t worry, I won’t last less than a week,” said Ha.
A week soon turned into a couple weeks, then several months. As the show went on, it was apparent that Ha would not let her disability slow her down. Time and time again, Ha continued to impress everybody she encountered with her perseverance and strong leadership skills.
“I became more interested when I could create something and have people enjoy it, whether it was writing or cooking,” said Ha. “That was what really struck home. That was like, this is what I really love in life.”
Her joy for cooking, similar to writing, led her to produce a New York Times bestseller, “Recipes From My Home Kitchen” upon the completion of winning the finale on Masterchef.
Her book features a lot of Ha’s favorite comfort food recipes, all in which were cooked in remembrance of her mother.
“For me, what I like to cook and eat is a lot of comfort food, stuff that is really nostalgic for me,” said Ha. “I grew up in the southern U.S., in Texas, and that is a part of the regional cuisine that I enjoy so growing up in a Vietnamese household, I ate a lot of Vietnamese food. I wanted to put together a cookbook that had all levels so there are easy ones for the novice cook and then some that are a little more intermediate.”
Ha’s favorite Vietnamese food is egg rolls, a dish that traditionally consists of stuffed pork, carrots and celery. It’s a dish that she prides herself in as these were made from memory of her mother’s original recipe.
“Your sense of smell is the one that is most connected to your memory, so a lot of cooking is very aromatic. You’re tasting it too, so your taste is connected to your sense of smell,” said Ha. “I think with just remembering how things smelled and tasted at a certain point, that is sort of the memory and then eating is a lot of creating those memories. For me, comfort food is such a nostalgic thing.”
“I think the big picture is that it’s taught me a lot of perseverance and just to keep at something that I really enjoy, even if there’s obstacles in the way,” said Ha. “That is learning to adapt and that is something you can apply across everything in life. It’s just figuring out what it is you love and what you’re meant to do. It will be a struggle, but keep at it. If there’s a certain path you’re taking that’s not working, then try to find a different way to go about it.”