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Lessons from The Blind Cook: MasterChef Season 3 Winner, Chef Christine Hà

chef christine ha
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An inspiring conversation with the lovely, down-to-earth and resilient MasterChef Season 3 winner,
Chef Christine Hà

It’s no secret that I love a bit of reality TV, and one of my favourite ones to watch is MasterChef. If you’re not familiar with the show, it features at-home, novice chefs who compete through a variety of challenges to claim the title of Masterchef, a cash prize that goes towards their own cookbook, a trophy and of course, bragging rights.

As a fan of the hit show, I remembered being mesmerised and beyond inspired when watching Season 3 of the series. The winner of that season was, Chef Christine Hà, born and raised in California who also happened to be blind. Needless to say, she blew everyone out of the park as she impressed her fellow competitors and celebrity judges (it’s no easy feat to impress Gordon Ramsay!) with her incredible dishes and cooking finesse all while remaining humble, yet confident as her slow-and-steady mantra, literally won her the winning title.

Chef Christine was in Hong Kong recently hosting her first international pop-up dining experience at The Ozone at The Ritz-Carlton. I had the immense privilege of sitting down with her and getting to know her story better. If there was one thing I learned from our conversation, the only limit a person has is the one you set for yourself. Anything really is possible with hard work, determination and passion – and Chef Christine exudes that and then some.

chef christine ha

When did you decide that being a chef was what you wanted to do?

I began teaching myself how to cook in college at age 20. I missed the foods I grew up eating, and my mother had passed away when I was 14, never having taught me how to cook. She didn’t leave any recipes behind, so I simply bought a couple of cookbooks and followed the recipes word-for-word. Of course, I cooked several bad dishes at the beginning, but when I finally made my first successful simple dish (Vietnamese ginger braised chicken) and my friends devoured everything, I knew I’d found a joy in cooking. There is something incredibly satisfying about being able to create something and sharing it with others.

We can’t agree more! We’re grateful you are still doing that today as someone who was faced with an incredibly difficult crossroad in life. Can you share a bit about how you lost your sight?

I was 20 years old (which was also the same time I started cooking) and I was driving home from a summer internship when I noticed the vision in my right eye was blurry. It turned out I had optic neuritis (inflammation of the optic nerve), which resulted in my diagnosis of Neuromyelitis Optica (NMO) three years later. NMO is a rare autoimmune disease that primarily affects the neurological system in the optic nerves and spinal cord. I’ve also experienced bouts of paralysis and tingly-ness in my arms and legs, but I’ve recovered from the spinal cord inflammations much better than the optic nerve ones. Gradually, over 7 years in my twenties, my vision decreased to the level it’s at today, which I describe as peering into a steamy mirror after a hot shower. I have some light and colour perception and mostly see shadows.

What was it like being back in the kitchen after you lost your sight?

It was very challenging.  One year, I was making entire Thanksgiving meals for my family. Suddenly, less than a year later, I could barely make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on my own. I thought I’d never be able to cook again.

It’s clear that your persistence and perseverance helped in overcoming this life-changing challenge. Is there someone who helps you with the plating/concept?

My husband, John Suh, is my most dependable partner when it comes to cooking. He is also an avid cook, and we cook together all the time. In fact, he’s going to be my chef d’cuisine in the kitchen at the Ozone pop-up. We bounce ideas off each other time and endlessly talk about food.

Besides your husband(!), who is your biggest chef crush and why?

Anthony Bourdain, because he lives the life I want to live: traveling everywhere and eating and making commentary about it.

 

 

Where do you find your inspiration when it comes to creating new dishes?

From my travels and from trying new foods at restaurants and by other chefs and cooks.

 

Your first cook book is called, Recipes From My Home Kitchen: Asian and American Comfort Food – what would you say is your ultimate comfort food as your last meal?

I love to eat everything and my palate gets bored easily, so I’m always wanting to eat something new.  However, if I have to pick what I’d eat for my last meal, it would be (in this order): sushi, French fries, Vietnamese spring rolls that I make, New York-style cheese pizza, American Southern fried chicken (editor’s note: I got to try Chef Christine’s fried chicken with a honey glaze, buttermilk biscuit and pickled watermelon and it was the best fried chicken I had ever had!), and a Vietnamese noodle soup to wash it all down.

I don’t believe in guilty pleasures; I don’t think you should ever regret what you eat.  Sometimes food may not be the healthiest for us, but if it gives you emotional pleasure, then that counts for something, too. With that being said, I love dark chocolate, ice cream cones, and my cookies—I always make extra dough and freeze it for when friends come over or if John gets a craving for my cookies.

As a huge fan of the show that propelled you to where you are today, what was the moment like when Chef Gordon Ramsay announced you the winner of MasterChef Season 3?

Two thoughts: “OMG, I can’t believe I won!” and “OMG, thank God it’s all over!”

chef christine ha and kat laughing

We have to ask… what is Gordon Ramsay really like in person?

Exactly how he is on camera, but even crazier. He’s incredibly charismatic and funny.

We’ve always wondered, what do the contestants do in between takes? Any funny stories or pranks to share?

We are often put on “silence” in between takes because they don’t want us to communicate with each other our feelings until we are in front of the camera taping our “confessionals” (the scenes where it shows the contestant talking to camera one-on-one).

We have to do things without talking like eating, playing games, communicating.  You can imagine how difficult that was for me because I can’t see, so if we can’t talk, I felt very isolated. Many of the contestants became very good friends because we all went through some very tough challenges together. I often compare it to pledging a fraternity or sorority: you are suddenly put through challenges with a group of people you barely knew prior and whom are very different from you and each other. After a while, everyone was comfortable with each other.

There was one time when someone took my cane and pretended it was a light sabre! There was another time I was frustrated with another person, and as a joke, I threw my shoe at them and actually hit them! That’s when they joked that I was faking my vision impairment.

Without vision, other senses are heightened – would you say that you had some advantages over the competitors that way?

I think so, yes, because I paid closer attention to the various nuances of food and flavour, including the temperature, texture, and taste.

chef christine ha and kat

What were some challenges you faced during the competition?

Baking an apple pie! Baking is a challenge when you can’t see or touch the food inside the oven. Field challenges that took us out of the MasterChef kitchen were also difficult because I had to learn a whole new environment and kitchen.

Your story has been so inspiring and really gives all of us no excuse for not trying something new or difficult. For the person who is afraid to step into the kitchen, what would you say to them?

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Failure helps you learn to be more creative. Experiment and experience everything. Take small steps and celebrate those small victories.

 

Thanks to the talented Michelle Proctor of Michelle Proctor Photography for all of the beautiful images above! Follow her on Instagram @michellejproctor and Facebook at www.facebook.com/MichelleProctorPhotography.

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