College student Christine Ha went on quite a journey last year on FOX’s MasterChef. The blind contestant was the biggest underdog in the show’s history, overcoming challenge after challenge on the competitive-cooking reality show. Standing in front of judges Gordon Ramsay, Graham Elliot and Joe Bastianich, Christine blew through the auditions, making it to the top final contestants and eventually won the competition. She took home the title of MasterChef and walked away with a cookbook deal.
FoodBeast got the pleasure of speaking to her and about some of those struggles and what’s she been up to since she was announced the winner in the season 3 finale.
What were some of your biggest challenges during the competition?
The biggest challenge is just not really knowing what to expect on the show, what the challenge would be, who would be going home. I think the highest level of stress is not knowing. By nature, I’m a person that would rather know bad news than not know.
After you lost your vision, what was it like for you to get back in the kitchen and relearn to cook?
It took a while to get back in the kitchen. It was just something I thought maybe I had to give up. I didn’t think that I would be able to cook again. I thought I could only make very simple things like sandwiches or things that don’t really require too much heat or too many knives. I think that just over time, because I love food so much and I love cooking, I wanted to find to get back into that kitchen no matter what. It was just slowly but surely just getting back into it and getting the right tools that would help me adapt to cooking without vision. Those sorts of things helped and a lot of practice honestly. [I] just started off cutting slowly again and eventually you just learn to do everything by feel.
Do you remember the first thing you made after you lost your vision?
My first attempt at making anything was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It was actually very unsuccessful, so that’s why I thought I would never be able to cook again. I couldn’t even make a PB&J sandwich let alone cook anything. That’s what I attempted when I first lost my vision.
Can you talk a bit about how you lost your sight?
I have an autoimmune condition called Neuromyelitis optica, or NMO for short. It’s similar to MS where it’s the immune system attacking the neurological system thinking it’s a foreign object. With my condition, it tends to attack the optic nerves, which is how I lost my vision, and my spinal cord, which sometimes affects my motor and sensory skills as well.
I was diagnosed with [NMO] in 2004 but I started losing a little bit of vision in one of my eyes before that in 1999. In 2004, it worsened and in 2007, it decreased to the level that it is now.
What’s it been like for you since winning the MasterChef competition?
It’s been a whirlwind. My life just got turned upside-down.
There’s been some amazing opportunities, my favorite, obviously, being able to write this book and having it published. I’m also a creative writer and so this naturally marries two different things that I enjoy: food and words.
It was a great opportunity and good fortune that I was able to write this cookbook after I won and I think that’s the best prize that I got out of the whole competition.
Speaking of your cookbook, how does it feel to have yours hit the shelves?
It’s like a long-awaited thing that finally has arrived. There’s been a lot of anticipation, not only for me, but for everyone that has been waiting on the cookbook since I was announced as the winner. I probably every day get a question on one of my different means of social media about when my cookbook’s coming out. It’s been a while, so it’s exciting and I’m glad that people are finally going to read it and cook from it and I’m looking forward to see what people think of it.
Was Vietnamese food something you loved growing up?
I think it was something I loved but I didn’t know I loved. It was something I ate because it was there and it was good and I took it for granted. I didn’t think about how great of a cuisine it was. It was good but it wasn’t like I knew a lot of other things. Now that I’m older, I have an even larger appreciation for Vietnamese cuisine just because I think there’s a lot of fresh ingredients. Humble ingredients. It’s really tasty and it’s not expensive. In those ways, it’s really accessible.
I think the first thing that comes to mind (as a favorite dish) are the egg rolls. My mom made really good egg rolls. They were a treat when I grew up. She’d make them for my birthday parties or if we had International Festival at school. I loved her egg rolls. She didn’t leave a recipe so after she passed away, I just sort of learned to re-engineer the recipe all by memory. I figured out how it tasted, how it smelled, how the fillings felt. I kind of remembered certain ingredients. I sort of, over time, tested that recipe over and over until I felt it was pretty close to being my own mother’s egg roll recipe. I do have to say it’s pretty good. My egg rolls are something that I hoard when I make them.
Can you describe the feeling you had when you were announced the winner of MasterChef?
It was shock. A lot of shock and surprise and just being really proud of what I was able to accomplish. It was definitely one of the greatest moments of my life. It was shocking and surprising and just an awesome, awesome moment.
As a MasterChef, you have any advice for all the Foodbeasts out there?
In order to really cook or learn about good food, you really have to be willing to try everything with an open mind. You don’t have to like everything, but I do think you should try everything twice and really try to open up your mind to it and figure out what it is about that food that people like about it. I think being able to be open-minded about that sort of stuff, really helps you learn about different flavors and the world’s cuisine. I think that translates really well into what a person can do in their own kitchen.
Christine’s cookbook, Recipes From My Home Kitchen: Asian and American Comfort Food hit stores last week and season 4 of MasterChef airs Wednesdays on FOX.