Christine Ha is an avid reader, an aspiring author, and an extremely accomplished cook, in fact, she is in the final rounds of the MasterChef competition on FOX television. Some of her writing has been published, and although she has taken a break from university to participate in the MasterChef series, she plans to return to her studies (Christine is a Master of Fine Arts student in creative writing). She is strong-willed and tenacious [meaning forceful, tough], and she is blind.
Just a Little Bit of Background
Christine grew up in Houston, Texas. Although her mother was a very good cook, Christine didn't become passionate about cooking until she was out on her own at university; she found she loved to cook for other people. Her mom had passed away when she was 14, leaving no recipes. Christine continues to try to recreate the dishes she remembers her mother's making.
Her first university degree was in business. Christine started to lose her vision in 1999 and in 2003 was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder, Neuromyelitis optica (NMO) which would leave her with a visual disability. She left her position as a software consultant and went back to university – this time to get a degree in creative writing.
Learning How to Play the Game
Q & A with Christine Ha
"I hope I can do what I can to change the perception of ability vs. disability in people with sight impairment."
You are a writer, reader and clearly an amazing chef – when you realized in our early 20's that you were losing your vision, what was your greatest fear, or, did you simply accept that you would have to approach things differently and get on with you life and the things you love to do? If you simply 'played the hand you'd been dealt' what did you find were your biggest challenges?
No, I did not accept my vision loss as gracefully as I'd had hoped. It was a difficult and challenging period in my life. I feared giving up my independence: no longer being able to drive, not being able to shop for my own groceries, not being able to cook, etc. As an adult, losing your independence is a very scary thing. I felt like a burden to family and friends.
You use the Learning Ally digital talking book (DTB) service and you said in the interview on their blog that "I will likely be a member for life". Did you use that service (then RFB&D) when they were still distributing books on cassette? What is it about Learning Ally books that makes them accessible and easy to for you to use?
No, I did not use their services when they were distributing books on tape. I jumped immediately into the DAISY downloadable files from Learning Ally. They're accessible because, aside from providing audio versions of so many books, their services are prompt – I could virtually be listening to a book in less than an hour after I'd ordered it. This is even easier than getting to a bookstore to purchase a needed text or ordering online. The turnaround time is amazing.
Are you at all surprised that you have been as successful as you have in the MasterChef competition? What do you think has enabled you to reach this point? Regardless of the outcome, what will you have gained from this experience?
Yes, I am surprised I've made it this far. Knowing that I went in with a disadvantage was something of utmost concern to me with each challenge. I think making it this far, though, requires more than just cooking skill. It's also heavily weighted upon strategy – you have to know how to play the game. What can you execute well in the allotted time? As much as I tried to figure out what the judges wanted from me, I was often wrong, and so I learned to just do my best, cook what I'd love to eat myself, and create my dishes with love and care.
One thing I learned from the MasterChef experience is to believe in myself and trust my intuition. I need to give myself more credit than I used to, and I think this goes for almost all of the contestants. We often look to our neighbor and second-guess our own accomplishments, but all we can really do is focus on our own creations and follow our gut instincts.
The best thing I've taken away from the experience is learning from the judges as they were our mentors and, of course, learning from the other contestants. We all came from such different backgrounds and walks of life, but we all share the common bond in food and cooking. It's continued proof that food brings people together, and the relationships I've formed from being on the show are the greatest gifts I can take from the experience.
Most of the people in the world who are blind or have a visual disability live in a developing country. Do you think your positive attitude and strong will would have enabled you to achieve what you have achieved if you were living in a developing country rather than the USA?
This is a good question, and I'm glad you're challenging me to think about the universality of vision impairment. I think because America tends to be enabling – we instill a "can do" attitude in individuals – I've been fortunate to have a strong-willed nature that isn't willing to accept no for an answer.
I think it is very possible should I be living in a developing country that my attitude would not be so courageous. My being on "MasterChef," however, has reached people all over the world from Vietnam to India, and I believe people from such countries have found inspiration in me. I hope I can do what I can to change the perception of ability vs. disability in people with sight impairment.
What would you like people to remember most about you when the MasterChef competition is finished? If there were just one 'take-away' message you could send, what would it be?
Don't be afraid to dream big. You can accomplish what you want if you really put your mind to it. It won't be easy, but if you're tenacious enough, and if you learn to adapt accordingly, you can achieve all things.
Picking Yourself Up
In response to the question "What would be one piece of advice you would offer to a person with vision loss? This could be about following your dream, employment, or life in general." which appears in a recent American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) Interview, Christine Ha replied:
It is never easy to lose your vision. It will suck, and you will go through a period of grief and adjustment. It is stressful. And it is okay to cry and lament about it. This is all very normal and healthy. But after a while, you have to pick yourself up, learn to adapt, and move on and forward. Everyone in this world is dealt a different hand – some better, some worse than others – but what's more important is how you play that hand. This is what builds character. And with great character comes great reward.
Who will be the MasterChef?
Only the best "home cooks" of the almost 30,000 who auditioned for this season of the program were selected. Throughout the MasterChef season their skills and the dishes they prepare are judged by three people: Chef Gordon Ramsey, food critic Joe Bastianich, and Chef Graham Elliot. Each week the number of competitors is reduced through a process of elimination. The prepared dishes are judged on flavour, originality, creativity and presentation, and of course, the contestants must complete the assignment within the allotted time. In the season finale, one person will become the MasterChef and receive a prize of $250,000.
There are three videos of Christine preparing dishes on the Parade.com website: Her audition video, Cooking a classic (baking an apple pie), and Cooking live crab. (I've watched Christine's audition video at least three times, and have been moved by it each time.) Although the videos are not described they can be easily followed.
The MasterChef program is on FOX television Tuesday evenings at 9 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, 8:00 p.m. Central Time. As MasterChef appears on TV in numerous countries, please check your local TV listings if you do not live in North America. Christine is still very much in the competition; as of the show this week she is moving to the next round and will be one of the final three competitors. I don't know if she will make it to the finale on September 10 …
I'll be watching to find out!
Additional Resources & Photo Credits
In order, as shown:
- Christine Ha working in the kitchen, wearing a bright yellow apron, source: Christine Ha's blog, The Blind Cook
- Christine Ha sipping from and looking over the top of a mug, source: Christine Ha's website
- Salmon Poke (1 of the recipes on Christine's blog) plated for serving, source: Christine Ha's blog, The Blind Cook
- Christine wearing a white MasterChef apron and holding a white cane, source: AFB Interview with Christine
Other resources include:
- Entertainment Weekly
- People Magazine article and video interview
- Learning Ally blog: MasterChef Competitor Says Learning Ally Satisfies Hunger for Literature
- NPR – National Public Radio, July 17 interview, audio and text
- HULIQ.com (a review of the MasterChef top 5 show)
- Pank Magazine – Author Interview