"They didn't believe I could use a knife by myself!"
The third season of MasterChef US threw up Christine Ha as its surprise winner. Sight impaired, this writer and food enthusiast, silently went about working towards her goal, beating far more fancied opponents and bagging the title against all odds. Excerpts from an email interview
You are a writer; where and how did food and cooking enter your life?
I began cooking out of necessity when I was in college. Since then, my love for cooking (especially the idea of feeding others) grew exponentially. But I’d always viewed it as simply a hobby. Writing and reading were more my vocation though I am equally passionate about food and cooking.
What made you want to try your luck for MasterChef US?
I am the kind of person that welcomes challenges and pushes myself to see how far I can go. I think overcoming difficulties helps build character. And, even if you don’t overcome them, it can still build character - you learn from mistakes and can go about trying to figure out a different way of achieving it.
Once selected, how did you prepare yourself (mentally, technically) for the TV show knowing very well that this would be reality television at its hardest, most competitive worst?
I honestly had no idea how hard it would be. I thought because it was TV, we’d be made privy of our challenges a day in advance. But no, this was not the case. We learn about them right when you learned about them on camera. I didn’t really prepare myself much technically or mentally. Perhaps, I practiced cutting onions. And I did practise preparing my audition dish many times - so often that my husband got tired of my Braised Catfish. But that was all I did to prepare.
Did you come across a wave of sympathy from fellow contestants and the crew. If so, how did you react to it and focus on your goal?
I don’t think anyone gave me sympathy. If anything, they saw me as non-competition. Or they thought I was just there for TV ratings. Someone in the top 100 asked me, “So who’s going to cut your food for you?” They didn’t believe I could use a knife by myself. I was shocked that they thought I couldn’t cook just because I was sight impaired. I didn’t mind that they didn’t take me seriously - it gave me an edge in the competition because many dismissed me and focused on taking out other contestants.
What were some of the pleasant surprises that you encountered along the way on the TV show?
I was surprised at how much I began really caring for the other contestants. We are all so different - we come from different backgrounds, we have different ideologies and personalities - yet food and competing for the title united us. That’s what we bonded over, and many of them have become like family.
How much has life changed post winning the title?
My life has changed 180°. There have been so many amazing opportunities: I’ve made a guest appearance on the inaugural season of MasterChef Vietnam, I travel the country to do cooking demos and give inspiring keynote addresses, and now I’m working towards opening an establishment of my own in my hometown of Houston.
These are a few of my favourite things...
Favourite ingredient: I have three: garlic, fish sauce, and cilantro.
Favourite cuisine: This is so difficult, but I guess I’d have to say Vietnamese if I absolutely had to choose.
Favourite chef: Lately I’ve been a little obsessed with Chef Chris Kinjo. He is a fabulous sushi chef who just opened a traditional sushi restaurant in Houston called MF Sushi. His omakase is mind-blowing.
a dish i can create in 5-10 minutes: Fried Rice.