Christine Hà on being a guest judge on season 10 of Masterchef US, the show she won back in 2012
Christine Ha was the first visually impaired contestant to not only participate in Masterchef US, but also win the talent hunt show.
A delectable spread won Christine Hà the title of MasterChef US in its third season: Kicked off with the appetizer, Thai papaya salad with crab and mixed vegetables, followed by the entrée, braised pork belly with rice, crispy kale and maitake mushrooms topped with a quail egg, and finished off with coconut lime sorbet and ginger tuile.
In 2012, Hà not only became the first visually impaired contestant to participate in one of the world’s most celebrated cooking shows but also went on to win the coveted title.
Now in its 10th season, Hà is seen on MasterChef US once again as a guest judge for the crop of amateur chefs this year.
“The first time I cooked a successful meal in college, and found that my friends enjoyed my creation was the start of my love for cooking,” recalls the chef.
She is all about comfort food, and the cookbook deal, which was part of her MasterChef win, inevitably culminated into Recipes from My Home Kitchen: Asian and American Comfort Food, which features her take on approaching recipes and ingredients, and recreating professional dishes in domestic kitchens.
In keeping with her love for comfort food, some of Hà’s favourite dishes continue to be those that sprang from her mother’s kitchen such as the utterly mouth-watering Vietnamese fried spring rolls or egg-rolls. Growing up, these would be reserved for special occasions, like birthdays and holiday parties, so they were a special treat, Hà says, “Another favorite is the Vietnamese chicken noodle soup (pho ga). My mom also cooked this dish often while I was growing up, and it’s just soup for the soul.”
Food has an emotional tie for people, she says, which is essentially what comfort food is all about.
The chef lost her eyesight in her 20s owing to an auto-immune disease, and switched from a business degree to a creative arts programme. Her love for food led her to go around her disability and relearn the art of cooking. It was Hà’s blog, theblindcook.com, which eventually caught the attention of MasterChef producers. Following her win, Hà has now appeared as a judge on several cook-off shows including MasterChef Vietnam and MasterChef US. She also co-hosts the Canadian cooking show, Four Senses, which is geared towards the vision- and hearing-impaired.
Overtime, Hà says, her take on food has evolved and become more mature. “I’ve learned to understand the emotional connection behind food and the influence each nuance of a dish has on the overall experience.”
But while on MasterChef, it was all about time-management and organisation in working through every challenge set forth by the judges. “I always allowed myself some cushion time on a challenge,” explains Hà. “If we were given 60 minutes for a challenge, I would make a dish I knew I could execute in 45 to 50 minutes.”
One of the major hurdles in a cook-off would be aesthetically plating the dish especially if the challenge involved exactly replicating a dish prepared by a guest chef. To execute that to precision, Hà says she would rely on memory. Since she used to have vision, she would recall the colours stored away in her mind, and that would guide her. As for her own creations, “I would envision how I wanted the plating to look, and set about recreating it by touch with my hands,” she says.
Now, in her own kitchen, the chef uses tools that make her appliances more tactile, such as raised bump dots or textured tape. Other than that, she remarks, “It’s really about educating others on how to work in the kitchen alongside someone who is visually impaired.”
Through her travels and conversations with other chefs and participants, Hà gathers that much like every other aspect of our life, the age of social and digital media has led people to live vicariously through others’ food experiences, the flipside being “a rise in dishes that appear over-the-top simply for photo’s sake and not necessarily done in a way that gastronomically makes sense.” “Sometimes I find people have lost focus in the joy of just being in the moment of every bite without being concerned over how the food looks on camera or how many 'likes' a photo gets,” she rues.
Her advice for budding chefs thus hinges on her absolute love for gastronomy and experimentation. She asserts, “Experiment without fear. Embrace your failures and mistakes, and learn from them.”
And as for the 10h season of MasterChef US, she says it is the biggest one yet, with contestants having the opportunity to fly overseas and take over a famous chef’s kitchen. She concludes, “That would’ve been awesome if my season had that opportunity.”
She recently opened a Vietnamese-themed gastro-pub, The Blind Goat, in her hometown of Houston, Texas.
Popular largely for the Vietnamese food she so often prepared as a contestant on MasterChef US, Hà notes naturally, she knew her first restaurant would have to reflect the cuisine people followed her for. “However,” she adds, “I wanted to put my own personal story and twist on the menu so I change the traditional dishes a bit.”
The Blind Goat is one among many Vietnamese food joints in Houston so Hà has been careful in designing her menu, deciding to showcase lesser-known street foods of Vietnam, and “share them with many Americans who may not have tasted such dishes before."
MasterChef US Season 10 is currently airing in India on Star World, every Monday to Friday at 9 PM.
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