When Christine Ha went blind at the age of 28, it seemed end of everything. She felt sorry for herself and worried about how she would manage to live alone, pay her expenses, and even prepare her own meals. She had never imagined her life now.
Chef Christine Ha of Houston is renowned for becoming the first blind chef to win the competition during MasterChef’s third season. She has impressed foodies and viewers all over the world since 2012 with her mastery of Vietnamese cuisine at her nearby restaurants, Xin Chào and the Blind Goat.
Christine’s family is originally from northern Vietnam. “Since my family is from the north, we eat phở the northern way, with wider rice noodles and few herbs or condiments.
On April 29, 1975, Christine’s father realized they had to leave the country as soon as possible while still courting her mother. They hurried to locate a US naval ship as he hurried to ask for her mother’s consent to their union. After traveling back and forth between the Philippines, a Guam refugee camp, Pennsylvania, Chicago, and southern California (where Christine was born), the family finally made their way to Houston, Texas.
When Ha first started her path into cooking, vision loss became her most noticeable ailment. Had Neuromyelitis Optica Spectrum Disorder (NMOSD) for over 20 years, she explains, “I thought it was just a dirty contact lens.” However, when the haziness remained, she visited a neuro-ophthalmologist, who thought she might have multiple sclerosis (MS).
Ha was relieved to receive a diagnosis after four years of testing: neuromyelitis optica, an inflammatory disease related to multiple sclerosis that affects the optic nerves. Similar to a cloudy mirror after a hot shower, this illness, which is sometimes misdiagnosed as multiple sclerosis, typically affects the optic nerves and spinal cord and can cause paralysis, sudden visual loss, or both.
Ha can still make out some shadows, dim light, and clashing hues. She acquired the skills necessary for using a cane, reading braille, and screen-reading software. She psychologically adjusted as well.
“It was really about altering my perspective as well, to feel like I’m not necessarily incapable of doing something, but just to think of innovative alternatives, to reach the same goals in a new way,” she said.
That indicates that everything in Ha’s kitchen is incredibly organized. Each tool has a specific purpose. There are no missing spices. The stove knobs include “bump dot stickers” that indicate the heat level and are labeled with braille.
Ha uses her other senses, which she says she is “more in tune with” now that she has lost her vision, to go around the kitchen. To help her get her bearings, she continues, “I have to use my hearing, my sense of touch, and my sense of smell.”
“In college, I started cooking out of necessity since I wasn’t living at home or in a dorm with a cafeteria. My friends and housemates would eat my food and applaud me for it, and that’s when I knew I liked to cook. Being able to produce wholesome food for people to enjoy brought a sense of fulfillment,” Chef Ha said.
Over the years, Ha’s vision gradually worsened, which meant her cooking abilities were always evolving. She would experience vision loss every time she became accustomed to a “new normal,” such as reading recipes in large print; as a result, she would have to start over and learn the same skills with ever-declining vision.
Chef Ha first felt sorry for herself and worried about how she would manage to live alone, pay her expenses, and even prepare her own meals. She recalled stating, “This is my new life, and it truly sucks!” She had gone from cooking Thanksgiving dinner for family one year to being unable to assemble a PB&J the following. Her pity party, however, was short-lived. Gaining independence was essential, and relearning how to cook was a key first step. She began by practicing her fundamental knife abilities with a butter knife. She had to retrain herself to boil water. “Taking things slowly. I have a bigger, sharper knife. How do I use it? What do I need to pan-fry? I started out small and worked my way up.”
Through programs at the Lighthouse and Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services in Houston, Ha got instruction in braille, independent living, and orientation and mobility.
But Ha began developing her own strategies to lessen the impact of being blind as she worked to understand as much as she could about the illness. She discovered that she could ask her friends and family for help in various ways, such as a shoulder to cry on or someone to read her mail.
Ha continued to cook despite everything, but it was difficult.
Friends and family persuaded Ha to apply for the reality cooking TV competition “MasterChef” while she was a graduate student studying creative writing.
“My hubby enjoys watching Gordon Ramsay’s programs. He pushed me to the audition when we found out there would be one in a nearby city. At the time, I was pursuing a master’s degree in creative writing, and as a writer, I believed that it was essential to live life to the fullest to stay inspired. I believed that it would be a valuable experience to write about or draw inspiration from for future writing. The amount of progress I made surprised me.”
She abandoned her thesis in order to participate in the open call for participants, which required them to prepare a dish that represented their life story. She explains, “For me, it’s been an ongoing quest to duplicate my mother’s recipes.” Since her mother died when she was just 14 years old, Christine has learned to cook by trial and error. She never had cooking lessons, and her mother’s recipes were never written down.
“The reason I chose that kho is because it was the dish I ate the most frequently growing up. Our refrigerator was always stocked with some.”
Ha believed that would be the least exciting material for a story. But she astounds the renowned strict judges instead.
*Outside of cooking and writing, Christine Ha enjoys having fun with life.
The first participant on the show who is blind, Ha, says, “I was away for quite a while filming, and I was making it past task after challenge after obstacle, much to my own amazement and everyone else’s surprise.” I guess the rest of history is what happened because I had no idea I would get as far as I did.
When asked to give one piece of advise to those who want to pursue their culinary goals but are afraid to, Chef Ha said:
I used to make many awful meals, but I still frequently mess up in the kitchen. However, we aren’t trying or living if we aren’t pushing ourselves. Don’t be scared to make errors since they might teach you valuable lessons about yourself or your craft.
*Christine climbing a wall. As Christine would say, “Embrace the challenge”.
Good food is more than just a simple pleasure for Chef Christine Ha. According to her, “Cooking for others is another way to express love.” Cooking, in Ha’s opinion, is a kind of self-expression that enables her to communicate with others and share her experiences.
She learned braille and walked with a cane as her MasterChef career took her all over the world. She traveled the nation to demonstrate her culinary abilities on cooking shows while hosting pop-ups and cooking demonstrations. How is Christine Ha doing now? Follow her story and
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