She's a blind chef, a cookbook author and winner of the third season of MasterChef. It's safe to say Christine Ha has beaten the odds.
Ha, who lived in Lakewood and Long Beach before moving to Houston, lost her vision in her twenties due to the autoimmune condition neuromyelitis optica. She took up cooking during her college years, but it was her appearance on Gordon Ramsay's MasterChef that launched her into the national spotlight. She blew the judges away with her Vietnamese-inspired cooking and charmed the nation with her control in the kitchen.
The Los Angeles native took some time out recently to and chat with us about her television experiences, her new book Recipes From My Home Kitchen, some thoughts on food in this town and her upcoming venture, which will debut next year.
Squid Ink: First of all, as a native Angeleno, what do you miss most about this city?
Christine Ha: The weather and the beaches.
CH: The farmers markets for sure. California has some of the best produce I've seen in America.
SI: How did you learn to cook?
CH: I learned how to cook by self-teaching. I did it out of necessity when I was an undergraduate in Austin. After I moved out of the dorm to an apartment, I had a small kitchen and I figured I had to learn to cook to survive and not eat fast food or eat out all the time. So I just started experimenting in the kitchen on my own -- and it just sort of went from there.
SI: Who is your culinary inspiration?
CH: For someone off the radar, it's definitely my mom. I mean, my cookbook is dedicated to her, and so is an entire chapter from the book. As for someone more well known, I like Alton Brown for his explicative nature, Ina Garten for her simple yet elevated recipes, Jamie Oliver for who he is, and Anthony Bourdain for his snark. Oh yes, and Thomas Keller for his dedication and David Chang because he has achieved all my culinary dreams and at such a young age.
SI: Where did the inspiration for your cookbook recipes come from?
CH: A lot of those recipes were inspired from my youth, growing up and eating my mom's food, my aunt's food, my grandmother's food. All of these really humble foods were to me, really delicious and tasty. I think that's a key part of what I like to cook. The recipes are really tasty and delicious but the ingredients aren't too complicated and not overly extensive.
SI: What's your favorite dish to make?
CH: One of my favorite dishes to make is egg rolls. I based it off of memory of my mom's egg rolls -- I learned how to re-engineer it by remembering how it tasted and smelled. So when I first learned how to make it, I thought my egg rolls were pretty good and it was kind of a milestone in my culinary life. That's when I realized that I really can cook. That was huge for me. And I do think my egg rolls are pretty darn good.
SI: What particular ingredients stand out?
CH: I think the fish sauce and the shrimp set my eggrolls apart from others. Eggrolls from other cuisines don't normally use fish sauce, and other Vietnamese eggrolls I've seen often use crab. But I like the flavor of shrimp better in an eggroll -- it's more subtle.
SI: How do you navigate the kitchen as someone who is visually impaired?
CH: At home, I have some kitchen equipment that helps. Like a talking thermometer and a talking scale if I'm measuring out food. I use regular knives. I don't have knife guards on them. That I think just comes from practice. I do have oven mitts that are pretty long. They go up to the arm, so that helps with not burning myself when I'm opening the oven door. But it's a lot about organization -- and being really careful when I cook.