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.
SI: Speaking of being careful, during the show, you were given a live crab but managed to turn that into an amazing cocktail. What was going through your head when that happened?
CH: I am naturally a competitive person, so I was running on adrenaline. I didn't even think twice about the possibility of the crab pinching me. I just knew I had to do the fresh, expensive crab some service, so I decided to serve it with simple, fresh ingredients.
SI: Were your parents supportive of your career?
CH: I think it was just something they just figured was just part of life. You cook to survive. It wasn't something you pursued as a passion; it was a means of surivival. It wasn't that they were supportive or weren't supportive. It was just a natural part of life that wholly wasn't encouraged but it definitely wasn't discouraged. I'm an adult, I have to provide for myself and it was just one of those things I just did.
SI: How do you plate food so beautifully?
CH: I think it has to do a lot with memory because I did have vision from my life. I remember shades, what colors things are, how different colors contrast. I can feel textures of food and I picture everything in my head before and it comes together when I'm plating. I like to plate on white especially when the food is colored just because I know that's eye-popping.
SI: Do you ever come across an ingredient you aren't sure of in terms of colors?
CH: There are oftentimes when I'm not certain of vegetable colors. I've not come across a wide variety of produce in my life. In that case, I'd ask someone to help describe to me the color and try to narrow it down from there.
SI: Gordon Ramsey has a reputation of being aggressive. What were your impressions of him after the show?
CH: I was very intimidated when I first met him, but he's been a very sweet and generous man. On our show, he's a bit different because he realizes none of us has had formal training so he takes on more of mentoring role. I think it's a different type of nurturing than some of the other shows. I also think he's a very funny person and he's always laughing regardless of the situation. He's a great mentor and judge to have and everything he says, I really take to heart.
SI: Have you kept up with any of your MasterChef alumns?
CH: Yes. I correspond with many of them quite frequently. Tanya is going to culinary school in Australia, and we spoke on the phone a few weeks ago. Scott and I text and talk every few weeks as well. Michael Chen is the chef at a theater in Dallas and coming to visit me next week. Felix and I are going to Europe on holiday together this summer. I keep in touch with a large group of MasterChef alumni from both my and the other seasons.
SI: I hear you're looking to open up a restaurant…
CH: I would love to open up a gastropub in Houston. I think that the Houston food scene is really growing and I always think about what type of place I would like to go to hang out with my friends. It's always a place with food where I can taste a little bit of everything and just have good drinks or beer with my food with good music playing. The menu would feature small plate offerings with a lot of interesting food that has Asian influences to it but would pair well with beer, cocktails or wine. That's my dream so I'm working on that.
SI: What's the time frame on that?
CH: I have definite concepts and am moving forward with at least one right now. We have a location, and we're just putting together the rest of the pieces before revealing it to the public. I expect I'll have my first concept open early next year.
SI: You've inspired a lot of people through your accomplishments despite your disability. Any words of advice?
CH: I think that I have a lot of things that makes me the minority. But I really think that food is something you have to have passion for because it's not an easy life or an easy path to be on. You're in the hot kitchen all the time on your feet. Being in the service industry, it's very difficult. But I would say if it's your passion, if it makes you feel alive, then by all means. And that goes with anything in life. Just pursue it and you never know where that will take you.
Follow Squid Ink at @LAWeeklyFood and check out our Facebook page. Clarissa blogs about Asian food at clarissawei.com. Follow her on Twitter or on Facebook. MasterChef Season 4 is currently airing on FOX.