To say that Christine Ha is worth watching would be an understatement. On Fox's hit reality competition show "MasterChef," where amateur chefs vie for a chance to win prizemoney and the MasterChef title, the young Vietnamese-American has stood out from the very beginning in that she is extremely accomplished in the kitchen, time and again earning the three judges' praises for her work. But she has stood out for another reason. Christine Ha is blind.
Fox Television, in an effort to be transparent about the extent of Ha's condition, set up a meeting with the press. The contestant, who slowly began losing her sight in 1999 and gradually lost most of her ability to see by 2007 because of an autoimmune disease called Neuromyelitis optica, told reporters that she wasn't totally blind, according to EW.com. She has the ability to make out some shapes and colors as long as the lighting isn't too bright or too dark. She compared her ability to see with looking at a reflection in a steamed-up bathroom mirror.
Legally blind is defined as someone having 20/200 vision. Ha said her eyesight was "much worse than that." And the bright lights on the set of "MasterChef" are further impairing, she admits. “My pupils are continually dilated,” she notes. “I was having a lot of trouble in the beginning.”
But out of the 30,000 people who auditioned to be on the show, Christine Ha cooked her way into the Top 36, the number of finalists that get to the MasterChef kitchen and had a shot at the money ($250,000), the cookbook deal, the trophy and the MasterChef title.
Of those 36, only 9 now remain. Among them, Christine Ha.
In this week's second show (Episode 10), when the three judges -- Gordon Ramsay, Graham Elliott, and Joe Bastianich -- sent home "Cowboy Mike" Hill just short of the Top 10, they asked as he departed who he thought would win. The big-hearted contractor from Georgia replied that he thought Christine would prevail. "I can't wait to read your cookbook, girl," he said as he left.
She's had her problems. All the contestants sometimes find themselves working with unfamiliar ingredients, occasionally are assigned to create an unfamiliar dish, and are constantly working under the pressure of a timed event. But with Ha, there is the inability to see that acts as a limiting factor as well. But she allows it to interfere as minimally as possible. She has her walking cane and a sighted assistant to give her some sense of direction, but for the cutting, the prepping, and the cooking, she's on her own.
Still, she pushes on and perseveres, accepting her successes with admirable grace. Her quiet determination, confidence, and humility has brought with it an unexpected dividend (for her) as well. She has become Season 3's breakout star.
Her "MasterChef" journey has become the must-see event of the summer...
Ha has become an inspiration to many, but she is quick to point out how positive and supportive her family and fans have been. “The outpouring of support from strangers has been amazing," she noted. "The awesome fan mail I’ve been getting. Just saying, like, ‘You’ve inspired me to try out for the high school soccer team.’ It’s even weird to be saying ‘I’m getting fan mail.’ It’s been awesome to be in a position to affect people’s lives in a positive way.”
Judge Joe Bastianich, blogging about the upcoming season in early June in People magazine, wrote that she was the first ever visually impaired chef he had ever encountered in his years in the industry and admitted he was at a loss.
"I have no idea how challenging it must be to function in today's world with a disability as significant as loss of sight," he wrote. "But far be it from me to make assumptions on what she can and can't do. But to be honest, watching her come through that door left me completely baffled." But then he tasted her cooking and was impressed. Ha had won the right to be on MasterChef, he thought, although he expressed some doubt as to how far she could actually go. But: She was "one to watch as we move ahead."
Moving ahead is exactly what the 32-year-old Texas graduate student has been doing. And she's only seven eliminations away from the MasterChef cook-off that decides the Season 3 winner.
When asked earlier in the season if her blindness could be a detriment in the contest, Christine admitted that it could. But an advantage as well, she said, because she had to depend more on her sense of taste than did her colleagues.
It's an advantage that has seen her win the Mystery Box Challenge (where chef's cook from the ingredients inside of a box) and finish high in another challenge. And although she's been flustered a few times (including getting her hand pierced by a shard of cracked crab carapace), she's still managed to produce amazing examples of pleasing culinary offerings to the judges.
Regardless if she wins or not, Christine Ha has proven that a disability can actually be an asset. And even though there may be limitations, those limitations can be circumvented or overcome. One could hope that even if she doesn't walk away with the money and the cookbook deal at the end of the season, she might still get a book deal or one of the cooking channels might see their way to creating a cooking show just for her. Or perhaps she could land a syndicated deal.
Because hers is a story that should continue, if for no other reason than to provide inspiration...
Besides, with all the iron chefs, naked chefs, southern chefs, French chefs, Italian chefs, Cajun chefs, and even a "Barefoot Contessa" chef on television, surely there's room for a blind chef. Now, that -- just like Christine Ha's journey on "MasterChef" -- would truly be must-see television.
(photo credit: Kelly Campbell, Wikimedia Commons)