Cooking is an art, one that can blend the senses of sight, taste, touch, and smell -- and Christine Ha proved it, even though she herself is legally blind, by producing some of the most elegant and tasty dishes (and meals) in the cooking show's history. Her amazing culinary instincts led her to victory, which included a deal to write her own cookbook. Well, that cookbook, entitled Recipes from My Home Kitchen: Asian and American Comfort Food, has arrived, and just in time for Season 4 of "MasterChef." And in a little Q&A for Amazon.com, "MasterChef" judge Graham Elliot asked the Season 3 winner a few questions.
Elliot, who is also a Chicago restauranteur, started off by asking if she thought that auditioning for "MasterChef" would lead to this moment.
Ha said it was a dream, but not one that she seriously considered. Still, of the prizes, she preferred the cookbook, where she got to "marry the two loves of my life--food and word." She added, "But to compete against more than 30,000 home cooks across America? I don't like to get my hopes up, so I tried not to give it much thought. Well, I realize now that nothing is impossible if you set your mind to it and play it smart."
The soon-to-be 34-year-old has some skill as a writer, so penning the cookbook probably wasn't much of a problem. She is a prize-winning poet who has also seen her prose appear in several magazines. She not only has a degree in Business Administration from the University of Texas at Austin but also a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Houston. She is the Fiction Editor for the Gulf Coast Journal.
In fact, it was her blog, TheBlindCook.com (which was set up for her by her husband, John Suh), that led to her auditioning on "MasterChef," the New York Post reported while the competition was in progress. Their casting department read the blog, found her story interesting, and asked her to appear at the open casting call.
Elliot wanted to know which of her cooking styles would become most popular with "the average American home cook." (It should be pointed out that Ha, though of Vietnamese heritage and whose cookbook reflects the dishes of her mother's kitchen, was born in California.)
"Oh, Graham, I'm smart," she replied, "but I'm not psychic!" She noted that Americans seemed to be quite busy, being more dependent on a two-person income and less inclined to spend time constructing meals. "I think many home cooks would appreciate recipes that are flavorful but not fussy. Actually, those are the exact parameters I have in my own kitchen when I cook a weeknight dinner. And for the weekends when there's a little more time for leisure projects, I enjoy more elaborate experiments like pulled pork sandwiches or my mama's eggrolls. Both types of recipes, from the easy to the intricate, can be found right here in this very cookbook."
When asked how her cooking has evolved, she said that she now trusts her "gut" more and is less worried about following recipes to the letter. Ha is an autodidact when it comes to the kitchen -- that is, she's never studied cooking or been formally trained. Much of her recipes were inspired by her mother, who died when she was 14. She has said, according to the New York Post, that she "depends a lot more on the other senses to cook – taste, smell, how certain ingredients feel." She added that cooking without sight involves "a lot of organization."
Elliot concluded by asking best represented her and her life's journey. Surprisingly, her answer did not offer up images of Vietnam, although it did conjure up the images of comfort and home -- and a bit of a mischievous bent.
"I'd have to go with the oatmeal chocolate chip cookie," she said. "It starts out an inedible mass, but after you put some heat under it, it becomes delectably sweet--that's been my journey in life. It's by no means fancy, but it will always put a smile on your face--that's me. Sinfully scrumptious."
The "MasterChef" judges certainly thought so, awarding the "sweet" little home cook from Houston the title for Season 3, which also came with a trophy, the cookbook deal, and a sizeable check for $250,000. She got there by knocking off an army of America's best home cooks. And, like she said, it seemed to only take a little pressure to get a rise out of her, moving from simply the first blind auditioner to someone with which to be reckoned with in the kitchen. Her poise and grace under that pressure won her fans across the country, and, coupled with her culinary skills, fans among the judges in the "MasterChef" kitchen.
Recipes from My Home Kitchen: Asian and American Comfort Food, which features a foreword by Chef Gordon Ramsay, hits bookstores on May 14.
You can keep up with the indomitable Christine Ha at her website, "The Blind Cook."
"MasterChef" returns for Season 4 on Wednesday, May 22, at 8 p.m. (EST) on Fox Television.
(photo credit: Rodale Books, Fair Use Promotion)