She’s a blind chef, a cookbook author and winner of the third season of Masterchef. It’s Christine Ha
For any writer, there is a profoundly tender relationship between thought and hand. Writing is a taming of that most apelike of all of our parts, where fingers built for clutching at boughs and running through coarse hair are urged to focus the clutter of the mind and build elegant structures of language on the page. That creative process is somewhat similar for a chef, who must command the subtle literatures of flavor into perfect order with steady flashes of the fingertips. Those skilled in both disciplines should find that there is a certain crossover in the mastery of food and words, and that the drive to communicate by building these elements into pleasing forms is one of life’s most compelling joys.
The satisfaction of that drive unfolded rather dramatically for MasterChef winner Christine Ha, popularly known as “The Blind Cook”—she was the first visually impaired contestant on the show, and her surprise victory has brought her celebrity not only for being a competent chef, but also as an inspirational public figure. What’s not commonly known is that Christine is first and foremost a writer rather than a cook, and it was the book deal that came with her prize package that she considered her greatest kickback from the whole experience. The resulting cookbook became an international bestseller, and will soon be followed up by a memoir—which she hopes be ready for release at some point in the not-too-distant future.
“Food was something that I didn’t really enjoy doing until I went to college,” explains Christine, who now regularly visits Vietnam, having recently appeared as a judge on the local version of MasterChef. “I had to teach myself how to cook, because in college I had a kitchen and I didn’t have a dorm cafeteria anymore. So I started by buying a very cheap set of pots and pans, and then I used a cookbook. I read it word for word and just tried to execute the recipes. Once in a while I would cook something that was actually good and that other people would enjoy. That made me really happy, to be able to create something and have someone else enjoy what I created. I realize now that that’s obviously the link between food and writing, it’s being able to create. Creating something, putting yourself out there, making something to share yourself with other people so that they can relate to you and understand you.”
Like many Vietnamese-Americans, Christine grew up with parents who expected her to pursue a distinguished career in medicine or law; as a child, she would lock herself in the bathroom to enjoy reading while they weren’t watching. Eventually settling on the third-best option—studying business and entering the world of commerce—Christine’s path took a tragic turn when her vision began to fail in her early 20s. She was soon diagnosed with NMO, an autoimmune disease that would inevitably rob her of her vision. It was partly having to adjust to the reality of her illness that prompted her change of track toward creative writing, which provided a form of therapeutic catharsis. She enrolled in a writing course at the University of Houston, and as her condition deteriorated, she began working on an autobiographical thesis called A Literacy of the Hands, which dealt with the process of learning braille, interwoven with the experience of the loss of her mother to cancer. It’s the material in this thesis that she is now developing for her memoir.
“I didn’t think that I would have to teach myself or learn braille, because audiobooks are so easy to get your hands on,” she says. “That’s what I did through graduate school—everything I had to read, I read audio. Then I went to listen to someone who is visually impaired, and he was lecturing on how you’re not truly literate if you’re visually impaired and you don’t know how to read braille. So I thought, that’s true, because when you listen to audiobooks, you’re taking in the different tones or the different inflections that the reader is placing upon the words. It’s not until you actually read the books yourself that you’re truly literate. So I told myself, if I’m going to be a true writer and graduate with an MFA then I need to learn to read! So I decided to do it.”
Learning to read all over again with her sense of touch was something Christine had to force. “I talk about that in the essay,” she explains, “the scientific research behind how when you read, you read with your eyes, so there’s a part of your brain that understands literacy. Once you lose your vision and read with your fingers, the nerves that connect to that part of the brain now come from there. So it reworks itself. It’s no longer connected to your optic nerves, but it’s connected to the nerves in your fingertips. Then that becomes the literary part of your brain.”
MasterChef has represented something of a diversion for Christine, albeit one that’s worked out particularly well for her. The chance to take hold of her ascendancy in the world of cuisine and divert that back into her passion for writing has been enormously satisfying. Her bestselling cookbook, Recipes from My Home Kitchen, manages to explore the Asian-American comfort food she grew up with while combining her love for food and writing.
“It was very exciting for me to work on that,” she says. “I had to submit a lot of recipes in a very short amount of time, because they were trying to publish it in time for the next season. I had a very short deadline, so it was a lot of long late nights testing and writing recipes. But writing the stories that go behind each recipe—that was much more of a fun experience for me, because it got me to write.”
The book explores the same Asian-American comfort food that won her the MasterChef title: “Comfort food is very important for me, it’s food that tells a story,” she explains. “I’m all about comfort food because I’ve eaten all sorts of things in my life, from very humble street food to very expensive Michelin-rated restaurants around the world. But I think the food that brings me the most joy is when I eat food that brings back memories of childhood, or food that reminds me of certain people who I love, certain people who I care about. I think that goes for everybody; if you ask a lot of chefs, even the ones who create very high-profile progressive dishes, oftentimes when they go home from work, they will eat their comfort food, whether it’s a taco or mac n’ cheese, or something that just comforts them.”
Bringing the book to Vietnam has not only enhanced her reputation here—in a country that cannot resist taking Christine Ha as their own culinary ambassador—but it has also filled in some of the gaps in the personal stories that lie behind her own cooking background. “When my book was translated, the editor told me that ‘you use some strange ingredients!’ ” she laughs. “An example is, growing up in America, my parents didn’t have access to young coconut. So to make something like thit kho, the braised pork belly, you’re supposed to use young coconut, but while I was growing up in America, my mom only had access to coconut soda. So I grew up only knowing thit kho as made with coconut soda. Coming here, the editor was like, ‘What is this? We use coconut!’ That’s when I learned that my mom had to adapt her recipe to whatever was available to her over there.”
“Every time I come here, other people teach me new things,” she adds. “It’s always like, ‘oh, I’m scared to take you somewhere to eat or cook for you because you’re the master chef,’ but everyone has a unique story with their food. Who am I to say what is wrong or right, good or not good, you shouldn’t like this or that—so every time I come here, it’s a humbling experience, an amazing experience. I think that as a chef, as a writer, as any artist, you always need to stay hungry and you always need to keep learning. You should never feel like you know everything. I very much enjoy being told that I don’t know anything.”
As an instant reality TV celebrity, it’s inevitable that Christine’s somewhat two-dimensional reputation as “The Blind Cook” precedes her, whether that be here or back in the States. “I think reality television has a knack for doing that. They can magnify certain aspects of you,” she admits. “At first it was very strange for me, because I wasn’t in the entertainment field initially; I went to try out because I love cooking. But then I started understanding what the world of television was like, and being in the public eye, and then people watching you on television and thinking that they know everything about you, even though your TV image is only one aspect of you.”
Partly in response to becoming a caricature of herself, Christine insists on maintaining her own blog (The Blind Cook) and personally manages her celebrity social media streams to flesh out her public personality. “I guess I can’t say I’m uncomfortable,” she concedes: “That is an aspect of me. For me, it’s almost like the flipside—there’s all these people online, and they’re my ‘fans,’ but they don’t seem real to me either. They’re a two-dimensional character to me as well, they’re these names online. It’s not until I meet people in person that I feel that these people are real, and it really touches me that I’ve been able to affect so many people in a positive way.”
Regardless of how long her MasterChef spotlight shines, Christine Ha’s direction in future will always be intimately involved with her dual creative passions. “People always ask, ‘why do you love food or cooking so much’,” she shares, “and I say food is very universal; everyone has to eat in this world, so I think two people who don’t share the same political beliefs, share the same sexual orientation, the same socioeconomic background, whatever it is, you both still need to eat, and you can sit down at a table and share a meal together. I feel there’s a love and understanding and mutual respect that is created by that setting. I think it’s the same thing with literature. Everyone can relate to stories. Every story’s been told, but there are different unique perspectives that a writer can bring to the table with their particular story. There’s a certain sensibility, I feel. Cooking is the same as writing, it’s about sharing your story, or your love, or whatever it is—and that’s your connection with other people.”
IMAGES BY NGOC TRAN