Juicy pan-seared chicken breast, beautifully plated with a colorful roasted beet salad; white tuna sashimi, displaying expert knife work, next to cloudlike tufts of avocado mousse; smooth, refreshing coconut lime sorbet scooped in perfect spheres, garnished with a delicate ginger tuile.
All are dishes worthy of a Michelin-starred restaurant, cooked and created with obvious expertise and finesse. Except the person who prepared the stunning plates was Christine Ha, a blind, self-taught chef who, seven years ago, couldn’t make even a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Ha, 35, began to lose her vision as a sophomore in college. After years of inconclusive tests, she was finally diagnosed with neuromyelitis optica, or NMO, a rare autoimmune disease that attacks the optic nerves and spinal cord, in 2003. Soon she began experiencing spinal inflammation that left her immobilized from the neck down, and gradually she lost her sight over the next few years. With the help of arduous physical therapy, Ha beat paralysis, but she was legally blind by 2007.
Sitting with Ha at a coffee shop in her hometown of Houston, it’s easy to forget that she can hardly see (she describes her vision impairment as looking at a completely fogged mirror). Because she lost her sight as an adult, her pupils reflexively focus when she’s listening to someone, and her eyes even twinkle as she smiles. Her positive, can-do attitude is infectious.
“I realized the world doesn’t stop for you, no matter what,” Ha says. “You could have a parent die one day, and everything still goes on the next. You have to learn how to process feelings, but you also just have to see how you can learn from them—do they make you a more compassionate person? What action can you take?”
Ha had already dealt with crippling loss before she went blind: Her mother died when she was a teenager. Only a few years before she started losing her sight, Ha began re-creating her mother’s signature dishes as a way to remember her. She made hearty beef noodle soup, braised pork belly and other staples of her Vietnamese culture.
Being diagnosed with NMO stifled Ha’s burgeoning talent and often left her feeling frustrated, but never defeated. “I was just taking it day by day, and sometimes even hour by hour,” she says. “It’s really hard when you take in the big picture. You become overwhelmed, and you don’t know how to make it through. But I think it’s a psychological thing, where you just take it little by little. With time passing by, things do get easier.”
She was soon back in the kitchen, but had to relearn everything from scratch, starting with that simple PB&J. Just lining up crumbly bread and spreading sticky jelly is quite a challenge for a newly blind person. “Once I mastered one thing, I started thinking, If I can do this, maybe I can use a knife again. I started doing everything slowly,” Ha says. “Now I definitely cook better than I did before I lost my vision.”
Equipped with modifications such as Braille labels and talking scales, she slowly developed a closer connection to how ingredients smelled, mixed and transformed. Because she couldn’t see how a dish was being cooked, Ha relied on her memory, sharpened her other senses and refined her palate.
A writer by trade, Ha chronicled her cooking journey with a blog, appropriately titled The Blind Cook. As the story goes, a producer for the Fox reality competition MasterChef googled the term “blind chef,” as a joke, only to find the blog that Ha managed with the help of her husband, John Suh. After being invited to try out for the show, she impressed preliminary judges and then nailed her on-camera audition.
Ha earned a spot as a contestant in the show’s third season, in 2012, and overcame more than her share of setbacks: She was always chosen last for team challenges, and once a competitor attempted to sabotage her by assigning her to cook a dangerous spiny live crab. “I’m a really determined person,” Ha says. “I always try my best, even if failure is a possibility, which it always is. For me, it was about perseverance, just trying my best and really pushing myself to see how far I could go, regardless of what the outcome could be.”
In one high-pressure challenge, contestants had to bake a perfect apple pie or be eliminated. Cooking might be considered an art—it allows Ha to flourish by tasting, tweaking and adjusting—but baking is a science; its recipes are chemistry experiments that must be closely followed to achieve the desired reaction of glutens and sugars. Unable to see the color of the crust as it baked, Ha became flustered as time ran out. She felt defeated as she delivered her pie to be judged.
“Even when I pulled the pie out of the oven, it was really hot, so I couldn’t even touch it and feel how the crust was,” Ha says. “I thought, This is probably my moment to go home.”
To her shock, notoriously brutal MasterChef judge Gordon Ramsay raved about the dish. “Visually, it looks stunning.… The flavor is amazing,” declared Ramsay in the tasting scene. One could almost feel the self-limiting thoughts melting from the emotionally overwhelmed Ha as Ramsay gave her a boost of motivation. “Stop doubting yourself. Be bold.… You’ve got to start believing in yourself more.”
The apple pie moment marked a turning point for Ha, propelling her to a strong finish and the MasterChef title. As another judge, acclaimed restaurateur Joe Bastianich, wrote in his blog, “My money would not have been on Christine for the win—and not just because of her disability—because she just didn’t come across as the typical front-runner. With Christine, slow and steady won the race. She subtly climbed her way to the top by performing consistently well, triumphing over her self-doubt, all the while maintaining her signature grace and integrity. It was thrilling to watch. And I can say with absolute confidence that there was no one more deserving.”
Winning MasterChef netted Ha $250,000 and a book deal. Her cookbook, Recipes from My Home Kitchen: Asian and American Comfort Food, reached No. 12 on the New York Times best-seller list. Earlier this year she began hosting and starring in her own cooking show on Canadian TV. Four Senses, which premiered its first season in January, unites blind and sighted chefs in the kitchen.
“This show is a good one to empower the visually impaired to get in the kitchen and cook healthy, nutritious meals at home and not feel helpless,” Ha says. “That will hopefully lead to other thoughts and ideas that they can do more than they think they’re capable of. And that goes for sighted people too. Everyone has their handicaps, their challenges, obstacles, whatever—emotional, mental or physical.”
Ha now travels the world giving motivating keynote speeches and continues to explore her culinary creativity by throwing pop-up dinners. She’s also planning a restaurant in Houston.
“I’ve been placed in a position where I’m fortunate to be able to advocate for the visually impaired and disabled—I always wanted to be able to help in whatever capacity I could,” Ha says, a wry smile beginning to form. “But at the same time, to quote Spider-Man, ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’ It keeps me a little bit more focused, and not on myself, but on the greater good. Sometimes it gets overwhelming, but it’s really a blessing for me when I meet people and they say, ‘You’ve inspired me.’ ”
Despite the hardships Ha has faced, she still considers herself blessed and urges others to overcome their obstacles with positivity.
“If you’re going through hard times, try to have the right attitude,” Ha says. “Surround yourself with a supportive network, be positive and just try your best. Don’t think negatively—Well, I can’t do this. Instead think, Well, how can I do this? That’s how you start training your brain to go about things differently. And that’s when you’re more likely to start succeeding.”
Simple. Fast. Fresh. Healthy. Delicious.
Christine Ha’s salmon poke
1 pound sashimi-grade salmon, cubed
1/2 cup soy sauce
3/8 cup chopped scallions
1 tbsp. sesame oil
1/2 tbsp. crushed red pepper
1/2 tbsp. toasted sesame seeds
1/2 tbsp. seaweed seasoning
In a medium bowl, combine all the ingredients and mix well. Cover and refrigerate for at least two hours before serving. Serves four.
For hard-to-find ingredients, check Amazon. Visit TheBlindCook.com for more of Ha’s recipes.