I recently had the privilege of interviewing Christine Ha, the visually impaired winner of this year’s Master Chef contest. She was a pleasure to speak with and I hope that my questions shed a little more light on who Christine is and how we can learn from her example. My questions below will start with the letter “A” and her answers will start with the letter “C.”
A: I know our readers would really appreciate some tips. I myself am not a good cook, but I know a lot of us are. Do you have some simple things I could write up on how we can feel safer in the kitchen and how we might be able to expand on our potentially simple dishes?
C: Sure, there are some things I can come up with off the top of my head, and this is not just for visually impaired cooks. I think it’s really important to have sharp knives. Spend some money on a good sharpening block. Often times our knife sets come with that tool, it’s actually a honing tool, that people think is a knife sharpener. That tool is actually for honing after you sharpen the knife to get metal bits off. The reason why it’s so important to have a sharp knife is so you don’t have to use as much pressure. It’s much easier to cut things and the slice is cleaner. When you’re slicing and using less pressure, there is less danger of the knife sliding out of your hand and causing injury. So, contrary to what you might think, a dull knife is more likely to injure you then a sharp knife.
Organization, I think, is also key. I think that most vision impaired people know the importance of organization since that’s one of the ways you gain independence. So in the kitchen, being organized is also part of gaining independence. Hopefully the people you live with will be respectful of your need for organization and put knives back where they found them, spices back where they found them, and other gadgets back where they found them. I think that this is key to being a successful cook when you’re a visually impaired person.
For those who want to start expanding on their cooking it’s important to note that I am pretty much self taught. I started cooking from cookbooks. I would read recipes straight through and follow them to the T. So once you learn how to follow a recipe and understand certain techniques and how things will turn out, then you kind of start understanding the science behind it. I think you should then start venturing out. For example you can take a recipe and start adding different spices and playing with the ingredients and being more experimental. Once you’re confident in turning a recipe that’s already established into something that’s more like your own, then you could step up to doing something like we did on the show with mystery boxes where you just mix up things that are in season or gather what looks good at the grocery store and then just come up with something. That is something that definitely takes time and the desire to learn such a skill, but I think if you learn flavor profiles, what goes well with what, I think that helps with cooking. Sooner or later you got to let go of that cookbook. There’s going to be a lot of trial and error, a lot of bad food, but you’ve got to spread your wings and let go.
A: I know that a lot of visually impaired cooks are fearful of under-cooking meat. I myself have turned to using the crock pot as a way of ensuring that the meat is done, but there are only so many things you can cook in your crock pot. I also don’t want to overcook my meat. Some might say that you just cook it long enough to make sure it doesn’t hurt you, but then it might not taste good because it’s overcooked. So what do you do to ensure that you’re meat is cooked properly?
C: I myself have no problem with tasting my food as I cook it. If it’s raw then I’ll spit it out and continue cooking. It’s important to use thermometers, especially when cooking meat. I myself use talking thermometers in my kitchen. When you’re cooking steak, a rack of lamb, or other meats, it comes down to the temperature when you’re determining if it’s rare, medium rare, or well done.
A: Are there things you avoid when cooking, or is everything fair game?
C: There are definitely things I tend to avoid cooking at home just because it’s messy or requires a lot of precision. For instance, I’m not a big fan of seafood. I will scale a fish if I have to, but I would prefer not to. When I was on Master Chef, though, I was open to everything.
A: What was the overall reaction from your fellow contestants when they learned you were visually impaired? I know that I saw a number of episodes where there was a lot of negativity and bitterness. I realize that this is reality television and that there’s an editing process, but I’m curious, was there any point where you said to yourself that you weren’t sure you could deal with the attitudes?
C: I wasn’t taken seriously at the beginning when there were still 100 of us. I was come up to and asked things like, “Do you use a knife?” A lot of people thought I was going to stand on the sidelines and tell a sighted person how to make the food. As the competition continued it got better, though. I was often picked last for the challenges, which makes sense from the other contestants’ point of view. When this happened, though, I did my best to prove to myself and the other contestants that I wasn’t a disadvantage to their team–I just had to do things a little differently. I felt like I had to give my 200 percent in comparison to the other contestants, but all in all I’m good friends with many of the contestants on the show and I have never felt pure negativity directed at me personally.
A: Now that you’ve won the competition do you have any plans for your winnings?
C: Since part of winning the competition is getting my own cookbook, I’m working on that. As a writer I’m excited about the writing process and the narrative of the book. I’m also gathering recipes that I want to include. Outside of that, I’m trying to finish my masters program since my other love is literature. I’m working on my memoir. My memoir won’t focus on cooking, but rather dealing with my vision loss and my medical condition. I’m also planning to write up a formal business plan to present to investors. My hope is to open a gastro pub and an ice-cream shop in Houston where I live.
We wish Christine the best of luck as she moves forward with her new endeavors.