Interview: Christine Ha
Christine Ha may be most famous for her victory on the third season of MasterChef in 2012, but her artistry extends beyond the kitchen. She holds an MFA in creative writing and serves as the fiction editor for the literary magazine Gulf Coast, blogs regularly on her website The Blind Cook, and maintains an active presence on various social media. After being diagnosed with an immune condition in 2004, Ha underwent progressive vision loss over several years, but her creative achievements have only continued to expand. With a recipe book under her belt and a continuous stream of artistic and public engagements, Christine Ha lives in a multifaceted world marked by diverse artistic passions. Here, Craig Pearson speaks with Ha about the roots of her creative interests, her path to success, and how she manages to keep so many pans in the fire.
Craig Pearson: Hi Christine! Thank you for making time to answer some of our questions. In the Exceptions community, we place a focus on creative expression and finding one’s artistic voice. When did you first discover your passion for cooking? How has your work as a chef shaped your creative identity?
Christine Ha: I learned to cook out of necessity: I went to college only knowing how to make eggs, instant noodles, and frozen pizza. I didn’t even know how to steam rice in a rice cooker. Once I moved out of the dorms and into an apartment with a kitchen, I knew I would have to learn to cook for myself. I started by following recipes and learning from my many mistakes. Once in a while, when my friends and roommates actually finished their plates, I was happy to see how something I created could make others happy, too. I have always been a creative person, writing fictional stories for fun when I was young. Both cooking and writing are important to me today, and they both foster my creativity because they challenge me to think of things differently. As a writer and chef, you are always trying to come up with new ways to interpret or do something. Every dish and story under the sun have been told, but it’s our job to make them fresh.
CP: Since losing your vision, how has your approach to cooking changed? How has it stayed the same?
CH: I obviously have to use my other four senses to manage my way around the kitchen. I depend a lot more on sound, smell, touch, and taste. This has taught me to be much more aware with all my senses in every situation in life, not just in the kitchen. I’ve always respected the kitchen space, but perhaps losing my vision has increased this respect. My passion for cooking remains the same.
CP: In the last several decades, we have witnessed enormous leaps in assistive technology. What role does technology play in your life, and how do you foresee that landscape changing as digital tools continue to move forward?
CH: I would not be able to do what I do without my assistive technology. I would not be able to conduct this interview, cook, check email, participate in social media, handle seemingly simple tasks like banking and bill-paying, and so on. I appreciate those who dedicate their time to advancing the independence of those with disabilities and vision loss. I think with these continuing advancements, the stigma of disability will slowly dissipate, and the world will see how capable we really are, with just a little adaptation, adjustment, and assistance.
You maintain an active presence online and in social media, including a video series on YouTube. How do you think the Internet has changed the opportunities and experiences for people with low vision?
The internet is probably the greatest invention/discovery of this century. It has changed virtually everyone’s lives. Think back to the age before Google Maps. We were using thick binders of Key Maps or a tattered print map that we could never fold up properly and fit into our glove compartments. We had to write our letters with paper and pen, and then wait to send them off in the mail. We wouldn’t be able to see how our loved ones changed day by day until we were reunited in the same room. This is not to say there are not repercussions to this ever-changing digital age, but now I can buy my groceries online and have them delivered to me, schedule car rides to and from destinations, buy clothes and other needs online, etc. I can research certain ingredients online instead of going to the library and looking them up in an encyclopedia. It has helped me live more independently in spite of my vision loss.
You earned a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing. How do you approach your writing?
It’s important to make it part of your routine. Of course, it is quite difficult with my schedule, but I at least try to write something regularly, even if it’s just an exercise or blogging. I’ve found writing to be a much more difficult craft than expected, so I really admire those who do it not only regularly but well. I find that having a small writing circle or partner that can keep you accountable or with whom you can share your work candidly is also helpful.
Through your writing, your appearance on MasterChef, and your online presence, you have made your experiences as a blind professional visible in the public sphere. How do you balance your role as a sort of ambassador for the blind community with simply being a chef and excelling in your professional life? Is that balance ever difficult to maintain?
I’m fortunate that I just do what I do, do what I like to do, and that’s been considered ambassadorial for the blind community. I just live my life according to my will, and that’s been well received, and I’m grateful for that. I think people appreciate my openness and honesty, and anyway, people are smart and would be able to call anyone’s bluff in a second. Yes, it can be disconcerting when people question how I can be so capable, but that’s the platform I’ve been given being in the position I’m in: to dispel the myths that blind people are incapable of living life.
Exceptions seeks to provide a platform for people across the visual ability spectrum to share their stories and creative ideas. What role do you think storytelling and self-expression through the creative arts play in our human experience?
Vision loss has made me into a much more compassionate person than I was 15 years ago. I think stories do the same thing: they help a reader live another’s life, see things through their eyes (no pun intended), walk a day in their shoes per se. Stories seek to connect humankind, and like much of the creative arts, they seek to express ideas that otherwise cannot be verbally depicted.
You wear many hats—chef, writer, activist, and so on. Who are some of the important people who help keep all the balls in the air? How would you describe your various communities?
I’m blessed to have such a supportive network of friends and family. I have always been very good at keeping in touch with people from all walks of my life, from elementary school up to grad school, faith communities, and so on. All these different people fulfill different roles in my life, whether it be questions or discussions I want to have about books, writing, food, travel, fashion trends, health, pop culture, current events, etc. Humans are naturally social beings, and I think it’s vital to have community. It doesn’t mean you need to have a wide network of friends, but you need at least a few people on whom you can depend, those who are willing to be honest with you, challenge you, and love you.
Is there anything you would like to say to our audience of writers and artists in the Exceptions community?
Life is hard. Vision loss is hard. Art is hard. But I think these hardships are what sculpt us into better characters, better versions of ourselves. Learn from the challenges, and think about how they can help you become a better person and teach you how to give back to your community. We are all meant to be here on earth. We each have a role to play. Don’t undermine your being here.
Christine Ha is the first ever blind contestant and season 3 winner of the competitive amateur cooking show, “MasterChef” USA, on FOX with Gordon Ramsay, Graham Elliot, and Joe Bastianich. She defeated over 30,000 home cooks across America to secure the coveted MasterChef title, a $250,000 cash prize, and a cookbook deal. Christine also has a Master of Fine Arts from University of Houston’s nationally acclaimed Creative Writing Program. During her time there, she served as Fiction Editor for Gulf Coast: A Journal of Literature and Fine Arts. Christine’s first cookbook, Recipes From My Home Kitchen: Asian and American Comfort Food from the Winner of MasterChef Season 3 on FOX (Rodale, 2013), became a New York Times best seller. Since winning, she has made a guest appearance on the inaugural season of “MasterChef” Vietnam and travels around the globe to give inspiring keynote addresses and cooking demonstrations. Her latest foray into television is a Canadian cooking show on AMI called “Four Senses” (Varner Productions), on which she is a co-host with Carl Heinrich, season 2 winner of “Top Chef” Canada. Christine received the 2014 Helen Keller Personal Achievement Award from the American Foundation for the Blind, a recognition formerly bestowed upon Ray Charles, Patty Duke, and Stevie Wonder among others. Christine lives in Houston, Texas, and plans to open establishments both locally and elsewhere. (Bio adapted from The Blind Cook website.)