On Season Three of MasterChef, judges Chef Gordon Ramsay, restaurateur Joe Bastianich and Chef Graham Elliot determined that home cook Christine Ha was the very best of 30,000 contestants. They named her Winner of MasterChef 2012 and in the process, gave her a platform on which to advocate for the legally blind. A chef who is blind? Yes, Christine is legally blind as evidenced by her self-appointed web address, social media tag and cookbook name, “The Blind Cook”.
Christine lost her vision in her twenties to an autoimmune condition called Neuromyelitis Optica that primarily affects the optic nerves and spinal cord. After experiencing several bouts of optic neuritis (optic nerve inflammation), her optic nerves began to atrophy, deteriorating her sight. It did not, however, deteriorate her life.
The Blind Cook
Christine has never received any formal culinary training and has never worked in a commercial kitchen. She is, and always has been, a home cook. Losing her sight didn’t stop her from cooking, it just changed the parameters.
“It forced me to utilize all four of my remaining senses to figure out food,” she said. “It taught me to tune in to those remaining senses, plus my memory, while cooking. I also learned to trust my intuition more. In fact, that is the very subject of my next cookbook, on which I’m currently working.”
Winning MasterChef also gave Christine a worldwide platform from which to advocate for those living with low vision and legal blindness and who may be “marginalized by society” she said. She has spoken at events for the National Federation for the Blind, the American Foundation for the Blind, and the American Council for the Blind. She has traveled to the Dominican Republic, Jordan, and the Balkans to conduct social advocacy work and raise awareness for the vision impaired and their right to social justice.
Christine also expands her advocacy through advisory boards and national awareness campaigns. She serves on the advisory board for Aira, a revolutionary new technology that employs tiny cameras mounted on wearable devices (like Google glasses) and instant feedback from on-call audio agents. The system helps those who are blind experience the world and navigate their surroundings. “I love that it offers more independence to those who are blind and low vision,” said Christine. “I use Aira regularly to help me go through paperwork on my desk or identify ingredients in my kitchen.”
Christine is also an ambassador for the AT&T Experience More campaign, an innovative social project that celebrates how blind/low vision individuals experience more of life through their actions, passions and use of technology. “I’ve done videos and spoken at events on behalf of the campaign mainly to tell people my story of how vision loss did not stop me from pursuing what I love”, she said.
Yet, despite Christine’s notoriety and global platform, she suffers the same difficulties as all people with low vision and blindness. She says her biggest daily challenges are coping with “the stigma, dismissal, disregard, and sometimes disrespect from others in society”. It may seem incongruous to her fame, but it shines a light on why advocates for the blind and low vision take their work so very seriously.
Inside the MasterChef competition
It all started with a question amongst the MasterChef producers; Is there such a thing as a blind cook? They conducted an online search and found Christine’s blog, theblindcook.com. The producers contacted her to ask if she would be interested in becoming a contestant. Christine’s husband is a fan of judge Chef Gordon Ramsay so he encouraged Christine to audition. “The rest is history” she says.
Except for a few small allowances, Christine had to compete just like everyone else.
“The producers hired an aide for me who acted as my eyes and legs during the competition. She would guide me to the pantry and answer my questions about how my food looked. For example, I could ask her if the meat on the pan was red, pink, brown, or black. Depending on her answer, I would then know if my meat was raw, caramelized, or burnt. When we had to recreate a dish, I was allowed to put my hands on the dish to “see” what it looked like. Other than that, the rules remained the same for all of us.”
Winning was exciting and as Christine puts it, “I prefer not to be regarded as the amazing person who won MasterChef in spite of being blind. I’d rather just be known as the person who won MasterChef…and yes, I happen to be blind.”
That, in a sentence, captures her philosophy of life and the path she carved out to live with blindness, a path that can help others as well. “It is so important to seek and seize opportunities,” Christine says. “Life isn’t made of handouts, so you have to be proactive in figuring out how to attain support and a community of likeminded individuals. There are programs, instructors, and counselors out there to help rehabilitate newly blind folks back into society, so be your own advocate.”
What’s next for Christine?
Christine is now working on a second cookbook that teaches people how to cook with intuition, using all their senses. She continues to do “pop-up” cooking sites around the world and suspects it may lead to opening her own “small food spot” someday. She is also hard at work growing her social media presence, where you can follow her on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and her blog. That’s not all – Christine and her husband are considering making cooking videos.
Living with low vision and blindness certainly isn’t as easy as visionaries like Christine Ha make it look. However, their power to inspire reaches farther and lives on well beyond the run of a high-profile TV show. Christine said that the most valuable lesson she learned on MasterChef was to “trust her gut”, but that it is still an “ongoing lesson” for her. If someone like Christine can cook her way to the top of 30,000 contestants by trusting her gut, it’s a good bet that that ongoing lesson will serve the rest of us well too.