MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I think I'm on firm ground when I say that reality TV is not the place most of us go looking for heroes. But this season, many viewers are finding inspiration, as well as some awesome cooking tips, on Fox's cooking competition, "MasterChef."
People are tuning in to watch Vietnamese-American grad student Christine Ha because of moments like this one, where her apple pie is being judged by Chef Gordon Ramsay.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MASTERCHEF")
GORDON RAMSAY: What do you think this pie looks like?
CHRISTINE HA: I think it probably looks like a pile of rubbish.
RAMSAY: Visually, it looks stunning.
HA: Thank you, chef.
RAMSAY: The sugar has almost glazed the pastry and it looks as delicious as Frank's, so stop doubting yourself. Be bold.
HA: Yes, chef.
MARTIN: Gordon Ramsay had to describe the pie to her because Christine Ha is legally blind. She cooks in the competition with the aid of a helper and it has impressed the judges and the fans, not to mention the notoriously tough Gordon Ramsay.
And Christine Ha is with us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.
HA: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: And congratulations on having tamed the beast.
HA: Thank you.
MARTIN: At least, so far.
MARTIN: What was that moment like for you? I mean, I'm scared just looking at him.
HA: Well, I guess it's an advantage because I didn't have to look at him, in a way, so I think it was just an incredible experience in that moment, just having a lot of self-doubt and then having Chef Ramsay tell me that my pie actually looked very delicious. And, you know, it was hard to believe and, at the same time, I think I just had a rush of pride.
MARTIN: When did you start to lose your sight, if you don't mind my asking? And how did that change the way you cook?
HA: I first started losing my vision in one of my eyes back in 1999, when I was an undergraduate in college and it progressively got worse over the years and it affected both of my eyes. And I would say in 2004 was when I had to stop driving, but I could still walk around independently without aid of anyone or with a cane. In 2007, my vision deteriorated to where it is now, where I do have to use a cane or assistance with someone helping to guide me.
And I would say that it changed my way of cooking just because I had to sort of, quote, unquote, "visualize food in a different way." You know, I can't see things anymore, so I have to depend a lot more on all of my other senses to bring dishes together.
MARTIN: Did you ever consider stopping cooking?
HA: I did. I think, when I first started losing my vision and it got very difficult to handle things like knives and the stove, I really did hesitate to get back into the kitchen and it was sort of a huge loss that I was mourning because I love food and I loved cooking and I was just feeling like I started to get good at it, and then I had to sort of sit back and not do any of that.
For a long time, I sat around feeling very idle and feeling sorry for myself and I don't think life was happy in that moment. And so I think you're happiest when you're keeping yourself busy and doing things that you love, and so just like adjusting to anything in life, you know, it was just a gradual situation where I kind of push myself to challenge myself doing small things, taking small steps at a time and then I would guess it just kind of snowballed and led into bigger things.
MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin and if you just joined us, we're speaking with Christine Ha. She is competing on the reality TV show, "MasterChef," and one of the things that stands out about her is that she is legally blind.
And I just want to mention that, for people who might be offended that we're actually focusing on the fact of your being blind, you do blog as The Blind Cook.
MARTIN: How did that come about?
HA: Well, I'm currently a graduate student in creative writing and, you know, being in creative writing, I sort of have to pore over every sentence and every word that I write ,and it's, you know, oftentimes, very laborious. And so I kind of wanted an outlet where I could just free write and not edit myself so much and so my husband put together a blog for me and he bought the domain name, TheBlindCook.com, and it was a space that I could go to and write about things that I cared about, you know, such topics for the vision impaired or things about food and cooking. Those are things that I think about on a daily basis.
And so it was sort of a place for me to go and just write freely and not have to edit every word and, you know, think about every sentence I write, and it was just an exercise of sorts for me.
MARTIN: But it's also helpful because, I mean, how many people have vision impairment and, you know, might want to figure out how they can continue to operate at that high of a level.
On the other hand, you know, you said something interesting. You were on the bottom three on one episode and you said, I'm not here to just be an inspiration. I want to be taken seriously. Do you think people aren't or weren't?
HA: I think, originally, coming on to the show, being in the top 100, I felt like a lot of the other contestants thought I was there just as a TV gimmick and that Fox was bringing me in for ratings and, you know, I kind of bear that burden on my shoulders through a lot of the show. And, originally, when I came on the show, I did want to be an inspiration for everyone in America whether, you know, they have a disability or not, and have people know that they can overcome all sorts of challenges and obstacles to achieve their dreams.
You know, the longer I've been on "MasterChef," I think the sort of inspiration that I wanted to be sort of morphed into something more and I realized that, the longer I was there, the more I wanted so badly to win the whole competition. So I think it sort of turned into something that I just wanted to be comparable to everyone else and have everyone recognize that I'm not just an inspiration, but that I am able to do everything everyone can do. Just - I have to do it differently.
MARTIN: You have mad skills and you...
HA: Yes. That's what...
MARTIN: ...want some respect. Thank you very much.
HA: Exactly, Michel.
MARTIN: OK. So can we persuade you to give us a hint about how things turn out? I know we're supposed to wait to hear how it turns out. I'm trying to think of what we could entice you with to give us a hint.
HA: I would just say, you know, just keep watching the show and, you know, I do tell people that I go in every day and, with each challenge, I try my best and, sometimes, it's an A game and, sometimes, you know, it's a D game or maybe an F game. So you just never know, but you just have to keep on watching.
MARTIN: If you do win the $250,000 prize, besides buying us a nice present, what - some beautiful TELL ME MORE T-shirts or something. I know you're going to do that. Have you thought about what you might do or you don't want to get the cart before the horse?
HA: You know, it's funny because I originally would say, oh, I would pay off some medical bills because I do have that stacking up. But, you know, Frank on the show - he's a stockbroker and a financial advisor and he always tells me - he's like, Christine, you don't want to take the money and pay off your bills immediately. You need to invest it in dividend stocks and blah, blah, blah.
So I don't know. I really have no idea what I would do with that money, but I think part of it - you know, my culinary dream is to open up certain businesses. Like, I wanted to open up an ice cream business with creative flavors, so I might try to set aside some money to start that business and, also, I want to open a gastro pub, where I think about, you know, what sort of places I like to frequent and I like to go to a place that's laid back with some good music where I can, you know, have some craft beer and eat some small plates of really delicious foods from locally sourced ingredients with friends. And I think that's a place that I would also want to open for people in Houston.
MARTIN: Did I mention that we have a hot sauce, a TELL ME MORE hot sauce?
HA: No. I didn't know.
MARTIN: You'll be buying some TELL ME MORE hot sauce. Maybe you could incorporate that into one of your challenges. What do you think?
HA: Oh, yeah. Maybe I could.
MARTIN: Christine Ha is a contestant on the reality TV show, "MasterChef." She also blogs as The Blind Cook and she was kind enough to join us from KUHF in her hometown of Houston, Texas.
Christine Ha, thank you so much for joining us. We appreciate it.
HA: Thank you so much. It's my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.