Christine Ha Talks MasterChef, Masochism and Multi-tasking with Eating...Our Words
If you are like us, you are in a serious post-MasterChef funk of depression right now. Aside from the fact that it's a bummer anytime a great show ends its season run, we had extra incentive to tune in -- and celebrate -- as we watched Houstonian (and former EOW contributor) Christine Ha knock out the competition to become Season Three MasterChef champion.
Photo courtesy of FOX
Christine chatted with us about her big win and what's next for her as a student, a writer and a chef. Though our interview was conducted over the phone, Christine was as warm and inviting -- and funny -- as she came across on television, and no question was off-limits. How does she operate in her own kitchen? What other contestants' food inspired her? Who is her favorite chef/mentor from MasterChef?
Born in Southern California, Christine grew up in Houston. After attending the University of Texas at Austin, she returned to Houston, where she is now completing her master's thesis -- and basking in the afterglow of her triumphant MasterChef win. She points back to her time as an undergrad as the period when her interest in cooking began.
"I started cooking during my undergrad, kind of out of necessity. Once I moved out of the dorms and had my own small kitchen, I knew I couldn't keep eating fast food; I missed the foods I grew up eating. I went and bought a used Vietnamese cookbook and started trying to re-create the dishes and flavors I grew up eating." There were some inedible results in the early phases, but Christine kept at it, cooking for friends and roommates -- "it's difficult to cook for one!" -- and improved quickly. "I realized I truly enjoyed feeding people," says Christine. "That's what really touched me, and that's how my love for food really grew."
While a graduate student, Christine continued to cook -- calling cooking "an avid hobby" -- as well as working as a fiction editor for the Gulf Coast Literary Journal. She continues, "I was also writing for Eating...Our Words, and that's the way I indulged my interest in food and cooking. I would say cooking was a serious hobby, but nothing that I thought would become a profession."
With so many cooking shows on television to choose from, we wondered what the allure was for Christine to compete on MasterChef. "[It's] for amateur home cooks, and has big-name judges," she explains. "It was something that would push any contestant to their limits, and I'm the kind of person that welcomes a challenge. I guess I'm a masochist in that way! So I decided why the hell not, and just went for it."
The show had never had a visually impaired contestant, and so producers, along with a legal team at FOX, were charged with creating rules for Christine to compete alongside the other contestants. "The rules were there to level the playing field, but not to give me an advantage," says Christine. For example, her aide, Cindy, was never allowed to taste any of Christine's food, nor was she allowed to indicate what the food looked like unless Christine asked a specific question about the appearance of a dish, or component of a dish. "I had to specifically ask her questions: 'Cindy, is the meat red, or bright-red, or pink, or black?' and then she could answer, 'The meat is black.'"
The same specificity was applied when it came to the physical aspect of working in a kitchen. "In terms of getting things from the pantry, or from the equipment room, if I asked Cindy to go and get something for me, I would have to step back from my kitchen and not touch anything on my station while she was gone, even if water was boiling over. Cindy was an extension of me, so to be fair there couldn't be four arms and four legs working," explains Christine. "[Cindy and I] had to work to communicate -- we had never met, and the producers hired her -- so we had to work to get into a groove where we could understand each other."