Christine Ha Talks MasterChef, Masochism and Multi-tasking with Eating...Our Words
Photo courtesy of FOX
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.
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."
In her home kitchen, Christine uses tools designed for the visually impaired, like talking thermometers and food scales. "There is also this thing called a liquid level indicator with sensors, that hooks onto the side of the cup, and beeps so you don't overpour." Christine also utilizes the iPhone voice option to type, Tweet and use her apps; screen readers allow her to use her computer and interact with fans on Facebook and Twitter. "A lot of people wondered if it was really me on Facebook and Twitter -- it was me!"
When it comes to the other MasterChef contestants, Christine is quick to praise everyone. "Everyone on the show has great strengths," she enthuses. "Everyone is strong in their own right." She cites Becky's ability to cook gourmet food, and her knowledge of a variety of techniques, while also praising Josh's experience with many cultures. "All of us have a passion for food, and that drives us to grow and experiment; I would say everyone has strengths and their own special talents."
So, how about the judges? While she won't play favorites, Christine obviously has great affection for Gordon Ramsay. "[He] is the most charismatic. Gordon is a very energetic ball of fire! On his other show he comes off as kind of a dick, but on this show he takes on more of a mentor role. Even when he was harsh, he was trying to help us become better cooks, and better people." Of the other judges, Christine says, "Joe is the most intimidating, so when you get a compliment from him it's the best feeling in the world. And Graham is the same off- and on-camera -- one hundred percent genuine."
As for the immediate future, Christine is looking forward to finishing her cookbook, but her post-show schedule has been pretty hectic. "I have started, but I haven't had a lot of time, and I'm feeling the pressure!" she says. "I need to have a lot of recipes tested and ready by the end of the year. [The cookbook] is slated to be out on shelves by May 2013, and I'm working on it when I can." In addition to doing tons of press and working on the cookbook, Ha is also trying to complete her master's thesis, which she put on hold to compete on the show.
With her busy schedule in mind, EOW had a couple of final, hard-hitting questions for the MasterChef champion/writer/chef: "What do you cook when you're exhausted, and where do you eat when you can't even consider stepping into the kitchen?"
On what she would throw together quickly, Christine considered the contents of her refrigerator and answered, "I find rack of lamb easy to cook, so I'll defrost that and throw it together with some vegetables. For something really pedestrian I'll make some rice, some kind of eggs, and some scallions and vegetables with fish or soy sauce." When she wants someone else to cook for her, Christine stays close to home in the Heights neighborhood: "Something from Hubcap Grill, or maybe Pink's Pizza. If I'm craving Chinese food, I'll have my husband drive to Chinese Café on 610 and Richmond. And I like Five Guys -- it's quick, cheap and right down the street!"
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