Uncommon Sense

Self-taught cook Christine Ha, BBA ’01, inspired millions in 2012 when she won FOX’s MasterChef. Now her career is on the rise again—and blindness never holds her back.

Uncommon Sense

One day in fall 2007, Christine Ha tried to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich—and she couldn’t do it. A year earlier, Ha had prepared an elaborate Thanksgiving feast for her family, but now she found herself throwing the sandwich away in frustration as she wiped jelly off her hands. “It was so depressing to go from making fancy dinners to being unable to make a sandwich,” she says. “I thought I would never cook again.”

Ha was losing her eyesight. It started after her sophomore year at UT, when the computer screen at her finance internship had unexpectedly gone blurry. The next four years were a haze of doctor’s appointments and inconclusive tests. Eventually Ha even had to quit her first post-grad job in software consulting.

After she was finally diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disorder called neuromyelitis optica and told she would lose nearly all her vision, Ha says she felt a measure of relief. “I’m the kind of person who needs a game plan,” she says, “so finally getting a correct diagnosis after four years was a starting point.”

“I’m the kind of person who needs a game plan,” she says, “so finally getting a correct diagnosis after four years was a starting point.”

She decided to try cooking again, with the help of a vocational counselor who coached her as she relearned basic skills. Before long she wasn’t just making peanut-butter sandwiches, she was cooking multi-course dinners—only this time with the aid of a talking thermometer, Braille labels on her stovetop, and extra-long oven mitts. The diagnosis also spurred her to change careers.

“My priorities changed,” Ha says. “I had enjoyed working in finance, but it didn’t fulfill me. I didn’t care about making money anymore.” She pursued her love of cooking and creative writing by enrolling at the University of Houston’s MFA in writing program and starting a blog called The Blind Cook, where she’d post recipes and anecdotes from her kitchen.

Then someone working in the casting department of FOX’s MasterChef typed “blind chef” into Google on a whim and found Ha’s blog. The staffer emailed Ha an invitation to an open casting call for the 2012 season of the popular cooking reality show. She said yes. “I thought they just wanted me as a ratings gimmick,” she says, “but as a writer, I also believe in experiencing everything I can in life, and I thought if anything, I would have some good material for writing when I came back.”

MC_317-Elim_0169Not only did Ha make it onto the show, she beat out 35 other contestants to win the title of MasterChef 2012. She competed in the same timed challenges as all the other contestants, relying on smell, taste, and touch to create dishes on the fly. In one episode, she trembled before notoriously tough judge Gordon Ramsey as he examined her apple pie—a dish, she says, that she was sure she had burned. “It looks stunning,” Ramsey said, admiring the perfect golden-brown crust. He took a bite: “The flavor’s amazing!”

In the finale, Ha put her hand over her face, half-crying and half-laughing, when she was announced as the winner. She says she never expected to be on a TV show, let alone win the grand prize. “When they told me I was going on the show, I packed the least amount of clothing possible,” Ha says, “because I thought, ‘There’s no way.’”

Two years later, she has lots of projects brewing. Ha has published a cookbook of Vietnamese-American comfort food, finished her MFA, and is working on a memoir. She recently hosted a sold-out pop-up dinner in Houston—the public’s first chance to taste her cooking—and is filming a new show, Four Senses, aimed at empowering other visually impaired cooks.

Long-term, Ha dreams of starting her own restaurant, but she’s keeping her options open. “I feel very lucky to have a career that combines my two loves, cooking and writing,” she says. “As long as I can keep doing that, I’m happy.”

Above from top, Ha is crowned MasterChef in the season finale episode; Judge Gordon Ramsey checks in on Ha and her aide. 

Photos courtesy Greg Gayne/FOX.


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