Hubert Burda Media

Masterchef Secrets from Christine Ha

The blind cook who won hearts and the cooking competition lets us in on a few tasty tidbits.

Pick up our August issue for a full feature on inspirational home cook Christine Ha, whose blindness seemed of little obstacle when she was taking the top title in the Masterchef competition that aired in 2013. For details on her pop-up at Ozone, and exactly how she kicked Gwyneth Paltrow’s ass, you’ll have to wait till the issue hits newsstands – in the meantime, we feature a few outtakes from our interview with Ha, from how her next cookbook will save you from burnt baked goods to why she has to send her husband meeting requests just to get his attention at home and if she really thinks 90 percent of her friends wouldn’t survive the Masterchef experience.

What’s your first food memory?

My mom and dad were both from Vietnam so we ate a lot of Vietnamese comfort food. They came over with not a lot of money so it was always the not very expensive cuts of meat, like pork belly. I realised when I went to school and was packing those lunches that it was really different from everyone else’s, and that was really weird because my lunch was considered bad smelling or odd.

Why did you decide to go down the reality TV route?

My husband John is a Gordon Ramsay fan, he watches Hell’s Kitchen, and he was like, you should try out. It’ll be interesting because probably no one has ever seen a person who can’t see, cook. So in my head, the process was, as someone who’s an artist or a creative writer, I thought I would just go and come back with some interesting stories to write about. I didn’t anticipate getting as far as I did, or even getting through so many rounds of auditions and getting on the show. [It was] more for the experience because I feel like life is all about experiences.

What are you like in the kitchen? Are you a Gordon?

Not at all. To work with me, there has to be a lot of verbal communication. So every time I go into a new kitchen with a new team, it’s teaching them how to work with someone vision-impaired. People forget all the time, because they’re not used to it, so they move things around and don’t tell me, but it’s about educating people to say things like “I’m on your right now”, “It’s hot”, “I’m moving a knife here”. And because I can’t see everything that’s going on, I tend to delegate, and I believe in the competence of the staff. As executive chef here I make sure everything is on the dish, it’s on time, when we drop things in the fryer.

You’ve been doing a lot of these pop-up restaurants, like this one at Ozone.

You get to try different concepts, which is one of the most rewarding and fun things that I do, curating menus and coming up with dishes for menus. Curating menus is one of my favourite things – I wake up in the middle of the night to write things on my phone. So I love pop-ups because you’re not doing the same thing day in and day out. If it bombs, you only have a few days of service!

Tell us about the next cookbook you’re working on.

It’s going to be one that teaches people to cook with more intuition. The way people learn when they are self-taught is to read a recipe, follow it exactly, and learn from their mistakes, which I think is perfectly acceptable when you don’t have people teaching you things or you don’t have that intuition or confidence yet. I would read a recipe and it would say “Roast something at 400 degrees for 60 minutes”. And I would do that even though the oven is smoking, something is black. I’d be like, no, I have to wait another 15 minutes. I want to teach people how to cook the way I do now, which is with more intuition. Because I don’t have my sense of sight, I have to taste things, feel things, smell things as I go through the cooking process.

If you were portrayed as an angel on the show, your husband is like the wind beneath your wings, your staunch supporter. Is he really the most amazing husband?

Yes and no. He definitely is, but he believes in tough love and he wants me to be independent. He doesn’t want to coddle me, and he respects that I want to be independent to a certain degree. It does get easy to fall back as a crutch on my visual impairment and say, oh, I can’t see this, just do it for me. He’ll tell me no, I’m going to teach you once, and then you’re going to do it on your own. In some ways my friends joke all the time because after 10 years of knowing me he still walks me into branches. He’s not really good at multi-tasking so he’ll try to navigate on his phone and he’s guiding me and he forgets to tell me there’s a curb. So people are like, I can’t believe you don’t know how to walk your wife! And he’ll be like, tough love, tough love. We’re a really good team. He pushes me but he’s also caring. Not in a cheesy way. It’s a fun relationship.

And the two of you travel together now as well, so you’re together quite often.

He used to work in an office – by trade he’s in digital marketing. He decided to try to work remotely as a contractor, so he could start travelling with me, because sometimes I’d be away for a month. It got to be hard, so now he works from home. In the beginning we shared the same home office and it was so annoying. We’d be back to back and I’d turn around and tap him on the shoulder and ask him stuff and he’d say, “I’m in the middle of coding, I’m in the zone. Don’t ask me.” He made me start sending him meeting requests! So now we set up meetings and go to another room and it’s like our conference room. I learned that you have to have boundaries.

What’s the question you get asked the most about Masterchef?

What’s Gordon Ramsay really like?

What are some of the common misperceptions about the show?

Some people think it’s really doctored. Editors do sometimes splice in a certain facial expression that maybe you did not make at that time, but 60 minutes for a challenge really is 60 minutes. A mystery box really is a mystery box.

People don’t know how hard it is to do TV. I was crying every other episode on the show, but in real life I really don’t cry often. It’s psychologically, mentally, emotionally draining to do a show like that. We film six days a week, eight to 16 hours, you don’t know how long the day will be or when your call time will be the next day, it could be 3am to 10am. We live in hotels sequestered from our families. I was only allowed one phone call home every three weeks and it was monitored, for seven minutes. And they were listening to make sure we don’t say anything like how far we are or what we’re doing. It’s like psychological warfare.

Part of it is American television, they kind of want to break you down so all your emotions come out on camera. It’s very stressful, and people don’t understand, it’s amazing, they think you get to go to Hollywood. I guarantee you 90 percent of my friends would not survive filming a show like that.

Would you do it again?

No. If I knew I was going to win then yes. But otherwise, no.

What was it like to see the show afterwards?I watched it when it was airing but I’ve only seen it once. The only things that surprised me were things that other people said in their confessionals. I would be like, what kind of crap did they say about me behind closed doors?

You’ve been a judge on Masterchef Vietnam. What’s it like on the other side?It’s definitely easier, but it’s still hard work. I knew what it was like to be on the other side, so I would feel bad. I would never be rude to them and I wanted to offer constructive criticism, so I was kind of the mentoring one. But the conditions of filming Masterchef Vietnam were completely different – the budget is entirely different. It’s a fraction. In the US, they get Gordon Ramsay, they get the best culinary producers in the business. In Vietnam, our pantry sometimes had flies in it and it was so hot and we were filming in the summer in monsoon season. Anytime there was loud thunder we would have to break because they would catch it in the audio. I would say television is still very challenging work, but it wasn’t as hard as being a contestant.