By Seth Johnson
While gradually losing vision throughout her 20s because of an autoimmune disorder called neuromyelitis optica, chef Christine Hà persevered in finding ways she could still pursue her love for the culinary arts.
In partnership with the Indiana Blind Children’s Foundation, the “MasterChef” Season 3 winner has led students at the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired in an interactive virtual cooking class and will also serve as the keynote speaker at IBCF’s 2023 Through the Looking Glass Gala set for Oct. 7 at the Renaissance Indianapolis Hotel in Carmel. This year’s “Fund-A-Need” at the gala will support an adaptive culinary arts program for youth who are blind or have low vision.
As part of their culinary arts training, ISBVI students will work through a curriculum supported by Jody May — the first individual who is blind to graduate from Ivy Tech’s culinary arts program. Ivy Tech Culinary Arts School will also serve a supportive role in curriculum design. Additionally, students will receive monthly cooking instruction from a variety of visiting chefs from the Cunningham Restaurant Group over the course of the school year, allowing them to gain even more real-world pointers from local industry experts.
Like so many, Hà started cooking in college out of necessity.
“As a college student, I didn’t have the money to always eat out,” she said. “At that time, I started buying cookbooks, reading the recipes and cooking them word for word, just experimenting in the kitchen.”
After eventually cooking something that both she and her roommates really enjoyed, Hà came to a realization.
“It hit me that I liked to cook,” she said. “It really boils down to being able to create something and make other people happy with my creation.”
While honing her culinary craft, however, Hà was also going through the traumatic experience of losing her sight.
“Each time I lost more and more vision, it felt like I was starting back at square one, where I was having to reteach myself how to use a knife, a stove, and stuff,” she said. “I just had to get up and do it over and over again in the kitchen.”
Nevertheless, Hà persisted in pursuing her culinary passion until she one day found herself competing in Season 3 of Gordon Ramsay’s “MasterChef.” Despite making it onto the show, Hà said she still had to overcome a lot of self-doubt as she continued advancing through each round of the competition.
“One thing I really learned from being on the show was to have more confidence and trust my intuition more,” she said. “I was just getting used to having vision loss at the level that I had it, where I had started using a cane and sighted guide. I also had to learn to read braille before I went on the show. Living as someone with a severe vision impairment was still new to me, so being on a show where I was competing against other contestants who had sight was intimidating.”
But with her three-course meal that consisted of a Thai papaya salad with crab and mixed vegetables as the appetizer, braised pork belly with rice, crispy kale, and maitake mushrooms as the entrée, and coconut lime sorbet with a ginger tuile for dessert, Hà was declared the Season 3 winner of “MasterChef.”
“In spite of my own challenges as someone with a vision impairment, I was always willing to learn and try my best, and that in the end served itself well — I think the judges saw merit in that,” Hà said of her Season 3 victory. “I think the main thing I got out of the competition was just learning to build up my self-confidence in spite of feeling like I had a bigger challenge than some of the other contestants.”
Now the author of the best-selling cookbook “Recipes from My Home Kitchen,” Hà has repeatedly earned recognition from the James Beard Foundation over the course of opening three restaurant concepts in her hometown of Houston.
When asked what advice she’d give to an aspiring chef who also happens to be blind or visually impaired, Hà offered up words of wisdom that can ultimately apply to anyone and everyone.
“One thing I’d say is don’t be afraid to embrace your mistakes,” Hà said. “I think oftentimes we’re really hard on ourselves, and we always expect our first or second attempt to be perfect. But oftentimes, it’s a process. There’s a lot of times where we’ll fail multiple times before we’ve reached success.”
Purchase tickets to the 2023 Through the Looking Glass gala at bit.ly/2023TTLG.