Christine Ha: From MasterChef To Home Kitchen

When Christine Ha won MasterChef in 2012, she blew the reality TV show judges away with her Vietnamese influenced cooking. But what really impressed viewers was that she had total control in the kitchen, even though she's blind. Host Michel Martin speaks to Christine Ha about her new cookbook Recipes from my Home Kitchen.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. You might remember our next guest from her star making turn on the Fox TV reality show, "MasterChef." If you watched it, you probably remember her perfect apple pie or the Vietnamese dishes her mother taught her that ultimately won her the title.

And it's Asian-American Heritage Month and one of the ways our next guest shows her pride in that heritage is through her cooking. Oh, and you might remember, she's also legally blind. If you don't here's a clip of her "MasterChef" audition with Chef Gordon Ramsay.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MASTERCHEF")

GORDON RAMSAY: In the history of MasterChef, we've never had a blind contestant. Welcome.

CHRISTINE HA: Thank you.

RAMSAY: What are you cooking?

HA: I'm cooking Vietnamese comfort food. It's a catfish braised in a clay pot and I pickled vegetables to go with it.

RAMSAY: OK. Christine, you've got five minutes to complete that dish. Christine?

HA: Yes, chef.

RAMSAY: Were you born blind?

HA: No, chef. Maybe about 10 years ago, I was diagnosed with an auto-immune condition that affected my nerves, my spinal cord and my optic nerves and so I lost my vision gradually over the past 10 years.

MARTIN: Well, after all of that grilling, Christine Ha came out on top in season three, winning the $250,000 prize and now she's just out with her first cookbook, "Recipes From My Home Kitchen: Asian and American Comfort Food," and she is with us now.

Welcome back. Thank you so much for joining us. Congratulations.

HA: Thank you.

MARTIN: So how does it feel after all you've done since then to listen back to that first interview, those first couple days on "MasterChef?"

HA: It still kind of gives me chills down my spine. It's just interesting to try to tap back into that memory because it seems so long ago, but then it's not and it's just - I feel like life has changed a lot since then for me.

MARTIN: Has it gone into hyper-drive, in a way?

HA: Yes, definitely. It feels like it's been nonstop since the show has been airing. It's definitely been exciting and life is different.

MARTIN: How did you decide what you wanted to focus on for your first cookbook?

HA: I think that I really thought about the sorts of recipes that I liked to cook on the show, what did well. I knew that a lot of people were curious about what sort of recipes I made on the show and they would want to recreate it at home, so I definitely wanted to include the recipes that I made successfully and it's a lot of comfort food. At the end of the day, that's my favorite type of food to eat and so I think that's a good representation of my culinary style, so that's what I wanted to have in my first cookbook.

MARTIN: Well, I think a lot of people are familiar with what we consider American comfort food and you feature recipes like spaghetti and meatballs or they always think it's funny that people consider spaghetti to be an American comfort food, but we'll just - but that is true. But you also have recipes that you call Asian comfort food and I think it's kind of poignant, if you don't mind my mentioning here, that you dedicate the book to your parents and especially, as you say in the book, my mother, who lives on through me and these recipes.

Your mother passed away when you were 14. Can you talk a little bit about how she influenced you?

HA: Yes. So I grew up eating her food, obviously, at home and I was an only child and I just took it for granted, as many children do, about their childhoods. I just thought that good food by your mother was just something that everyone had at home and it wasn't until she passed away that I realized I really missed her cooking and the food that I grew up eating and I didn't know how to cook and I never really followed her around in the kitchen at all growing up. I thought I would just have time later in life to learn cooking from her.

And it wasn't until I went to college that I really thought about the food that I grew up eating and I really missed it and so I decided to buy a cookbook and try from there and then eventually think about the sorts of foods that she made and how she made it and the ingredients that went into it and the little twists that she would put into certain dishes and I tried to do the same. And that's how I came up with a lot of recipes that are influenced by her.

MARTIN: You know, I think your story will probably resonate with a lot of people from different backgrounds, you know, not just immigrant backgrounds where you kind of don't really appreciate what you have until it's gone because you also talk in the book about how you used to try to trade your mom's Vietnamese eggrolls for your classmate's spaghetti. I'm sure that - I mean, I don't know. That's so funny that you kind of - I think a lot of us would be fighting over those eggrolls now.

HA: Yeah. Now, I don't think - I would hoard those like crazy. I even hoard them now when I make it myself.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with TV's MasterChef, Christine Ha. She writes a blog called The Blind Cook. She's just out with her first cookbook after winning season three on "MasterChef," which is on Fox TV.

You also give some - I can't help but notice - you give some sort of inside information about what it was like to compete on the program, which I found really interesting - and again, I think applicable to people even if they aren't competing on an intense reality show. Talk about the salmon, if you would. The whole thing with the salmon, how you wanted to make one thing but then you got kind of - you threw yourself off. You kind of psyched yourself out. Do you want to tell that story?

HA: Yeah. So I think that was actually a really strong turning point for me. So we had this challenge where Felix, who was the winner of the previous challenge, got to assign each of us a fish to cook with. And she and I are friends, and we're still very good friends. And on the show, you know, she even says I love Christine, that's why I'm giving her the salmon, this big, beautiful, pink salmon that's fresh. And I myself love salmon sashimi, so I thought, OK, well, I should serve it up somehow raw because that's the way I like to eat it. But in my head I did psych myself out and I thought, well, the judges are going to say I don't have any technique if I just slice up a fish and don't apply any heat to it.

HA: So I went against my instincts and decided to cook the salmon, which I myself don't like to personally eat and it ended up being disastrous. It was overcooked. I didn't even like it myself. I was unhappy with the dish. The judges did get me on that and I think after that I really thought about it and I was defiant against like any possibility of that happening again in the future. So I told myself from that point on I was always going to cook whatever I would want to eat myself and that I could stand behind and defend wholeheartedly, no matter what. And I think that was the turning point where I felt like I could finally trust my intuition from that point on.

MARTIN: How do you think a home cook could apply that lesson?

HA: I think that food can be very subjective. I think sometimes home cooks get intimidated by what other people are telling them they should or shouldn't like. At the end of the day, it's really about what you like to eat and don't worry so much about how other people perceive your food. But if you like to eat it, then by all means, I think that's really the way to follow your instincts and I think that's a way to cook from your heart and cook with true passion is when you really believe in the food that you're cooking. So don't worry so much about what other people think.

MARTIN: I wonder if that also applies to kind of the fancy factor, which is that maybe because food has become such a big thing in this country that people are intimidated about just enjoying simple things and feel that they have to be, you know, super fancy in order to feel like they're cooking, maybe?

HA: Yeah. No, I completely agree. I completely agree because I think that's exactly why I sort of wanted to turn it around with my cookbook and I wanted to make food accessible again to the home cook. A lot of those things are great but it's not what you're doing when you come home after, you know, nine hours of work and you have kids and a spouse to feed or you don't want to be pulling out like the crazy fancy stuff or having to brown the top of like some dish or whatever with these crazy equipments or using liquid nitrogen or making things into foam or whatever and it's not to knock people that do that.

MARTIN: Right. You do not do that when you get home? I was going to say, what? You don't do that when you get home? You don't pull out your home torch and like...

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: And a creme brulee glaze?

HA: Yet it's not to knock people that do that, you know, that's all great too, but I myself personally, that's not my normal cooking style at home.

MARTIN: When we last spoke, you said that if you won the contest you were going to open - or you wanted to open - an ice cream shop with creative flavors, and you're also thinking about a gastropub in your hometown of Houston. So what's happened with those plans? Anything?

HA: Yes. So I'm actually on trying to move forward with the gastropub. I have a formal business plan put together. I'm putting that through the banks to see how much I can qualify for funding and might seek some outside partners and investors and I'm trying to make that happen probably within the next year or so, so that would be a dream - another dream - come true.

MARTIN: Well, a shame about the ice cream shop not being open yet because Memorial Day is coming up and that's a good time for people to enjoy some pie and ice cream along with some, you know, barbecue and things. So do you have something in the cookbook? What do you recommend for Memorial Day?

HA: Oh, for Memorial Day. Well, Memorial Day is when people start breaking out with their grill. So there's a few recipes that use the grill in my cookbook. One that's super simple and delicious is a teriyaki chicken and pineapple skewers. And that just puts an Asian twist on what you would think of as a typical American barbecue. So that it gives a little bit of a Japanese flavor to it. And also I have the grilled beef short ribs, which is Korean in nature, and that's something that my in-laws actually cook for all of our birthdays all the time. And it's great because it's not too difficult, but it's very, very delicious and it smells great and those are things that you can just pop on the grill and impress your guests.

MARTIN: OK. Well, we want to do that too. We want to keep it simple but we also want to impress our guests. I mean who are we kidding, right, Chef? You know, before we let you go, I noted that as Gordon Ramsay certainly didn't mince words at the beginning of the interview with you asking you about your sight. Just thinking about how you think about yourself now, I know that your blog was called The Blind Cook and so you certainly don't shy away from it, but you also make clear you don't want to be a gimmick, but you do want to be the inspiration. And I'm interested in just, you know, how you think about those things now.

HA: That's a really good question. I don't necessarily think that people should always come up to me and find it amazing that I'm able to put on my own makeup or that I'm able to chop an onion by myself, but I understand too that those things can be inspiring. So I think if anything I want people to take away from is that, you know, wow, she can get over this obstacle and achieve her dreams, that's the bigger picture and that's the more important thing that I would want others to see and understand that. I really think people have more inside themselves than they give themselves credit for and more strength than they know, and it's only when you really put to that test that you really can see yourself overcome it and I just want people to know that it's possible for everyone.

MARTIN: Christine Ha's new cookbook is called "Recipes From My Home Kitchen " She was kind enough to join us from our New York bureau. Chef Ha, thank you so much for speaking with us

HA: Thank you so much for having me.

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