Home cooks can't ask for anyone much more motivating than MasterChef's latest winner.
On Monday's Season 3 finale, Christine Ha beat out Josh Marks to win the title of MasterChef, a cookbook deal and a $250,000 grand prize. It's an inspiring feat, not only because Christine is blind as a result of a rare autoimmune disease, but also because not too long ago, she knew nothing about cooking.
"I didn't even know how to steam rice in a rice cooker," the graduate student from Houston, Texas confesses to TVGuide.com. "I was a disgrace to many Vietnamese mothers I'm sure."
Christine was spurred to learn her way around a kitchen after leaving the world of pre-made cafeteria food at the dorms at college. "I only knew how to make scrambled eggs and toast and instant ramen," she says. "But once I got an apartment and I had a kitchen I knew that I had to start learning. I went to a secondhand bookstore and bought one or two cookbooks. I think they were Vietnamese recipes. I just looked through there for the easiest recipes and started cooking. It was all trial and error."
She's come a long way from not knowing how to operate a one-button rice cooker. On MasterChef, she's become known for her unerring palate and expertise with Southeast Asian cuisine, which influenced her three-course finale menu: a twist on a Thai-inspired papaya salad, caramelized braised pork belly with rice and coconut-lime sorbet. "For the final menu I wanted to stick with what has been servicing me well in the last several challenges," Ha explains. "I learned that cooking with flavors that I know best has been what's helped me. I wanted to go with three dishes that would make sense going together. The entree was a much richer, deeper and heavier dish, so that's why I wanted the appetizer to be refreshing. By dessert, I wanted to move it back to something light and refreshing."
Check out what else Christine has to say about the competition, the ingredient that will haunt her and what's next for her culinary future:
What was your first thought when you won?
Christine Ha: My first reaction when I won was just utter shock. I just could not believe it. I was shocked for probably 48 hours. I didn't realize how much I wanted it and how much it was attainable.
What was your mindset going into the final competition?
Ha: I was thinking that I would much rather go home [in] third place than second place. Because I felt like I have so much more to lose if you make it that far, being the first loser. So, I knew going into the finale that I have to try everything I can to win the whole thing. So, it was very nerve-racking and anxiety-inducing, as I'm sure it is for Josh as well. This is going to be the most important meal that we've cooked in our entire lives.
Were there any bumps in creating the actual dishes during the final competition?
Ha: I had a Japanese mandoline slicer that was not functioning correctly. So, things were not julienning properly. I had this other equipment that turns vegetables into a noodle-type texture. It'll shred your cucumber into noodles. That thing was also malfunctioning. My cucumbers were all soggy. I had to actually rethink my menu at the last minute and scrap some of the ingredients and just work with what I had. Another big bump was the way they set up the final kitchen. It's kind of like a horseshoe shape. I had just gotten used to the station and then they changed everything up and things are moved around. The drawers have changed, equipment's placed in different places. The culinary team gave both Josh and me a walkthrough so we had an idea of where things are located. It's obviously going to be easier when you have a set of eyes to see it.
Who is the scariest judge? Did you have an intimidating moment you experienced on the show?
Ha: The scariest judge is definitely Joe [Bastianich]. He's the most intimidating. The scariest moment was being in the bottom two with Stacey when we had to re-create that Japanese platter in that elimination round when it was the tag team. That challenge, I just felt like there was no way that we were going to be able to succeed at that.
Is there an ingredient you had to cook with on the show that will haunt you?
Ha: Oh yeah. Salmon. ... I love eating salmon sashimi and salmon sushi. I love salmon raw. I do not like it cooked. I second-guessed myself in the fish challenge when Felix thought she was doing me a favor by giving me a beautiful salmon. In my head I was like, "Felix, how good of friends are we? How many times have I told you I do not like to cook salmon." I was afraid of serving it raw, and that they would say, "You used no technique." I had even sliced the fatty salmon belly and set it aside because I was thinking, "Maybe I'm going to do something with this." But then I second-guessed myself and cooked something that I would not enjoy eating. That landed me in the bottom. I remember for a long time after that I was like I cannot even think about or eat salmon I was so pissed. But I got over it.
You made a gorgeous fried chicken for the "legs" challenge. Can you explain your decision to use blood orange in it?
Ha: Something I learned cooking at MasterChef is that you really have to balance all of the flavors together. [With] everything you cook, there's a balance of bitterness, sweetness, saltiness, umami, spiciness. Before I came on the show, one thing that I was often missing was acidity. Being on the show I learned that helps. If a dish feels too heavy, if it's too buttery or too oily, usually something acidic, whether it's vinegar or lemon or lime, helps brighten up the dish and rounds it out well. With fried chicken I know that that's something that can be heavy. I thought maybe I could add acidity to it to kind of bring it up to the next level. I decided when you zest it, it has a different flavor than if you just actually squeeze the juice in. So, I just kind of marinated it in that and then added a little bit at the end.
Will that be something we'll be seeing in your cookbook or anything else from the show? Are there other menu items from the show that we might see?
Ha: Yes. In the MasterChef Ultimate Cookbook for Season 3, which is going to be on sale this month, I heard that that fried chicken recipe will be in there. I think my catfish from my audition will be in there. I believe maybe the last mystery box I won with the stir fry noodles and seared scallops might be in there. [And] the crab cocktail. Those things will also be in my personal cookbook.
Is there a concept for your personal cookbook?
Ha: Because I'm a writer as well, I definitely want to have my input in that cookbook. So, I'm hoping to make it sort of semi-memoir-ish. It would probably have me writing about my journey with food and just a little bit about why I love food so much and what brought me to cooking. I think that'll probably be alongside the recipes. I might write about each recipe. But I definitely know that I want it to also reflect upon my personal journey with food.
Is there anything beyond cookbooks that you wanted to do with your food now? Is there something around Houston?
Ha: I actually would love to partner up with people who know the restaurant industry, find investors. I would love to open a gastropub and design the menu and have a lot of input in the ambiance of it and then just have a rotating menu like every month according to what's in season or what inspires me. Then design that menu and have good craft beers on tap. It's a place that I would like to go to and hang out with my friends. That's an ultimate dream, but I know that's a huge commitment. Something a little bit on the smaller scale would be to create an ice cream business. Before I went on the show I was already experimenting with creative ice cream flavors. ... That was something I wanted to kind of start up just using all natural organic local ingredients and making crazy flavors that you wouldn't normally expect.
What for you is comfort food?
Ha: Comfort food is when you eat something and it evokes a certain positive emotion. With Indian food, I always judge a place by their chicken tikka masala because that's a dish that I can make well. With Vietnamese food, there's so much, but the first thing that comes to mind is obviously pho, the Vietnamese noodle soup. Italian, I love old fashioned pasta with a red sauce and some vegetables. And of course pizza.
What's the funniest reaction that you've had from a fan?
Ha: I'm always afraid to go to the grocery store now and pick out things to put in my cart because I know that if someone recognizes me they're definitely going to look in my cart. Sometimes I have five gallons of ice cream in my cart. So, I think about those things. There's been people who meet me at the grocery store and they want to take a picture and their hands are shaking because they're so starstruck. It's kind of a surreal feeling because I didn't get into the cooking thing to become famous. So, it's a weird feeling to have people recognize me and call out my name and I don't know who they are and they're starstruck. It's definitely endearing, but it's a weird, bizarre feeling as well.