Simple Soul, Big Bite
At Home With Christine Ha, Winner of MasterChef Season 3
“Would you mind leaving your shoes by the door?” asks husband, John, before he escorts me up the stairs toward the aromas of something delightful emanating from the second floor. Life at home is simple for John Suh and his wife, Christine Ha, the first blind contestant on “MasterChef” and winner of its third season. With Jamaican oxtail soup simmering on the stove, they’re relaxing in their sweatpants making dinner—just another typical Sunday.
As we settle into the living room couch with video games piled up in the corner, it becomes clear that life at home with Christine Ha is as honest and real as it gets. Ha lost her eyesight a few years ago to neuromyelitis optica, a disease that causes her immune system to attack the optic nerve and spinal cord. Yet she never let that interfere with living her life to the fullest of her dreams. “The funny thing is, I don’t consider myself a chef,” she says. “I don’t have formal culinary training and I don’t run a commercial kitchen yet. So for me, cooking and food started off more as a hobby. I find joy in serving people something I’ve created.”
Attributing much of her cooking style to growing up in a Vietnamese-American household, she finds inspiration from travel, regional cuisines and other people’s dishes, experimenting when and where she can and regularly reminding herself that it’s okay not to be precise when it comes to cooking.
“I’m constantly experimenting with new ingredients, new methods and new dishes. I can be very detail oriented and methodical and that goes for my personality in general. But I like the freedom that comes with savory foods. Add or take away ingredients; there’s room for error, adjustment and experimentation.” Ha explains that she’s entirely self-taught, learning every step of the way and realizing that the secret is actually no secret at all—it just takes practice. “A lot of people are intimidated by cuisines. By practicing in the kitchen, you realize that a whole head of garlic is too much; you just need a few cloves. Practice is about learning to balance. You get better and more confident.”
Ha uses her trusty eight-inch chef’s knife and cast-iron skillet more than any other tool in her kitchen and recommends these must-haves as the ultimate essentials for any home cook. Well, that and a husband with a green thumb.
With a beautiful backyard garden of rosemary, cilantro, chive, Spanish tarragon, scallion, mint, lemon and lime trees and a fig tree—plus a fridge-full of fresh produce and comfort foods (including a whole chicken, pork ribs, fermented mustard greens and homemade kimchi from John’s mom, to name a few)—Ha loves how you can discover international aisles at most American grocery stores these days. “I think people are much more aware of international ingredients and open to trying new foods, especially here in Houston. I love that you can eat Mexican street tacos or very authentic Vietnamese or find a Japanese market or barbecue or Southern food. There’s so much cultural influence.”
There are three ingredients Ha simply can’t live without: garlic, fish sauce and cilantro. She loves these ingredients so much that she had them lovingly tattooed on her lower back, after winning “MasterChef.” “These three ingredients have influenced my cooking significantly,” she says. “It’s the stuff I grew up eating and that’s exactly what comfort food is all about. Cooking is memories and nostalgia.” “One of my most memorable meals was at Paco Meralgo, a tapas restaurant on our honeymoon in Barcelona. We ate dinner at 10pm. The locals were eating, drinking, smoking … Being in that experience, in that environment, it was the whole experience.”
The pictures on the walls of her home speak volumes of the influence and experiences Ha brings into the kitchen, including her “MasterChef ” apron, so appropriately framed in the hallway as a reminder of her journey. “I knew the show would be difficult but I didn’t realize how stressful it would be. You’re second-guessing your cooking because of something someone says. But then you learn to play the game and cook what you are proud of. That was my philosophy. It was a slow turning point but it’s when I felt more confident. I just did my thing.”
Years after winning “MasterChef,” Ha is still surprised by the opportunities she’s been given. She’s heard stories from fans who have been down, depressed or going through a personal struggle with food—and then they watched her on “MasterChef ” and felt inspired to get better and learn to cook. “Knowing that I’ve been able to make a difference is the most rewarding thing of all.”
As much as she delights in cooking, like most home cooks, she isn’t always in the mood to make dinner. Her go-to for date night, dinner with friends and family, or take out? Houston’s Chinatown for pho. While she may be a tad biased as a Houston native, Ha says Houston is often overlooked and underrated on the national food scene. “We have people from all backgrounds and that’s what makes Houston so great, and it’s reflected in our food. Whether in restaurants, markets or even what people cook in their homes, that’s why I love Houston so much. People always ask me when I’ll open a restaurant in New York or Vietnam … and without a doubt, the first place that would be is in my hometown of Houston.
As I say my goodbyes, she leans in for a hug and jokes about her dog’s separation anxiety as he cries and barks as I head toward the door. And you can bet your bok choy that’s exactly what you’ll remember most about Ha—a warm, welcoming, simple soul with a big bite.
Follow Christine Ha as she continues to cook and inspire at TheBlindCook.com.