MasterChef winner opens up about what it’s like to lose vision, cooking blind


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Photo source: Facebook.com/MC3Christine

Christine Ha lost her vision several years ago to a rare autoimmune disease called neuromyelitis optica — but that didn’t stop her from winning season 3 of FOX’s cooking competition show “MasterChef.” She shared her experience with the condition and how she overcame its challenges in an “Ask Me Anything” Reddit discussion yesterday.

In 2003, Ha was diagnosed with NMO, which causes optic neuritis — inflammation that results in eye pain and vision loss — and transverse myelitis, which results in weakness, numbness and sometimes paralysis of the arms and legs.  In people with NMO, the immune system attacks and destroys myelin — the fatty sheath that surrounds nerve fibers and helps nerve signals move from cell to cell — in the optic nerves and spinal cord. There currently is no cure.

After several bouts of optic neuritis, Ha’s vision deteriorated, and she compares the quality of her current vision with “shadows and extreme blurriness, like I’m eternally walking through a cloud. Or imagine a mirror foggy with steam right after a hot shower — that’s my world.”

The casting department of “MasterChef” actually contacted Ha after stumbling upon her blog, TheBlindCook.com, in which she writes about her experiences with food and cooking. After reading her bio, they invited her to an open casting call and were impressed enough to select her as a contestant for the show.  Her culinary brilliance blew away the show’s panel of celebrity judges — Gordon Ramsey, Joe Bastianich and Graham Elliot — and she was crowned winner of the season 3 competition.

In yesterday’s Reddit discussion, she candidly answered questions about everything from what it’s like being blind to how her vision loss actually helped make her the MasterChef she is today:


On coping:

  • “Losing your vision is a shitty experience. However, there are a lot of resources out there to help you regain independence. Allow yourself X amount of time to grieve every day, but then hold your head up, surround yourself with good folks, and try to find the new doors that are opening.”


On old habits:

  • “It’s natural for me to ‘look’ at the person to whom I’m speaking or at what I’m doing. I’ve only been vision impaired for about 20% of my life so it’s a hard habit to break.”


On learning to cook:

  • “There is no easy way to learn how to cook. You just have to get in that hot kitchen and do it. Practice will help you improve, but passion will set you on fire (in a good way…not like a real fire — that would be disastrous).”
  • “I think vision loss helped me become a better cook. It made me concentrate more on smell and taste and texture rather than the visual, which so many others get hung up on. I think losing one sense may not necessarily strengthen the others, but it definitely allows you to concentrate more on the senses that are left. That is, you are less distracted by sensory overload.”


Her favorite and least favorite things about being on “MasterChef”:

  • “Favorite: meeting all the contestants and seeing how food can connect people despite our differences. Least favorite: the stress of not knowing what was going to happen next.”


On her future plans:

  • “I would love to open an establishment in Houston. Working on that at the moment.”
  • “I hope to finish and publish my memoir in the next year or two. My next goals are to win a Pulitzer and then a James Beard award for food writing. And then world domination.”


Ha’s cookbook, “Recipes From My Home Kitchen,” comes out May 14. You can pre-order it here.

Follow Ha at Facebook.com/MC3Christine or on Twitter through @ChristineHHa, @theblindcook and @MC3Christine.

To learn more about NMO, click here.