Today on Nearsighted we welcome chef and writer Christine Ha, who was the first blind contestant on Fox’s reality cooking show MasterChef, and the winner of its third season in 2012. She is also the author of the cookbook Recipes from My Home Kitchen: Asian and American Comfort Food (Rodale Books, 2013).
Belo Cipriani: You have an MFA in creative writing and you are a chef. Do you split your time evenly between writing and cooking?
Christine Ha: I very much would like to, but it’s been quite difficult carving out the time to sit down and write seriously since completing my MFA last year. I have been working on a memoir, but nowadays, I seem to do a lot more food-related things. As an outlet, however, I think it’s important to keep a balance in life, which means a chef shouldn’t always be in the kitchen, but rather, he/she needs to find other hobbies that can renew the mind and soul and feed the creativity. I do make time to write my blog (www.theblindcook.com) weekly, so that keeps me a little sane.
BC: What was the process like for organizing the recipes in your cookbook?
CH: First, I thought about what sort of recipes I’d like to include, and immediately a theme emerged: comfort food. After collecting the recipes I’d had thus far, the editor and I played around with the recipes, trying to see how we could divide them into categories or sub-themes that made the most sense. Then we went back and rounded out the chapters so the numbers of recipes were relatively even throughout. For example, my “Something Sweet”/dessert chapter was minimal, because I’m not a baker nor much of a sweets person, so I had to think of what additional dishes I could include. Then came a lot of recipe testing and kitchen experimenting.
BC: Do you use any assistive technology for the blind to cook?
CH: I mostly depend on tactile stickers marking my burner knobs and appliances. When necessary, I use a digital talking scale, a talking thermometer, a liquid level indicator, and Braille labels (mostly on my spices). I also have many other devices like the iGrill, but they are not a part of my daily use.
BC: How does your family deal with your blindness?
CH: My husband is great. He doesn’t ever patronize me — in fact, we joke that he kind of gives me “tough love.” He is not the most careful sighted guide, but I think it encourages me to be more independent. The rest of my family is good, too. When I first lost my vision, they were unsure of what I needed, i.e. how much help vs. how little to give. They felt helpless and had never dealt with a visually impaired person before, so their gauge of assistance or how they treated me was polar. But now, they know my capabilities and also my needs, and they’re good.
BC: Do you have any plans for writing a novel?
CH: I have a novel, a collection of short stories, a one-act play, and some poetry. The novel and collection are quite incomplete, though the play and poems are more or less closer to their final drafts, if not already there. My memoir has been my focus.
BC: What’s your favorite cookbook?
CH: I actually don’t have one. I used to read them a lot more when I had my vision — a lot of the cookbook reading experience, I’ve found, lies in the visual stimulation of the food photos. I will, however, tell you what I’m currently listening to: Becoming A Chef, by Andrew Dornenburg (for the second time), and The Professional Chef, by the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). Just for kicks, here are other books I’m currently reading (I’m always reading a bunch at once): The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt, A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole (in Braille), The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen Covey (for the second time), The 4-Hour Work Week, by Tim Ferris, and The New Yorker and InStyle magazines.
BC: Any cooking advice for people who are newly blind and are still shy around the kitchen?
CH: Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Yes, play it safe at the beginning by having a sighted person around to help. But you only get stronger by making and learning from your mistakes. I still make mistakes all the time in the kitchen. Learn to laugh about it.
You can learn more about Christine Ha by visiting her website, TheBlindCook.com. She also invites you to connect with her on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter, at @theblindcook and @ChristineHHa.
Who is Belo Cipriani?
Belo Cipriani is the Writer-in-Residence at Holy Names University, a spokesperson for Guide Dogs for the Blind, the “Get to Work” columnist for SFGate.com, and the author of Blind: A Memoir. You are invited to connect with him on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and YouTube.