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Publication Date : 20-06-2012
A visually impaired Vietnamese-American woman has conquered the tough judges of a US Master Chef cooking contest to receive a white apron and advance to the next round of competition.
Christine Ha, who suffers from neuromyelitis optica (NMO) – an autoimmune disorder that affects the optic nerves and spinal cord and contributed to her loss of vision 10 years ago, has wowed the judges with her catfish braised in a claypot.
A very popular Vietnamese traditional dish, the fish was cooked in caramel that she made herself, coconut soda, shallots, garlic and fish sauce.
The judges of the reality television cooking competition, including star chefs Gordon Ramsay, Graham Elliot, and food critic Joe Bastianich, were quite shocked to see the 32-year-old woman walk in with a white cane. The first-ever blind Master Chef contestant was accompanied by her husband, who helped her to push the cart with all of her cooking ingredients and utensils.
Ha had five minutes to complete the dish in front of the judges.
Although she also prepared some pickled vegetables and rice to go with her creation, her rice cooker was not turned on, causing the rice to be chewy and crunchy, and eventually tossed away before serving.
Describing herself as a person who "loves food, loves eating it, loves creating it", Ha decided to set aside her university thesis to join the contest.
"I'm definitely a competitive person. I really want to get this apron and become the next Master Chef."
A graduate student in writing at the University of Houston in Texas, Ha's interest in cooking springs from her memories of her mother, who died when she was a teenager.
"I feel like regardless of your background, your gender, your religion, food is something everybody has in common in this world. I think food connects people together."
Ha's story about her optical problem as well as her "declaration" on food impressed the judges. The tough judge Bastianich was even close to tears.
The first judge tasting Ha's creation, English star chef and restaurateur Ramsay questioned her on why she cooked the fish with the bone.
"Catfish is very tender, I don't want to pick it apart and make it look unappetising, that's why I left it as a steak, and that is also the way Vietnamese people eat it," Ha explained.
Stressing that Ha would be judged like anybody else in the competition, Ramsay then commented: "The dish does need stability, its staple is done beautifully but it is missing the rice."
Two other judges also gave positive comments on her food.
While Elliot praised the food's "beautiful aroma", the emotional Bastianich said: "You have a great advantage. When you talk about your food, not only are you able to express it in words but your face speaks volumes. Your eyes beam with happiness, pride and passion, and you have a lot to be proud of. It's an amazing accomplishment."
Ha then burst into tears when the judges, one after another, said "Yes" to her.
Before giving Ha an apron as a "permit" to let her into the next round of the competition, Ramsay added: "That is the most delicious dish I've tasted in this competition so far."
"I will be the next Master Chef," Ha said happily in tears when walked out the judging venue.
The winner of the high-rated reality cooking competition will receive US$250,000, his/her own cookbook, and a trophy.
Master Chef is an American competitive cooking reality show, open to amateur and home chefs. Co-hosted and co-produced by Gordon Ramsay, the series is presented on the Fox Television Network.