When chef Gordon Ramsay gets angry - and he always does - his face turns crimson, the lines in his forehead triple and the muscles in his neck jut like the bones of a crown roast.
But menacing expressions alone won't intimidate contestant Christine Ha (pictured), the first blind contestant to compete on Ramsay's "MasterChef" series. The 33-year-old Houstonian lost her vision at 19 to a rare autoimmune disease called Neuromyelitis optica.
Ha distinguished herself from among the nearly 30,000 aspiring chefs who auditioned for season three of the Fox show, earning a spot among the top 100 that will be winnowed down to 36 over the course of the two-day premiere Monday and Tuesday. Finalists compete for a $250,000 grand prize.
"I'm always one to take on challenges. I like to push myself to see how far I can get in life. It's just my personality," said Ha, a graduate of Alief Elsik High School who is now pursuing a master's degree in creative writing at the University of Houston.
Ha described her tryout as beyond intense.
"I have never been so nervous in my life. Even on my wedding day I wasn't as nervous," she said. "My stomach was turning."
But she made the cut that got her on TV with the chance to show her cooking chops.
For her audition she prepared braised catfish in a clay pot, a favorite dish from the Vietnamese cuisine she grew up eating.
"My mother is my culinary inspiration. I was an only child and she was a very good cook. When you grow up like that you take it for granted. You think everyone eats like that."
Ha said she regrets that she didn't learn recipes from her mother, who passed away when Ha was 14. Her father, an electrical designer, retired and moved back to Vietnam around the time Ha was auditioning for the show.
Still, Ha said she had long been interested in cooking. She considered culinary school but instead opted for an undergraduate degree in finance and management information systems from the University of Texas at Austin.
That didn't stop her from learning to be a good cook, though. She enjoys cooking for her husband and friends, and says her repertoire of dishes is "comfort food" - "I like the things that are down home and people grew up eating."
So how does she work a kitchen without the benefit of sight?
"It takes a lot of organization. It helps to know where everything is and how the kitchen is laid out," she said, adding that tools such as talking scales and talking thermometers assist the vision impaired.
She also relies on her other senses to direct her: the sound of water sizzling in a pan to know if it's hot enough for meat; the fragrant smell of garlic cooking to catch it before it turns bitter.
Can she cook completely unassisted? "Yes, I can. Maybe it will take me a little longer than a sighted person, but yes, I can."
It's that can-do spirit that might prove beneficial to Ha as she tries to prove herself to Ramsay and his fellow judges.
Tuesday, June 5, 2012
The Houston Chronicle:
Posted by BA Haller at 3:51 PM