Christine Ha has three words for those who wonder how a blind person such as herself is able to cook.
They’re French words, of course. But mise en place – loosely translated, put in place or put where it belongs – is easily understood by any cook worth his or her sel de table.
That’s French for table salt.
Ha is the winner of the third season of MasterChef, the Gordon Ramsay-helmed reality-show competition, and she captured that prize despite having an autoimmune condition that caused her to lose her sight.
She says one secret of her success is a lot of organization.
In other words, things need to be prepped and in a designated spot so they’re ready to go when a dish demands them.
Known for tasting the show’s trademark Mystery Box as well as other ingredients, Ha says she also compensates for her vision that way, as well as by smelling and touching as she goes. I have to depend more on the other senses to cook, she says.
But the real secret may be that vision-impaired people cook every day, says David Nelson, executive director of the League for the Blind and Disabled in Fort Wayne, the organization bringing Ha to the city for a Sept. 7 fundraiser.
A lot of people make the assumption that (vision-impaired people) can’t do this or they can’t do that, he says. They just have to do stuff differently, with different techniques and different tools.
Indeed, one of the league’s services is providing exposure to adaptive devices that can help in the kitchen, Nelson says.
Thermometers and timers talk, measuring devices beep when full, and long oven mitts and long-handled tools protect against burns. Braille labels can go on everything from stove controls to pantry items.
When the league sponsored a cook-off contest for home cooks in July as a lead-up to Ha’s visit, one of the four finalists was Nancy Ake of Fort Wayne, who is blind.
Ake made a stuffed chicken breast with the contest’s key ingredient – apples. The 64-year-old woman says the dish wasn’t anything I’d ever done before. But she had stuffed chicken breasts with other ingredients, so she had confidence in the preparation technique.
I gave some to a neighbor lady to try, and she liked it, Ake says.
Ake says she’s been cooking since the age of 12. She lost her sight when she turned 59, when a blocked carotid artery destroyed her optic nerve. Today, she says, she is totally blind in her right eye. She has partial sight in her left.
It’s like if you wore glasses and smeared the left lens with Vaseline. I see less than that, she says. I can go by color, but I have no peripheral vision or depth perception, and everything is blurry.
So, Ake is also big on organization. In her kitchen, she says, I can tell you what’s in every kitchen cabinet, and the same with my refrigerator. Everything is set a certain way. I told my daughter If you take something out, make sure you put it back the way you found it,’ because I have it set for me. I don’t move anything.
Ake says she can see well enough to distinguish the blue flame of her gas stove and uses dark blue plates because she can see color contrast on them. White plates are difficult to see, she says.
Placing as a finalist in the cook-off means Ake will vie with three other local home cooks, Kent Castleman of New Haven, Michael Walters of Hoagland and Dawn Kelley of Fort Wayne for a $1,000 prize. The competition will take place on stage during Ha’s visit.
The judges will be Ha; Steve Gard, owner of the Oyster Bar; Laura Wilson, chef and owner of La Dolce Vita in Roanoke; and Kimberly Dupps Truesdell, writer of The Journal Gazette’s The Dish column about restaurant news.
A second competition will feature four area professional chefs who will prepare a dish – sushi – blindfolded, says Judi Loomis, director of marketing and resource development for the league.
Participating chefs are Michael Bentz of Cracker Jack Catering, Aaron Rothgeb of St. Joseph Hospital, Marvin Mosley of Memorial Coliseum and Chad Kyle of Baker Street restaurant.
Ha’s condition, neurolytis optica, caused her to lose her vision gradually. She was diagnosed in her early 20s in 2004 and was nearly sightless by 2007. She has compared her vision now to looking at a foggy bathroom mirror.
During the show, Ha – who, like other MasterChef contestants, was a home cook, not a professional chef – was allowed to use an aide to help her locate pantry ingredients and move about the set because of the show’s time constraints. Since her win, she has rocketed into the realm of celebrity cooking.
She writes a blog, The Blind Cook, in which she recently explained making a pork belly dish during a recent visit to Stockholm. This year, she published her first cookbook, Recipes from My Home Kitchen: Vietnamese and American Comfort Food, drawing on her Vietnamese heritage. She was born in California of Vietnamese parents but now lives in Texas.
She puts together a YouTube video series on how the blind accomplish everyday tasks, and since January, the 35-year-old Ha has been hosting a TV show, Four Senses, for AMI-TV. The Canadian channel broadcasts described-video programming for the visually impaired.
Ha is represented by One Potato Two Potato, Gordon Ramsay’s production company.
The idea behind bringing her to Fort Wayne is to point out the struggles of people who have severe vision impairment, as well as their resilience, Nelson says.
If we can raise the awareness level just one notch, for us that’s a good thing, he says. So many barriers that people experience are preconceived ideas. It’s not that people are malicious. They just don’t know.
Loomis says people she’s talked to are excited by Ha’s visit. She’s not the biggest star out there, she says, but in the food industry right now, she probably is.