By Ben Tinsley
DALLAS — Christine Ha, the first blind contestant on MasterChef and the winner of the show’s third season in 2012, will be the focus of the Shearith Israel SISterhood’s Major Fundraiser Event at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 11.
This event in Kaplan Auditorium at Congregation Shearith Israel, 9401 Douglas Ave., Dallas, costs $75 per person and is open to the general public with advance reservations, said Cynthia Cohen and Dora Rudberg, fundraising vice presidents for the SISterhood’s board of directors.
“I really expect the largest crowd we’ve had in years,” Cohen said.
MasterChef is a competitive cooking reality show in the United States based on the original United Kingdom version of the show. It is open to both home and amateur chefs.
Christine Ha will be the seventh high profile guest to grace one of the SISterhood of Congregation Shearith Israel’s fundraising events.
Previous guests include Sandra Brown, bestselling author of romantic novels and thriller suspense novels; Anita Diamant, author of The Red Tent; Jennifer Weiner, Emily Giffin and Jen Lancaster, who all write novels commonly categorized as “chick lit”; and Susan Stamberg, an award-winning radio journalist who is a special correspondent for National Public Radio.
In a Monday telephone interview, Ha said those who plan to attend can look forward to a really fun, big, event.
“I know the SISterhood is doing this to raise money for projects they do around the community,” Ha said. “I have heard it’s mostly a women’s event because it’s the sisterhood, but I also hear my coming has garnered more interest and they are going to have both men and women attending this time.”
Ha said her role is to teach those in attendance a little more about cooking.
“The bottom line is to inspire all sorts of people with my life and (the message is) to overcome any obstacle to achieve what you want in life,” Ha said. “I believe I will be doing a cooking demonstration and mingling with the guests and having a good time with everyone.”
Wine and hors d’oeuvres will be served to guests during the fundraiser. The menu will be based on Ha’s cookbook recipes.
The evening will proceed as follows:
- From 6 p.m. to 7 p.m., Ha will conduct a book signing of her New York best-seller book, Recipes from My Home Kitchen: Asian and American Comfort Food.
- From 7 p.m. to 7:45 p.m., dinner and dessert will be served. The food comes from Shearith Israel’s caterer, Spice of Life.
- From 8 p.m. until 8:30 p.m., Ha will deliver an inspirational speech.
- From 8:30 p.m. to 9 p.m., Ha will conduct a question-and-answer session with audience members.
- At 9 p.m., a raffle drawing will be held.
Ha has had, at times, a very difficult life. When she was 14, her mother died of lung cancer — an illness that also claimed the life of her paternal aunt. Both were nonsmokers.
Then came her blindness. Ha suffers from neuromyelitis optica, in which a person’s own immune system attacks the optic nerves and spinal cord.
In 2004 she was diagnosed and gradually started losing her vision. She was almost completely blind by 2007.
She has, in previous interviews, described her vision “as looking at a very foggy mirror after a hot shower.”
She uses adaptive technologies to help her manage her life.
“She has technology that will read to her,” Cohen said. “She writes a blog and she cooks using talking thermometers. She has a fierce determination to accomplish things.”
Ha never formally studied cooking, but uses her enhanced senses — “taste, smell, how certain ingredients feel” — to cook. She said during the phone interview that losing her vision completely changed both the way she perceived the world and how she approached cooking food.
“I think that because I have lost my vision, my other senses have become much more in tune with the world around me,” Ha said. “For example, I am not distracted by how a plate looks when I taste food. Of course, this is not discounting the fact that appearance and presentations are important.”
Ha explained that the cooking process is different for her because sight generally is one of the first senses that takes in food — even before taste and smell.
“I don’t have that sense, that vision, so for me, it is about the textures that come with each bite,” she said. “It’s the temperature of the food, the aroma, the olfactory sense so connected to your sense of taste. … I dissect a lot of what I eat by those factors. These things integrate in my brain and translate into the creative stuff I do when I cook.”
Ha’s enhanced senses certainly have made her a formidable cook and competitor. She won seven times in both individual and team challenges during the third season of MasterChef.
She was announced the winner of the MasterChef competition on Sept. 10, 2012 and won $250,000, the MasterChef title and trophy, and a cookbook deal.
That cookbook, Recipes from My Home Kitchen: Asian and American Comfort Food — the one from which recipes will be modified for the Nov. 11 dinner — was released May 14, 2013.
Also in 2013, Ha began co-hosting the Canadian TV show Four Senses with Carl Heinrich, the winner of Season 2 of Top Chef Canada.
This cooking show caters to the visually impaired and airs on Accessible Media, Inc. (AMI) TV, a Canadian cable network.
AMI, incidentally, also is designed to make television accessible to the vision- and hearing-impaired.
Ha continues to enjoy a lot of forward career momentum. She announced on her blog and on Facebook in 2015 that she would become a judge on the third season of MasterChef Vietnam.
She had been a guest judge in the previous series, and a guest judge of U.S. MasterChef during Season Four.
This made her the first former contestant and winner worldwide to become a regular judge, and the third woman on the show.
Ha returned with Luca Manfé and Courtney Lapresi as guests for Season 6 of U.S. MasterChef.
She disclosed at the time she was the first chef and author to win the Helen Keller Personal Achievement Award in 2014, which is given to people and organizations that “demonstrated outstanding achievement in improving quality of life for people with vision loss.”
Ha is a 2001 graduate of the University of Texas in Austin with a Bachelor of Business Administration degree in finance/MIS. She acquired a Master of Fine Arts degree for creative fiction/nonfiction during her time in the University of Houston’s 2012 Creative Writing Program.
All in all, the evening with Ha should be magnificent, Cohen and Rudberg said.
“Oh my God, she is the most amazing person with what she has accomplished in her life,” Cohen said. “You can tell Dora and I are pretty excited.”
Ha said it will be fun to share her chef perspective with an enthusiastic audience. Despite her huge success, she said she tries to stay as open as possible to new culinary experiences.
“There’s so much out there in the world of food,” Ha said. “Even though I went as far as I did in MasterChef … I feel I know only 10 percent of what there is to know about cooking.”
To inquire about the event, call the reservation hotline at 469-718-9843.
What you might win:
- Chef’s Culinary Basket
- Five DSM tickets for Bridges of Madison County and valet parking
- Dinner for eight in the Private Dining Room at Hilton Park Cities
- Spice of Life Cooking Class for six
Among the silent auction Items:
- Abacus Night in the Kitchen to include a $100 dinner for two
- Two All Access Passes to the Dallas Opera, Manon final dress rehearsal, including a backstage tour with Opera Orchestra Clarinetist Danny Goldman
- Several “Dining in Dallas” certificates
- Pampering for Men and Women
- One Night and Breakfast at Renaissance and Hilton Park Cities
- Carolyn’s Cuisine catered dinner and wine for 10
- Theater tickets