Lessons in Self-Mastery From a Blind Chef

I’ll admit it, my wife and I are addicted to reality competition shows, especially the cooking shows. One new show we started watching this year was MasterChef (FOX).  It started out like many other reality cooking competition shows: audition, challenges, drama, etc.  What hooked us, however, was a blind contestant named Christine Ha.  She literally walked into the audition with an assistant and a cane.

SPOILER ALERT: Starting at this point of the blog, I will be discussing details about the MasterChef competition. You’ve been warned.

Throughout the competition, Christine had her ups and downs, but most of the time, she surprised the judges with her finesse, and delicate palette.  The cynic might say that the judges took it easy on her because she was blind, or perhaps they kept her on for the ratings.  But that would mean that the three judges put their international culinary reputations on the line just for ratings, and that’s harder to believe than a blind woman making a perfect apple pie (which Christine did… see clip below).

The questions is: how did Christine Ha win MasterChef? As TEDxBoulder speaker, Alena Grabowski, might say, Christine epitomizes someone who re-defines the word “disability.”

Here are the four lessons in self-mastery that one can learn from Christine Ha:

Focus on Your Strengths, Not Your Weaknesses
Obviously, Christine’s major weakness is her lack of sight.  Watching as many cooking competitions as I have, the key thing that seems to separate the good chefs from the master chefs is their pallette.  The master chef thinks about the taste, smell, and even texture of the dish, not just how it looks on a plate.  Christine relied heavily on these areas because, well, that’s all she had; they were her strengths.  Even though she was blind, her plating skills weren’t all that bad either. But her greatest strength was on how the food tasted. Unlike many contestants (even in other shows), she tasted every ingredient and every dish before it was plated. She exploited her strengths rather than allowing her weakness to hold her back.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
Throughout the competition, she relied on an assistant to help her pick ingredients, or ask where something was located, or for a visual description of something (the assistant was never allowed to cut or cook anything). During group challenges, Christine always tried to maintain a good line of communication with her teammates, sometimes by literally yelling at them. As anyone who has worked the line in a restaurant will tell you, communication is the most important aspect of running a kitchen smoothly. Christine’s ability to clearly communicate ideas and instructions helped her stay focused on her tasks and aware of her surroundings.

Be Bold
Christine always challenged herself and never tried to make excuses. She cooked dishes that were complex enough to scare off most home cooks.  She pushed herself rather than feeling sorry for herself, or playing it safe.  She knew that the only way to advance in the competition – and in life – is to push her skills as far as she can.

Put Your Heart Into Every Dish
The competition came down to Christine Ha and Josh Bastianich in the finals.  Josh clearly had extraordinary culinary skills. His dishes looked like something that came out of judeges’ restaurants. At one point Josh was actually eliminated, and had to fight his way back into the competition, all the into the finals. Josh, like Christine, had a lot of heart. When it came time to cook, however, Christine’s dishes had more heart, even though it looked like something one would have at home rather than at a restaurant. Josh’s dishes were meant to show off his skills as a chef, whereas Christine’s dishes paid tribute to her upbringing. Josh produced great dishes, whereas Christine produced a meal that told. Josh put a lot of finesse into his dishes, whereas Christine put her heart into her meal. Christine’s magic ingredient was her heart, and that is what gave her the edge.

Christine’s abilities (not disabilities) were a surprise to everyone.  At one point, Gordon Ramsey asked Christine, “Am I being punked?”  You can also see from her tears, Christine surprised herself.

Christine Ha & Gordon Ramsey on MasterChef

Christine’s story is the reason why my wife and I love watching these reality competitions, especially the one’s where art is involved. It’s not about the yelling and screaming (although that has its own entertainment value sometimes). We love watching the artistry, the mastery. Christine’s story is not just about mastering cooking. Christine’s story is a lesson in self-mastery.

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