The Blind Chef Triumphs: Christine Ha, MasterChef’s Surprise Finalist, Talks Underdogs and Inspirations

“I want to be taken seriously, I don’t want to be just an inspiration”

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Greg Gayne / FOX

From left: Contestant Christine Ha, Gordon Ramsay and contestant Mike Hill on MasterChef, July 2, 2012.

In last night’s episode of MasterChef, the final three contestants—Becky, Josh and Christine—competed for a spot in the show’s final round, which airs Sept. 10, where the amateur cooks stand to win $250,000. Spoilers for last night’s episode coming right up.

Christine Ha ended up with the title of MasterChef finalist and her recipes will be included in MasterChef: The Ultimate Cookbook, out Sept. 18—plus, she has the distinction of being the first blind chef to compete. TIME spoke to Ha about cooking without sight, being on TV and what she expects from the final showdown.

TIME: Congratulations on being a MasterChef finalist. How does it feel?

Christine Ha: It’s a surreal feeling and just unbelievable. All the positive emotions are just running through my brain at the same time.

How do you feel about the competition, going up against Josh?

I think it’s intimidating a little bit. He got a second chance and came back with an even stronger desire to win the whole thing. He’s probably even more focused. All I can do is focus on what I’m doing and try to beat him.

What made you decide to try to be on a cooking show?

Maybe I’m some sort of a masochist. I just like to welcome these really hard challenges for myself. There’s something about trying to do the things that most people, including myself, would deem impossible. Whether I fail or succeed, either way I tried, and you never know until you try.

How did your friends and family react when you told them you were doing the show?

They say this is something that’s going to be a positive influence. Me, from the inside looking out, I had no idea what to expect, but all my friends and family thought I should just go for it. I’m the kind of person that once I have my mind set on something I’m pretty determined and it’s hard to sway me from that decision, so it’s probably easier for them to support me!

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You mentioned it would be a positive influence. Do you mean in terms of your sight?

Yeah, showing people that if you set your mind to it you can continue doing what you love to do, which for me is my love for food and for cooking.

Did you feel like an underdog going into it, because of your disability?

Definitely, 100%. That disadvantage was, at the beginning, a huge hurdle.

How so?

Just getting used to a kitchen environment that’s different from what I have at home: not being able to see which way to turn the stove knobs to have it on or off or low, and not knowing what is in what drawer, how the knives are set up, where the salt, the pepper, the olive oil is. And with every new challenge, it takes a lot of brainwork for me. I have to try to memorize everything as soon as it’s fed to me audibly by Cindy, who helps me. People are able to see something at a glance and it registers in their brains, but for me I have to memorize where everything is and how everything is done.

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How did you get started with cooking?

I went to college and I didn’t really know how to cook anything when I went off to my undergrad. I only knew how to make scrambled eggs and instant ramen and toast. I had to learn how to cook as a means of sustenance. I purchased a few cookbooks that seemed easy, at a second-hand bookstore, and just started cooking through those. It’s not easy to cook for one so I would invite my roommates or my friends over to eat. That’s when I realized I really loved to feed other people. From that it snowballed. Cooking just became more and more a part of my life.

Was that before you began to lose your eyesight?

I was just starting to have a love for cooking when I started losing my vision, so it was a very devastating time in my life. I thought I had to give up something that I love. I had to learn everything again from scratch, like just making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Once I mastered one thing I started thinking, “If I can do this, maybe I can use a knife again.” I started doing everything slowly and now I definitely cook better than I did before I lost my vision.

Can you tell me about your condition?

My condition is called neuromyelitis optica. It’s an autoimmune condition that’s similar to multiple sclerosis. It results in my optic nerve becoming inflamed; over time with so much inflammation they just sort of atrophied. Also it can attack my spinal cord; I’ve had really bad exacerbations where everything below my neck has been paralyzed and I had to go through a lot of physical therapy, but fortunately I bounced back. The optic issues have been the ones that have gotten me.

At this point, what’s the state of your eyesight?

The best way for me to describe it is kind of like if you come out of a really hot shower and you look into the mirror and it’s all fogged up, that’s what I see.

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Since the show has been airing, what kind of reaction have you been getting from the vision-impaired community?

I think they’re proud that I’ve been on national TV representing our community in a positive way. There have probably been negative representations before in the media about what the vision-impaired can do, or turning it into a sorrowful disability. I think I’ve been portrayed in a way that’s been more enabling than disabling. I’ve been grateful for that.

How do you feel about having your eyesight emphasized so much when your performance on the show is discussed?

Sometimes it feels like a double-edged sword. It is something that should be mentioned because it is a challenge that I have to deal with and it is a part of me. It’s not something that can be really ignored. Then there was an episode where it shows me crying in my confessional interview saying, “I want to be taken seriously, I don’t want to be just an inspiration” and I think about that too. I don’t want people to feel sorry for me. It’s good to be an inspiration but I don’t want people to think that I’m just this ratings story.

In terms of your cooking, how has being on the show affected you in the kitchen?

A lot of it is a learning curve and I still consider myself to have a lot to learn. I would never compare myself to a chef who has gone through culinary training. But coming through the show, learning from other contestants, learning from the judges, if anything it has given me more confident to trust my own palate.

If you were in charge of MasterChef, what challenge would you give to the contestants?

Probably a blind taste-test.