From the moment she took those first tentative steps onto the national stage, chef Christine Ha captured America's heart.
During Monday night's season 3 "MasterChef" finale, Ha won the title, $250, 000 grand prize and a cookbook deal, beating out Josh Marks and about 100 other chefs . But that's not what makes her so inspiring. Ha is blind - the first blind contestant on the show.
Sticking with what she knows best, Vietnamese comfort food, Ha's three-course finale dish included crab vegetable salad for appetizer, a braised pork belly entree, and a coconut lime sorbet dessert. Marks made a lobster grits appetizer, a lamb rack entree, and a bacon pecan pie dessert.
"I think there are a lot of people who completely discounted me, " Ha told "Nightline." "They think I'm there as a TV gimmick for ratings. People will say, 'what is she doing? Is she going to cut her finger off?' But I cook at home for years without vision, so if I can do it at home I don't see why I can't prove to everyone else I can do it on national TV."
Week after week, the 33-year-old Houston native, who is working on her graduate degree in creative writing, managed to whip up culinary masterpieces with only her sense of taste, smell and touch to guide her. The judges did allow her to use her aide, Cindy, but she did not cut or taste Ha's food.
"She's basically my eyes, " Ha said.
Aside from that, Ha faced the same time constraints, the same stress and the same withering criticism from the other judges, including notoriously tough chef Gordon Ramsey of "Hell's Kitchen" fame. She compared competing on "MasterChef" to pledging a sorority.
"I couldn't see what anyone else was doing, I was solely focused on myself, and I think that helped me. It gave me an advantage, " she said. "When I came out of it, it was most stressful intense experience of her life, it was amazing."
Ha said she is able to compete mainly because she was not born blind. She nearly lost all of her eyesight about five years ago after being diagnosed with an auto-immune disease that attacks the optic nerves.
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