If it takes a "MasterChef" winner to know one, then put your money on Luca.
We asked the last season's winner, food blogger and new cookbook author Christine Ha in advance of tonight's live finale on Fox for her prediction, and for a glimpse at how life will forever change for the victor, who wins $250,000 and a cookbook deal.
Season 4 of "MasterChef," Fox's hit summer TV show stars chefs Gordon Ramsay and Graham Elliot and restaurateur Joe Bastianich searching for the best home cook in America.
In one corner, there's Luca Manfe, the restaurant manager from Astoria, Queens, who's beloved as much for his just-got-off-the-boat-from-Italy accent as for his determination to compete like a gentleman in a season that saw sharp knives and even sharper elbows.
In the other corner, there's Natasha Crnjac, the homemaker from San Diego who has the distinction of being the second-most-hated competitor of the season. (Top honors, of course, going to The Beast.) But Natasha's dearth of fans might not matter. Her culturally diverse background seemingly allows her to cook any dish the judges demand, and she has proved to be unflappable when the pressure is on.
The baton will be passed to either Manfe or Crnjac by Ha. The former Lakewood resident, who now resides in Houston, cooked her way to victory by proving that being legally blind is no handicap in the kitchen. (Ha cooked with such proficiency that even chef Ramsay was forced to ask at one point whether she was pranking everyone and only pretending to be sight impaired.)
"I suspect Luca will win," Ha told us this week via email. "It's about time he takes one home for the boys. But Natasha is talented, consistent, and competitive. May the best cook win; I am happy to pass the MasterChef crown on to either one (though maybe I'm rooting a tad bit more for Luca because he and I have become friends since my season)."
Though Ha was not pranking Ramsay, she did prank the Season 4 competitors when she made a guest appearance this season and handed down a challenge: Cook a dish for the judges, while blindfolded. The blindfold part turned out to be a joke, of course, which was a good thing because it meant that competitors were able to keep their fingertips intact.
Ha said in an earlier interview with the Times that life has been a whirlwind since her win.
"Life has done a 180," she said. "It has been nonstop."
In addition to giving her a platform to write a bestselling cookbook, "Recipes from My Home Kitchen," Ha said the "MasterChef" win gave her a confidence and a belief in self that had been lacking. (That lack had little to do with her sight. Ha struggled at first when an illness claimed much of her sight, but she had largely battled those demons and considered herself handicapable, not handicapped.)
Instead, she said, the competition was a trial by fire on a different front, forcing her to listen to her own instincts about her cooking -- sight or no sight.
"In the beginning I thought, 'I'm just going to hope for the best and expect the worst. I feel like I have been disappointed a lot in life, and I was just going to prepare for it," she said, referring in part to the loss of her mother when Ha was just a young girl, and then the loss of her sight just as she was transitioning into early adulthood.
"It really wasn't until I got to the top eight and top five that I was like, 'Wait a minute, I'm still here?' And that's when I started fighting like crazy. I second-guessed myself a lot of the time [in the beginning.]" She referred to a challenge in which she was to prepare salmon. She second-guessed her way to a terrible dish, she said. "I was thinking, 'Maybe I'm not showing enough technique....'"
That incident was a turning point.
"I said, 'I'm not going to care what I think they want, If I stand behind my dish, that's good enough."
Ha said writing the cookbook was, at the time, a heartbreaking experience, as it was often a reminder of the loss of her mother. Ha's mother died before she was able to impart many recipes and food lessons on to her daughter, and much of Ha's cooking has been an attempt to re-create her mother's dishes from memory.
"I probably took my mom's cooking for granted," she said. "When it's stripped away from you, it's like, 'What now?'"
But mostly, the cookbook is about trying to bringing Asian comfort food to American tables.
"It's just really about comfort food," she said. "I really wanted that to be the umbrella theme. I wanted a lot of recipes that aren't really fussy. You don't have time to slave five hours in the kitchen. These are easy to do, on the fly."
She added: "This book is an homage to my home, and my heritage, and what I grew up eating, and my mom. It's about eating well, eating happily and eating deliciously."