Christine Ha said she wanted to be taken seriously on "MasterChef." As the show's only sight-impaired competitor -- and, indeed, the one and only blind competitor in the history of reality TV cooking shows -- she didn't want to be a fluke, or an oddity, or a competitor who would be pitied for her "handicap."
But she did want to win. And win she did.
But did she deserve it?
Christine scored the Season 3 title of best home cook in America, as well as a $250,000 grand prize and a cookbook over Josh Marks in a hard-fought battle.
The pair were polar opposites, not counting the fact that one is legally blind and one can see just fine. Mr. Tall and Ms. Small had two fundamentally different approaches to food.
Josh was about taking risks, cooking around the globe, and bucking convention (and, sometimes, common sense). Moreover, he often employed technically complex maneuvers and dazzling plating techniques. His butter-poached lobster-and-grits appetizer was, to borrow a phrase, "visually stunning."
Christine, by contrast, took the simple and elevated it to the divine. She ended up in the finale by largely sticking to what she knows best -- Asian cuisine -- and conceptualizing menus based on what she knew she could execute to perfection. Some might say that's playing it safe. Others might say that's playing to win, as she was able to step past many competitors who just tried too hard to do too much when less would be more.
(Like Becky Reams, who would probably have been in the finale had she not dreamed up an idea to douse what should have been a crispy potato side dish with red wine in one of the final challenges. The result was a soggy, greasy mess that offended the judges and helped send her packing.)
The final challenge was a simple one. Cook the meal of your life.
Josh went all out with meticulously plated courses -- that lobster dish, a four-season spanning rack of lamb that made judge Joe Bastianich swoon and a bacon pecan pie. Unfortunately for Josh, his lobster was undercooked and his pecan pie crust was a bit greasy. The judges did, however, rave over his homemade ice cream.
Christine went cooler and simpler with a cohesive menu. A Thai papaya salad that was refreshing, and balanced between spicy, sweet and salty, followed by a melt-in-your mouth good braised pork belly and rice dish, and a palate-cleansing coconut-lime sorbet.
Her approach led the judges to question the rustic simplicity of her dishes. The homey plating, for example, of her entree led judge and chef Gordon Ramsay to note, "We're not in Vietnam, and we're not at home. You're in the final of 'MasterChef.'" And while chef Graham Elliot said that her pork belly was so good he envisioned a double portion so he could "mow it all down," Bastianich pointedly asked: "Are we here to mow down dishes or have cooks to show us finesse?"
Which raises a good question. What is the point of "MasterChef"?
Is it to inspire home cooks to cook like the stars with fancy-pants plating and techniques that are a challenge to pull off at home?
Or is it to remind all of America's home chefs that they are something special, and that their family recipes are a treasure-trove to celebrate? That simple and humble fare can indeed be elevated into something special -- something special enough to serve to judges with names like Ramsay and Elliot and Bastianich?
There will no doubt be naysayers who say Christine's win was for ratings. There will be those who will question how blind she "really" is. (She says she has limited sight, and likens it to seeing the world through a thick, puffy cloud of white steam, and at Monday night's finale had trouble recognizing family members who were brought in to surprise her.)
I would not have been unhappy had Josh won. I look forward to the new "MasterChef" Season 3 cookbook and tracking down all his recipes in it. I'm hoping it includes every single dish he made this season, especially that chicken curry dish from a few weeks back. And that chocolate souffle. And that...
But I suspect that the true home cooks across America -- those who consider plating more of an afterthought to taste, and cost, and being able to get dinner on the table each night, and those who would trade just one more home-cooked meal from mom than any meal at a Michelin-starred restaurant -- were standing and cheering for Christine.
What did you think? Did the right person win?