Vietnamese-American chef Christine Ha shocked the world when she became the winner of the third season of US MasterChef in 2012 at the age of 33. She made history as the first Vietnamese-American and visually impaired person to win the highly competitive cooking show, which is produced and judged by renowned chef Gordon Ramsay.

Out of more than 3,000 amateur chefs from across the US, Ha impressed the judges with her dish Ca kho (caramelized braised catfish), a classic Vietnamese dish that held a special place in her heart as it reminded her of her mother’s cooking.

Winning the MasterChef competition not only earned Ha a cash prize of US$250,000 but also a book deal to publish her own cookbook. Today, Christine Ha serves as a culinary ambassador, promoting her favorite Vietnamese dishes in various countries.

Speaking about her love for Vietnamese food, Ha said, “Vietnamese food has a special place in my heart because I grew up eating it. I love the flavors and it’s my favorite cuisine. I want to show people who aren’t Vietnamese how amazing and creative Vietnamese food can be.”

Christine Ha was born in California to Vietnamese parents who immigrated to the US in 1975. Her family eventually settled in Houston, Texas, where Ha grew up enjoying the flavorful Vietnamese dishes her mother and grandmother prepared for her. Sadly, Ha’s mother passed away when she was young.

Despite facing challenges in her life, Ha never gave up on her dreams. She was diagnosed with severe neuromyelitis optica spectrum disorder at the age of 18 and lost her eyesight completely by the time she turned 20. Undeterred by this setback, Ha graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in business administration and finance. Later, she earned a master of fine arts degree in creative fiction and nonfiction from the University of Houston and worked as an editor for several American literary magazines.

Throughout her journey, Ha remained passionate about cooking and writing. Determined to teach herself how to cook despite being visually impaired, she relied on her imagination and other senses to create incredible dishes. Ha even wrote a cookbook called “Recipes From My Home Kitchen: Asian and American Comfort Food,” which became a New York Times bestseller.

When competing on MasterChef, Ha decided to showcase Vietnamese dishes like thit kho (braised pork) and ca kho (caramelized braised fish) to educate her fellow contestants about the diversity and unique flavors of Vietnamese cuisine. She wanted to highlight the cultural value of Vietnamese dishes and share her own story through her cooking.

Since her victory on MasterChef, Christine Ha has opened three restaurants in the US, two of which specialize in Vietnamese cuisine. Her first restaurant, The Blind Goat, located in Houston, Texas, offers Vietnamese street food with a Texan twist. Her second restaurant, Xin Chao, focuses on Vietnamese cuisine tailored to American tastes and was opened in collaboration with chef Tony Nguyen in September 2020.

In addition to her culinary ventures, Ha has also served as a culinary ambassador for the US Embassy in Vietnam. During her visit to Vietnam, she conducted cooking demonstrations and participated in activities aimed at inspiring and empowering disadvantaged young people.

Ha firmly believes that food is universal and plays a crucial role in promoting cultural understanding and strengthening relationships between people from different countries. She hopes to continue popularizing the flavors and stories of Vietnamese food while also incorporating a Vietnamese twist into international cuisines.

Chef Christine Ha (right) and Chef Tuyet Pham, the Runner-up of MasterChef Vietnam 2015, in a unique culinary event in Danang, Vietnam, as part of her role as a culinary envoy for the US Department of State

Another talented chef who has played a significant role in promoting Vietnamese cuisine is Tran Le Thanh Thien. As a Vice President of the World Association of Master Chefs, culinary lecturer, and innovator, Thien has been instrumental in making Vietnamese cuisine more widely known.

Thien has won several prestigious awards and has dedicated himself to bringing Vietnamese dishes to the world. He believes that food represents a person’s identity and origin, and he strives to introduce the essence of Vietnamese cuisine to international audiences.

Thien’s passion for cooking began during his childhood, influenced by his mother’s culinary expertise. Although he initially pursued a career in business administration after graduating from Ho Chi Minh University of Technology, he eventually decided to become a culinary lecturer and researcher.

Thien observed that while Vietnam has many talented chefs, they often lack the knowledge and skills to promote Vietnamese dishes abroad. In collaboration with other chefs, Thien has taken part in various culinary competitions and exchanges, showcasing the richness and diversity of Vietnamese flavors.

Vietnamese cuisine uses a wide range of spices and ingredients, including mac khen (Indian prickly ash or Szechuan pepper), la mac mat (clausena indica), and fish sauce. These unique flavors set Vietnamese dishes apart from others.

Thien has focused on food fusion, combining ingredients from different cultures and creating new recipes that enhance the flavors of traditional Vietnamese dishes. He believes that by respecting and utilizing indigenous ingredients, Vietnamese cuisine can gain recognition both as a culinary art and as a form of tourism.

As a culinary lecturer, researcher, and member of numerous culinary organizations, Thien has dedicated himself to inspiring the next generation of chefs and raising awareness of Vietnamese cuisine on a global scale. He emphasizes the importance of understanding different cultures and preferences when introducing Vietnamese dishes to foreign countries.

Chef Tran Le Thanh Thien (Photo credit: Tran Le Thanh Thien)

Tran Le Thanh Thien’s dedication and contributions to the Vietnamese culinary industry have been recognized both domestically and internationally. His efforts to introduce Vietnamese dishes to the world have helped elevate Vietnamese cuisine to new heights, and he continues to inspire and train future generations of talented chefs.

Thien advises aspiring chefs to cook with passion and wholeheartedness. He believes that by combining culinary knowledge with cultural understanding and foreign language proficiency, Vietnamese chefs can showcase the best of Vietnam’s cuisine to the world.

With chefs like Christine Ha and Tran Le Thanh Thien leading the way, Vietnamese cuisine is gaining recognition worldwide. Their commitment to showcasing the unique flavors and cultural significance of Vietnamese dishes is helping to put Vietnamese cuisine on the global culinary map.