Thoughts on winning MasterChef U.S. 2012
*WARNING: This is a long entry so apologies in advance.
First, to address the question everyone’s been asking: my cookbook is slated to hit bookshelves in the spring; I’ve only recently met with the editor and publishing house, and conceptualization of my cookbook has only just begun last week. However, the MasterChef Ultimate Cookbook, which contains recipes from this season’s top 18 and recipes from previous seasons’ contestants, goes on sale TODAY.
On to other matters…
Wow. It’s been a week since I’ve been revealed as the winner of “MasterChef” season 3, and the outpouring of love and support has been overwhelming to say the least. I have been paralyzed in writing this initial entry post-finale because, frankly, I have been overcome with such a spectrum of emotions that I’ve been finding it difficult to articulate. There are joy, anxiety, fear, pride, humility, bashfulness, and relief all coursing through my veins at the same time, every day, all day, since even before the finale aired.
I try my best to be a genuine person and can only hope my candidness is embraced and appreciated. With that being said, I want to share with you first my anxieties followed by my gratitude.
No matter who wins MasterChef, he/she will get a slew of haters saying, This person didn’t deserve to win, that person’s dishes were better executed, this person’s menu was dumb, etc. Etc. Haters are gonna hate, and even the person with the thickest skin can and will eventually be affected by spiteful words regardless of their merit or lack thereof. I know there will be many people who do not think I deserve the title, that I am a gimmick for TV ratings, that it’s unfair I had a helper, that I’ve become America’s reality TV sweetheart and so must win or people will throw their TVs out their windows (which, by the way, could very well happen judging by some of the tweets I’ve read throughout the season—I’ve got some diehard fans out there). This is what I have to say to that:
- It is inevitable I came on originally perceived as a gimmick for ratings. If I were a viewer watching at home, I’d probably think the same thing. I know there are people that were in the top 100 who questioned my being there, whispering to each other that I was there just for show like the witch or the ventriloquist or the man with the monkey. Some contestants in the top 100 even approached me to ask, “Okay, who are you going to get to cut your vegetables and plate your food?” Even some crew members told me a month into filming that they’d thought I was there as a joke…until they had a chance to taste my food or watch me cook.. The truth is, I love food, and I love to create food. Proof lies right here on this very blog as you can look back at my very first post, and it dates prior to my ever attending the initial audition in Austin back in November for “MasterChef” season 3. My keenness for food is undeniable, and as I’ve said before, you can only love something so much before you get ambitious and want to create the stuff yourself. Yes, I lost my vision just as I was beginning to really appreciate cooking, and yes, it was a huge setback and devastation at the time. But I have been dealt with so many challenges in life with my mother dying when I was fourteen among other things that I’ve built such perseverance in my bones and eventually picked up the shattered pieces and just got right back into the kitchen. It was like starting over, but if it’s something you love to do, you don’t give up no matter what.
- Yes, I had an aid on the show. Her name is Cindy. I did not know her prior to coming to L.A. To film the show. The producers hired her in order to level the playing field. And how can anyone deny that I went into that kitchen at a glaringly obvious disadvantage? Cindy was not there to give me a leg up; she was simply there to make the challenges fair on my behalf. She was never allowed to taste my food or give me advice. She could not tell me if my food was burnt or raw. I had to ask her prior to her being permitted to answer: “Cindy, is my steak black or red?” or “Cindy, is the crust on the pie pale yellow or dark brown?” or “Cindy, where on this plate is there extra liquid that I can wipe off before presenting the dish?” I had to ask specific questions, I.e. For the color of a food item and not even if it’s burnt or raw. When I needed a food processor or a mixer from the equipment room, I had to step back from my kitchen station and not touch a single thing while Cindy was away grabbing my requested appliance. She was an extension of myself and therefore I’m obviously not allowed to stir or cook or clean while she was away from my station. There were a few attorneys from the legal department of FOX on site every day watching from the control room to make sure Cindy and I followed the rules. To those haters who say a helper is unfair, let me tell you that it is a hundred times harder to communicate with somebody than to just do things yourself. Think about it: a sighted person can open a drawer, spot the spatula, and grab it. In my situation, I would blindly find the drawer that I’d memorized as containing the spatula, fumble for the drawer handle, open it, and scramble furiously around inside the drawer while screaming frantically, “Cindy! Which one is the spatula?!” And then she’d have to run over, pull out the spatula, and wrap my fingers around it. A sighted person could take one look at their final plating and see if there are any messy edges that need to be wiped. I had to say, “Cindy, which edges have extra food bits?” And she’d have to take my hand and place it on top of where I needed to wipe. And then the pantry is a whole other ordeal. While the sighted contestants can enter the pantry and immediately see what beautiful produce arrangements are before them, Cindy has to walk me in and list verbally to me every item she sees while I rack my brain for ideas. If you seriously think I’m at an advantage having to communicate with another person in this way, then I really must say you need to get off those crazy pills. I can wholeheartedly say I was not at an advantage by having a helper by my side.
- I may have been the fan favorite from the beginning, but that doesn’t mean I was a shoo-in for the winner’s circle. There are things that happen on TV that cannot be hidden no matter how great the screen editors. If my apple pie was pale as a sheet or burnt to a blackened crisp, there would be no doubt I’d be going home after that first pressure test. There was no denying I did not help get the California roll on to our Japanese platter in the elimination round with Stacey on my team. THe camera flashes to the platter, and it’s obvious our tempura looked naked, and our roll and sauces were missing. While it’s true, the rest of America could not taste our dishes, so be it with the world of television—you just have to trust and go with what the judges say. There will be obvious mistakes we can’t hide on TV, and if I was that terrible or careless of a cook, I have no doubt I would’ve been sent home. Yes, fans and viewers might get upset, but that is the nature of the beast. Controversy helps feed ratings, and sending a fan favorite home doesn’t mean ratings will necessarily drop. So yes, I am well loved by many (and I’m so grateful for that—more to come later in this post), but that isn’t the only thing that kept me in the game.
So what I mean to say is haters are gonna hate. It doesn’t matter that I won or if Josh were to win or Becky or Frank or Monti or David Martinez or whomever—the more publicity a person gets, the more haters will surface. Life is too short to worry about all the haters. And I am well aware they’re out there. But I try not to let them bog me down and so I read next to none of it. I prefer not to poison my mind and heart with all the negativity. I’ve always tried to have a positive attitude, and being a human being and therefore sensitive to some degree, I choose to ignore the haters; this, I believe, disempowers them.
Another anxiety I’ve been experiencing is living up to the expectations of others. Because “MasterChef” has portrayed me in such an angelic light (until I said, “Shut the f*ck up!” in part one of the finale), I fear that the world has this one-dimensional image of me. I am aware that so many have placed me on such a high pedestal, but I also know that the higher one goes, the harder the fall. (Hello, Icarus!) When Ryan assigned me the live crab in the elimination round, so many viewers cursed at him, hated on him, called him all sorts of ugly names. In all honesty, I’m flattered Ryan gave me the live crab because that meant he took me seriously as a competitor and wasn’t patronizing me by giving me canned crab. THe video footage spliced Ryan chuckling just as I pierced myself with the crab shell, and even after we tried to dispel the myth of TV editing, Ryan still had haters. After Ryan was eliminated, I posted on my Facebook fan page and Twitter that Ryan has nothing but respect for me in spite of how it came across on TV. And guess what? I had people commenting things like, “Don’t tell us how to feel, Christine. Ryan is a douche bag!.”
The world of TV is almost make-believe, and while I do feel like the producers stayed pretty true to my character, showing that I never liked to talk badly about others (very true), there is still so much more to our personalities that could not be shown due to the fact that it’s just a sixty-minute show. For example, like I’ve said, I curse 500 times more than they’ve allowed on TV. I make sarcastic comments in my confessionals, and those have mostly been omitted, too. There is a dry-humored side of me that breaks everyone’s balls just as much as the next person, but after all is said and done, there is still this halo lit around my head. Like I mentioned earlier, I try to be authentic and genuine, and so I would like to be as transparent as possible to my friends, family, readers, viewers, and fans. That is why I’m writing this entry. I curse, I enjoy a drink or three from time to time, I laughed heartily at all of the un-PC jokes in The Dictator, I burp, I move my bowels. I am human, and I make mistakes. I have a lot of fear when out in public that I’d trip up, and someone catches me and thinks less of me under the circumstance. I fear the impending scrutiny. So to dispel that possibility, I am putting it all out right here, the truth, that I am human just like everybody else.
In addressing these first two concerns of mine, a good friend sent me a quote from President Obama: “Virtually everything that’s said about you is not about you. It’s about the person who’s doing the speaking. And this isn’t just negative stuff. It’s positive stuff, too. The Barack Obama that they’re talking about is an expression of people’s fears of out-of-control liberalism or black hope and pride, but it’s not you.” So inserting myself into this quote is helping me continue to be true to myself and to this world. It is helping me deal with these first two anxieties, to remember always that everything bad and everything good said about me by people who don’t know me personally are not always accurate reflections of myself. That’s not to say I won’t try my best to be a role model, but I think by admitting my flaws and my very humanness make me a better person in the end. After all, I’ve always connected more with the sinner than the saint.
My third anxiety lies in the stress from all the demands and challenges that come with this heightened notoriety, namely the every which way I’m going to be pulled. There are family and friends I haven’t spoken to in decades who are now finding out about me and wanting to get back in touch. I’m not at all being cynical—I know they are excited about my win and want to congratulate me. There are also all the press requests for interviews, appearances, event attendances, and so on that are suddenly showing up in my inbox. There are requests for me to cook at this gala and that morning show and this intimate celebration and that fundraiser. Being the person that I am, I have always found it hard to say no to people. Saying no, to me, equates with disappointment, and who likes to be a disappointer? But with my time and energy being consumed by every request imaginable, it’s getting impossible for me to not say no. With NMO still being a very real part of my life; stress, anxiety, and exhaustion still affect me very negatively. I go through routine rounds of chemo just to keep my NMO in check—in fact, I had chemo the day before I left for NYC just a couple of weeks ago—and as much as I like to think I’m Superwoman, it’s important for me to constantly remind myself that my health needs to come first. After all, if I’m all laid up in the hospital hooked up to IVs, what good can I do in this world? I am still trying to learn how to juggle my health and well-being with all the demands this newfound status has placed on me, and I know there will be a long, arduous road ahead of me. I know I will disappoint some by not granting interviews or by not answering fan mail, but I implore you to please be patient and supportive. I really try my very best to acquiesce and say yes, but please remember that there is only one of me, and I still have NMO.
The last concern I have is in direct regards to this blog post. I know this is a wonderful position to be in—to have won MasterChef, to be in the limelight, to have all the great opportunities open themselves up to me, to be recognized for my hard work and diligence—so I hope my expression of all my anxieties is taken for what it really is–a moment of honesty from me to you–and not as whiny complaints. I am not saying, “Woe is me for having all this fame and fortune.” What I am saying is I don’t crave fame and have never craved it. But I do see the positive impact my story has had on thousands all over the world. And this beacon of hope I’ve given to the masses makes it all worthwhile. All change is stressful, even if it’s good change. And because I did not set out at the beginning of the show to become such a recognizable person in the public eye, it will take me some time to get used to it. I still have knots in my stomach before every cooking demo on TV, I still get anxious in front of every camera, I still have slight trepidation whenever I hear my name called while I’m at the grocery store or mall. And I’m sorry if I have a look on my face like a deer in headlights when you ask to take a photo with me. But remember that I’m vision impaired, so being out and about in an unfamiliar environment is already a little scary for me. And now that so many people whom I virtually know nothing about but who know so much about me are approaching me, I might come off as a little nervous. But please don’t be taken aback by any of my reactions. I really am happy that my story has impacted so many people in such a positive way. I know the larger picture is greater than anything I could ever fathom, and I am trying my best to roll with the punches and embrace it.
And this leads me to the joys of this whole experience. MasterChef has been the craziest, most stressful, most intense, yet most amazing experience of my life thus far. Even though we had long sixteen-hour days of being on set, even though we had dozens of sleepless fitful nights, even though we all developed some sort of addiction or anxiety due to the stress of not knowing what would happen each day, even though we all had trouble adjusting back to our “normal” lives once the show was over; this has been a once-in-a-lifetime experience. And I can attribute this clearly to three things:
- Learning to believe in myself. I came to MasterChef with a lot of self-doubt. I still have a lot of self-doubt. But I’ve made progress. Throughout the weeks of nearly impossible challenges, I’ve learned, through the mentorship and guidance of the judges and from the other contestants, that I have it inside me to be better tomorrow than I was yesterday. I learned that I didn’t give myself enough credit, that I should trust my instincts and go with my intuition more. Low self-esteem and self-doubt are things many of us suffer from. Regarding this, I tell you to believe in yourself, too. It will not always lead to the right answer or the perfect scenario, but even so, learn from the mistakes and move on.
- To the family I made at MasterChef. I know I speak for many of us contestants not only from this season but from previous seasons as well when I say the kinship I’ve formed from being on the show means more to me than any prize. I’ve said it countless times before, and I’ll say it again: having met all these folks from such different walks of life than mine; with different ideals than mine; from different backgrounds, beliefs, and cultures than mine; and to have us all bond over such a simple yet universal thing such as food are the most wonderful gifts I can take away from this experience. It continually proves my strong belief that food brings all people together. It doesn’t matter if you’re from Libya or the U.S., gay or heterosexual, Catholic or Muslim, Republican or Democrat, eighty or eight years of age, man or woman—you can sit together and share in a meal and be consumed with love and respect for one another. Everyone in this world needs food for sustenance, and when it tastes divine and reflects a person’s heritage or region, it’s even more beautiful. That is why, above all else, I love food so much—food has the supernatural ability to bring two unlikely human beings together. And MasterChef is utter proof of that phenomenon. These people I’ve met on the show have become my foodie family for life. It is impossible not to love and bond with those who went through the same physically, mentally, and emotionally demanding experiences as me; those whom I ate, drank, cooked, used the bathroom, conversed, napped, played games, changed clothes, did laundry, cried and laughed with day in and day out; those whom I spent twenty hours a day with less the four hours spent isolated in my own hotel room at night; those who were there by my side through the thick and thin of it while my ties from the routines, comforts, and friends and family from home were severed for the whole of sixty-plus days. It was culinary boot camp, and I am grateful for the relationships I’ve formed with the other contestants. Believe me when I say that these mean more to me than the monetary prize, the cookbook deal, the title. I share this title of MasterChef with all those who cooked alongside me in that kitchen.
- To the people I’ve reached all over the world. Over the past few months as “MasterChef” unfolded on small screens across America, I’ve received a plethora of mail from people wanting to share their stories with me. There is the teenager who found the courage to try out for her high school soccer team. There are the parents of a child with vision or hearing impairment or paraplegia who now believe their child can achieve something great in life in spite of hard circumstances. There is the newly widowed, the recovering alcoholic or addict, the cancer patient, the unemployed, and the prison inmate who feel inspired to pick up the broken pieces of their lives and demand higher standards for themselves and their future. There is the starving artist who decided not to compromise his passion for theater, film, literature, art. There is the young man who was shunned by his community because of his recent admission of his sexual orientation who found hope and saw light at the end of the dark, dark tunnel. There is the twelve-year-old who wants to pursue culinary school despite others telling her there is no way she can do it because she is autistic or blind. ALl these people have reached out to tell me that my story has given them some sort of hope. Yes, I hear “you’re such an inspiration” all the time, and sometimes I worry about being patronized or becoming jaded. But when I sit back and think about the impact I’ve had on each individual who took the time out to write or tweet me, and then I think about all the hundreds or thousands more whom I’ve touched but who have not communicated with me to tell me so, and then I’m overwhelmed with such inexplicable joy and humility. There is greater purpose to all this, and I have faith that my story and ability to affect others stretch beyond MasterChef. MasterChef is just a stepping stone to what I can and hope to do for this world in my lifetime. I used to pray that if I could just influence one or two people with the story of my struggles, then I would feel fulfilled and acknowledge that my pain and suffering happened for a reason. But the fact that I now know I’ve touched so many more than just one or two…well, I can only say the blessings are seven hundred-fold. I am beginning to understand why my life unfolded in the way it did, and for that, I would not change a thing.
Relationships and community mean more to me than anything in this world. As byproducts; hope, faith, and love are essential to my survival perhaps even more than food. It is because of friends and family and community that I made it through the darkest periods of my life. Despite what you’ve seen of me lately, I did not always possess a positive attitude. Losing a parent and my vision and getting diagnosed with a life-changing condition are no easy feats, and I’ve had my share of depression and times when I wanted to give up. But because I drew from the strength of those who surrounded me with their love and their light, I overcame, I conquered, and I moved forward. For this, I am eternally grateful. Remember that all of the people you’ve met and all the people you will meet can have an impact on you, whether positively or negatively. Remember that the vice versa is also true—that you have the ability to impact those you cross paths with either on a daily basis or just once in passing. It is better to be a positive reinforcement for others than a negative one. I try to live by this, and I hope I’ve inspired you to do so, too. This world has the potential to become heaven on earth, and it starts with ordinary people just like me and you.
Thank you for reading, and thank you, everyone, for your love and support. I cannot express enough how much it means to me. Don’t be afraid to dream big, and keep on fighting the good fight. xoxo