Sept. 11, 2012 -- 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.
"I see shadows," Ha said. "I think the best way for me to describe it is, if you were to come out of a really hot shower and looked into a really steamy mirror, that fogginess is what I see."
But Ha, who has no professional culinary training, said she was determined not to let blindness force her to give it up.
"When I lost my vision, there was one time, I tried to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich," she said. "I recall getting it all over the counter. I just started crying and was wondering if I would ever cook again."
But she did more than pick herself up off the counter. She started her own blog, theblindcook.com, which is how the producers of "MasterChef" discovered her.
Ha's kitchen is decked out with a few special tools to help her along: a talking thermometer, homemade Braille bumps on the stove, and oven mitts so large they look like they belong to an astronaut, but they keep her from getting burned.
But her favorite part of cooking is plating, the presentation of food, which Ha does from memory.
"I do remember colors and I can visualize things," she said. "I know I like to plate everything on white. The color pops out, looks better."
"I picture the colors of food – this needs some green, this needs some red," she continued. "That's how I think about garnish. I just feel my way through that plate and that's how I present."
Now an official "MasterChef," Ha said her next dream is to open her own ice cream store and a pub.
"I just want people to realize that they have it in themselves if they really want to," she said. "If they have that passion, that fire, that drive, that desire... you can overcome any obstacle and any challenges to really achieve what you want and prove yourself to the world. Everyone is very capable. Much more capable than they think they are."