MasterChef’s first blind champion visited Vietnam to launch the local version of the show and shoot promotional ads. After putting her acting and Vietnamese skills to the test, the Texan sat down with AsiaLIFE  to talk about setting things on fire, hitting rock bottom, and showing the dark humour that few viewers saw. By Lien Hoang.

Do you think cooking Vietnamese food helped you win MasterChef?
Definitely. I think that that was my strength because no one else knew how to cook with fish sauce and no one knew how to cook with coconut milk or things that are very key to Vietnamese cuisine. And I think the judges don’t know Vietnamese cuisine as well as they know French and other classical techniques so it was something that I played to my strength.

You’re mom didn’t teach you to cook?
I was never really interested in cooking, I just thought that eating good food was something that everyone grew up with, you know. And I think — she passed away when I was 14 and left no recipes. So it wasn’t until I went away to college that I missed the food that I grew up eating that I figured I would have to learn. So I bought a cookbook in college and learned from there, just by remembering how things tasted.

What surprised you about being on MasterChef?
It was a lot harder than I thought it would be. I thought because it was TV they would teach you a lot of things and they would extend the time, like I thought, you know, 60 minutes we would really get 90 minutes.

You’re very recognisable now, do people come up to you on the street?
It’s even crazier here in Vietnam. There are people who meet me and are crying, to me that’s really bizarre.

You’re working on a memoir?
My concentration was primarily in fiction [in university], but I’ve decided obviously to capitalise on everything. I knew everyone was interested in my life, so I thought it’d be a smart career move to change to creative nonfiction, so right now that’s primarily what I’m writing. That’ll be my thesis and I’m supposed to be graduating in May.

When you look at your memoir, what do you think stands out?
I think it’ll be something that hopefully people will be able to connect with because everyone goes through some kind of trial. And because I’m in creative writing it’s different. I’m not writing one of those memoirs that’s like, I had these challenges and I overcame them, and you can, too. It’ll probably be very dark, but there’ll be humour in it, too, because I think writing needs to have humour no matter what the subject. That’s just my personality as well.

Did religion take on any bigger role once you lost your sight, did you start thinking about more existentialist questions?
Somewhat, I think anytime when you’re really at the rock bottom of your life, you start to search for answers and the reasons why things happen or you’re just trying to make sense of things.

You mention rock bottom, are you comfortable talking about when things were at their worst?
I’d probably say the two things in my life that affected me the most, but in the end built my character, was probably when my mom passed away, I went through a long depression after that, and then with my health stuff. I’m sure I went through depression with that as well, but I don’t think it was as deep as before … But yeah those were probably the darkest times. I think every creative writer has demons, right?

It almost seems like you’re seeing everything I’m seeing.
Yeah oftentimes I don’t know what the hell’s going on. But I’ve learned to just kind of go with it. I obviously listen more. I think it was scary when I first lost my vision, you don’t know what’s going on, but after a while you just get used to it.

When has that been a challenge when cooking?
I’m a pretty messy cook, I set things on fire on the show. I think when you cook you have to be really organised, and it’s hard to be organised when you’re in a challenge that’s timed and you’re flustered.

Is there anything you think didn’t come out in the show? People watching that only know about you through that lens.
[Aside to a friend] I want to be candid but I have to remember she’s a reporter. I think I’m probably wittier and have a darker sense of humour. They didn’t show a lot of that. They cut out all my jokes. They left maybe a few in there.

Was it just not for primetime?
I think they just wanted my character to be very angelic, and a lot of my humour is like mean and un-PC, totally as a joke or with my friends. They make everyone kind of one- or two-dimensional. They made us all caricatures of ourselves, so I would say it’s all very true but they just pushed ourselves to the extreme.