updated 06/04/2012 AT 7:45 PM ET
•originally published 06/04/2012 AT 8:15 PM ET
Chefs rely heavily on their sense of taste and smell to cook – especially if they’re blind like MasterChef contestant Christine Ha.
“I have to depend a lot more on the other senses to cook – taste, smell, how certain ingredients feel,” she tells PEOPLE. “I’ll know if a piece of meat is close to being done by how it feels against my hand or utensils.”
Christine, 33, has been diagnosed with neuromyelitis optica (NMO), a condition of the central nervous system that affects the optic nerves and spinal cord.
“The very first bout I had was in 1999,” she says of the condition. “It only happened in one eye then. It didn’t recover completely so I learned to adjust to seeing out of one eye. In 2004, it decreased to the level where I could no longer drive. In 2007, it decreased to where I am now. I have to use a cane to walk around or take somebody’s arm and be guided.”
Christine is ready to prove herself on the show, which premieres Monday (9 p.m. ET) on Fox. “It’s hard to see ingredients,” she says. “I have to figure out by smell and touch if an ingredient is fresh. Cutting with knives – fortunately, I’m pretty careful and I have a proper knife technique. Since I’ve lost my vision, I’ve cut myself once. And it was minor. I’ve never had to get stitches. It’s really about being organized, careful and using my other senses.”
And she won’t be getting any special help from the judges Gordon Ramsay, Graham Elliot and Joe Bastianich. “Joe, Gordon and Graham didn’t treat me any differently,” she says. “They told me what was wrong and right with my dish. There was constructive criticism. I feel like they judged fairly.”
Still, nerves were a factor for Christine when she began the competition. “I had never been this nervous in my life – even on my wedding day,” she says. “It was the most anxiety I’ve felt in a day. It’s already scary to be in an environment you can’t soak up visually what’s happening around you. It was challenging and scary.”