Rated PG: An EP!C inspiration

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When a pretty young lady named Dominique typed on her computer Thursday night at the Bon Appetit event in East Peoria, her message was intended to inspire the audience of several hundred. It did that.

Dominique, however, is wheelchair bound and unable to use her hands. The mere fact she was able to use a special software program to type her message using her cheek was inspirational enough. As she typed in the message that the computer then read aloud, you could have heard the proverbial pin drop in the ballroom of the Embassy Suites Hotel and Convention Center.

Her message explained the design of the piece of jewelry created by Bremer Jewelry goldsmith A.J. Boone that was raffled off during the event. The design was Dominique's and it represented what EP!C, the organization once known as PARC that works for people with developmental disabilities, has meant to her through her life. There weren't many dry eyes when the message was finished.

And it was just the start of an evening that was uplifting, fulfilling and filling.

Bon Appetit is one of EP!C's top fundraisers. It includes a cook-off involving several of the Peoria area's top chefs and a cooking demonstration by a nationally known chef. The meal served to the guests are from the special guest's recipes and part of the meal is prepared by that chef.

This year's guest chef was herself inspirational. Christine Ha was the season three winner of Master Chef, the Fox television cooking competition show hosted by world renowned chef Gordon Ramsey. She defeated more than 30,000 other home cooks across the country to win the Master Chef title.

Ha is blind.

Ha explained that an autoimmune disease caused her to lose her eyesight gradually and she was an adult by the time she was legally blind. That, she added, was also about the time she was starting to excel as a cook.

A Houston native and daughter of Vietnamese parents, Ha started cooking for pleasure. "I started with an old cookbook and some used pots and pans and utensils," she said.

While she lamented for a while that her blindness likely would prevent her from doing what she loved most, she didn't give in to self-pity.

"Knowing I could bring jot to others is what really led to my love of cooking. And being stubborn by nature, I didn't want to give it up," Ha said in explaining that she finds ways to overcome the blindness to continue cooking her way. Those include taste, smell and even the feel of ingredients.

Her way, she joked, doesn't normally means in a dress and high heels, which is what she was wearing while doing her demonstration, which was shown on two large screens in the ballroom for those not close to the stage. "That plus the cocktails" could affect the demonstration, she joked.

Ha had no trouble joking about her blindness, including while using a sharp knife to cut into bean pods. "I hope I don't bleed. But if I do, it's ok. Nobody is going to taste this," she said, referring to the fact the demonstration dessert was not for consumption.

Ha's first cookbook, Recipes from My Home Kitchen: Asian and American Comfort Food, was available for purchase (and she autographed them after the dinner) along with a cookbook of recipes from the seven local competitors in this year's Bon Appetit. Those chefs were William Barnett and Chris Castro of Lutheran Hillside Village, Dustin Allen of Edge by Chef Dustin Allen, Hugh Higgins of Hearth, Leo Carney of Kickapoo Creek Wintery, Tony Egan of the Creve Coeur Club, and Vince Swanson of Cracked Pepper, Salt and Sugar.

The finalists were Castro and Swanson and they had to each convey their plan and inspiration for an All-American burger to a culinary student at Illinois Central College, where the competition took place. With 30 minutes left, the chefs took over the cooking and they had to incorporate into the meal the mystery basket ingredient, peanut butter.

The winner of the local competition, announced Thursday night, was Swanson.

As I noted, it was an inspiring event. But nothing topped the inspiration of Dominique and her family. Her father spoke of how he and his wife wondered for years what thoughts their daughter was capable of having but unable to communicate. The computer program that enabled her to express herself, he said, "finally showed us she was in there."

Dominique, he said, is a huge sports fan. She loves basketball, the Chicago Bulls and knows even now when the first Monday Night Football game of next season will be played. Now what father doesn't dream of having a daughter like that?

EPIC stands for Empowering People. Inspiring Capabilities, Dominique is a beautiful example of how finding a way to empower a person with a developmental disability can inspire amazing capabilities.

About the Author
Paul Gordon is the editor of The Peorian after spending 29 years of indentured servitude at the Peoria Journal Star. He’s an award-winning writer, raconteur and song-and-dance man. He also went to a high school whose team name is the Alices (that’s Vincennes Lincoln High School in Indiana; you can look it up).