Christine Hazel, Chopped Champion and Executive Chef at Huntingdon Valley Country Club, Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania. Image by Diana DeLucia
Christine Hazel grew up in Northeast Philadelphia and Levittown, Pennsylvania. Her early culinary influences came from her grandmothers, and she spent many years learning how to recreate their recipes at family dinners and functions. Her first love was science, and she rose to Pre-Med at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia; while doing internships, she found the creative spin missing. That would lead her to the beginning of a journey well worth the read. ~Diana DeLucia
GK: When did you leave Pre-Med and change course?
I was pre-med for three years and discovered I needed to use my creative side. I went on to bartending for a few years while trying to figure out my path. Then at 28, I decided to go to culinary school, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in culinary management. I enrolled in the Art Institute of Philadelphia and graduated with my Bachelor’s Degree in culinary management.
GK: How did Hell’s Kitchen come about?
While I was in culinary school, a casting director approached me and asked me if would like to be a contestant on Hell’s Kitchen. They had heard about me through fellow co-workers. I was delighted when I got cast on the show. I had to take a break from school but the experience was well worth it.
Hell’s Kitchen was my first real job, and I was thrown in with the wolves! I learned so much working with Gordon Ramsay and realized I knew nothing about cooking! It was fun and exciting. I was still in culinary school and competing with experienced chefs. I thought that was pretty incredible. I was like a sponge and absorbed so much from Chef Ramsay and Andy Van Willigan-Cutspec, his sous chef. I’ve grown so much from that experience and finished ninth out of 18.
GK: How did you find the Golf Industry?
In 2013, I was recommended by my culinary school instructor Chef Futryk to work at the US Open at Merion Golf Club. I didn’t know at the time how much golf was to become a large part of my life.
I worked in the USGA tent, and it was very stormy that year. I remember tornado warnings and windy tents. I cooked for some extraordinary athletes such as Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps; I enjoyed it. One of the chefs in the tent was John Wion, who was working part-time at The Masters at Augusta National, and was adamant about getting me down there to start working for him. That year I went down to Augusta and started my career there. That was in 2014; I was a junior sous chef.
When I did my first season at The Masters, Scott Haegele was the Executive Chef at Augusta National. He was talented, structured, and disciplined and had very high expectations! All the chefs held him in high regard. I learned a lot from Scott. He earned his place, and others knew it and that was something that I wanted to be.
Left: Truffle Wild Mushroom Pizza
Right: Christine Hazel, Executive Chef (center) with her lead line cooks Harmonie Garner (left) and Candice Ray (right)
Images by Diana DeLucia
GK: What did you do after you graduated?
After I graduated, I started working for some of the big-name chefs in Philadelphia, such as Marcy Turney at Lolita, a Mexican-based restaurant on 13th street, which was high-volume and fast-paced. I worked the grill and loved it. After that, I started working for Garces Catering for Jose Garces, a renowned Latin-American Chef, Iron Chef, winner of the James Beard Award, and proprietor of a local organic farm. Garces Catering operates at The Kimmel Center, a beautiful building known for the arts. I had to learn so many different menus and techniques as we made all his recipes for restaurants and events across town. I became the sous chef, and then Hell’s Kitchen aired in 2015 two years later!
GK: What happened after the show aired? How did it change your life?
I became the culinary advisor for Chickie’s and Pete’s, which was the number one sports bar in North America. It is a fast-paced, high-volume sports bar in Philadelphia with over 12 locations. I got to do a lot of signature menu items and get my name out there. I started doing popup events all over Philadelphia and then down south.
GK: Work life balance.
This chef world can be a little daunting sometimes and run you down. In order to be a better chef, you have to find a life balance. It’s essential to take a breather sometimes. If you don’t, you will burn out; that happens often. Sometimes I have to tell myself to make sure I take a break because I’ll go for weeks straight without one, and then I wonder why I’m not performing my best. If you run yourself to the ground, you may decide that you don’t wish to be in the business anymore. In the last few years, I’ve seen many chefs that were passionate before and have left the industry altogether.
GK: Tell us about your love for events.
I love executing significant events. I love starting from the beginning and calculating the man-hours that go into the planning, structuring, and ordering. After all the tournament duties are done, we close up, clean up and then do it again. It is rewarding with annual events as you keep improving each year and learn from mistakes.
GK: Folks don’t realize how much work goes into a single tournament. Then when it’s over, I hear there is an emptiness.
Oh yes, I know that feeling. Did that happen? Is it over already?
The bonds you make with different chefs especially working with The Master’s tournament, are crucial. I have lifelong friends that have become people I work with outside of that event, especially when I do various popup events. I love collaborating with them and making magic.
GK: Tell us about your product line?
This is a harsh industry; when you get out of school, you have student loans, and you have to think outside the box. When I started doing food shows like Hell’s Kitchen and Chopped, I made a lot of relationships and networked a lot.
I’ve idolized Martha Stewart for as long as I can remember. I love her brand empire; she is an inspiration to me.
I partnered with Taste of Old Country after about three years of using their products. I found that I had value when it came to my brand. We started developing flavors for oils at first. Now we have six flavors and added a line of vinegar.
Networking is vital for chefs who would like to brand themselves. LinkedIn has been a great platform, especially during the pandemic. You could still talk to people and make new friends. I think that that’s how you grow. And then that’s how your business is going to grow.
GK: Tell us about Food Network’s Chopped?
I was asked by casting directors to do the show Chopped in the Winter of 2017. The show filmed in January of 2018. The episode was based on Halloween and leftovers. Martha Stewart, Alex Guarnaschelli, and Geoffrey Zakarian were my judges. I competed against three other chefs to be crowned Chopped Champion in October 2018. It was an absolute honor!
Hamachi Tartare with Seaweed Gelatin, Fried Seaweed, Fresno Chili Oil, Shaved Fresnos, Meyer Lemon Pith Purée Togarashi and Dragon Fruit. Image by Diana DeLucia
GK; How did you land at Huntingdon Valley Country Club?
Before the pandemic, I was doing some consulting work, and I was the culinary director for Moonshine in South Philadelphia for about two years. I did contract work with that same restaurant group, helped open new restaurants, and wrote the menus. I was a traveling chef. I would do a lot of appearances, live on-stage demos and work with my olive oil and vinegar brand. I also have a partnership with Rhineland Cutlery with my own knife line.
After The Masters in 2021, I ended up having health issues. I was experiencing tons of pain and just thought it was me getting old. I ended up having to get a hip replacement unexpectedly. I was out of work for a little while, but I had to figure out a plan during that time.
I started receiving all these messages from recruiters. I usually ignored them, but Huntingdon Valley always intrigued me. It was a club in the area that had a pretty significant history. I enjoyed the golf industry and wanted to find an opportunity closer to home. I went through the interview process, and it seemed fitting. However, I told them they’d have to wait because I was getting my final surgery that week. Two months after surgery, I hobbled my behind in here and started working, and, at the same time, I was trying to recover.
I was ready for the challenge, and it was a challenge! I’m blatantly honest that Huntingdon Valley needed a complete overhaul regarding the dining. I stripped it down to the foundation and created all new menus and recipes. The food costs and labor were through the roof. I had to clean house, start from scratch and put my mark on it, which I believe I have now.
GK: How have the members reacted to the changes?
Memberships often fear change, but I feel they’ve warmed up to my ideas and see the value. I talk with many members and guests to ensure I am maintaining relationships. I want them to feel they can ask me anything and contribute.
On the 4th of July, we did an allergy-friendly table that went well. We provided a full spread of gluten-free, nut-free, and vegan dishes. A member came to me in tears, saying this was the first time in six years that she could send her children up to the buffet and not be scared that she’d have to use her EpiPen, which was terrific—modernizing and moving to the future. We’re making actual changes one day at a time. And as long as our membership is happy, I’ll be satisfied.
Black Pepper Maple Pork Belly with Tres Leches Cornbread, Apple Pave, Smoked Apple Crema and Cherry Butter.
GK: Criticism? How do you handle that?
You have to have thick skin in this business. I feel like I’m getting better at not taking it home and not absorbing it entirely, which will affect my day. In the end, if someone didn’t like a dish that week, I have learned to use it as ammunition for my next dish.
GK: What are your plans for the next few years with Huntington Valley?
We are doing a complete kitchen overhaul. I have ordered a ton of new equipment, bringing us into the 21st century. I’m trying to use my experience when strategizing execution and using the tools we have to reduce labor. I’m excited to bring this equipment in and design the kitchen to get food out efficiently. It’s been a lot of planning and financials, but one thing I’m good at is number crunching!
I want to create the wow factor! I want our membership to keep increasing, and I want it to be so incredible that they will not blink an eye if there is a price rise. I want them to be here wholeheartedly and tell their friends at other clubs to be here. Recently I was asked to do a charcuterie class at another local club, which means that maybe the word is spreading that other clubs are interested in what we’re doing here. That makes me happy.
GK: Tell us about your other missions; I know you have a few!
My biggest struggle is having too many missions and ambitions, but my main focus is Huntingdon Valley.
My ultimate mission is to grow my brand empire and have my very own cooking show. I am paying attention to that again; now that I have Huntington Valley moving in a positive direction, my outstanding staff can support me. Starting in the fall, we’re going to be doing festivals again.
I am starting the lineup with Taste of Philadelphia and the Taste of Lancaster. I’ll be doing two days on stage and getting my brand back out there. You’ll see lots of social media. I’m doing some brand endorsements and getting myself back out there. Hopefully, everyone stays tuned.
GK: Tell us about your team.
My team at Huntingdon Valley is strong. I have two sous chefs, John and Bill, that truly support my mission. We have a team of fifteen line cooks and five stewards that run three a la carte venues, a large-scale banquet program (golf outings, weddings, member events, non-member events), and grab and go facilities. Our team is strong, adaptive, and always looking to learn and take on more challenges.
Cockle Chowder with Fried Fennel, Celery Root Purée and Fondant Potato
Image by Diana DeLucia