Hazell McKenzie is the Season 12 winner of the Food Network’s Worst Cooks in America television show. After a grueling competition, Hazell, a national of St. Vincent and the Grenadines went on to win the 25,000 cash prize in the March 11th finale. We recently had an opportunity to chat with her about her journey on the show and find out the behind-the-scenes scoop at Food Network.
When you started the Food Network’s Worst Cooks in America competition, did you ever think you’d make it this far?
Not to sound cocky or presumptuous but from the day I left my house and I was picked up by a white van, I left with the mindset that my name was already written on the check. I refused to entertain any other idea [other than] that I will be hailed the winner.
Why did you decide to sign up for Worst Cooks? What were you hoping to get out of the competition?
To answer this question, you might find it strange, but I wasn’t really looking to sign up for this show. I was having such a very difficult time in my personal life; I was depressed, and was looking for something that had meaning and purpose. I was tired of feeling like my life wasn’t going anywhere when I knew I had potential. I wanted to feel a sense of belonging because for 18 years after losing my mom and dad, nothing was going right. One day I sat at my computer- and as I said a prayer and asked God for direction and to send me a sign to do something great- I saw an ad on the right side of my screen. It was a casting call for Worst Cooks season 12. I was hesitant to click the button because I was thinking, I have tried out for things like this before and I had never gotten a call back. I was out for a morning run when my phone rang I saw a number from LA. I said, I do not know anyone from LA and if it’s a bill collector am just going to pretend I was sleeping. Once again, the still voice that was so gentle before whispered “answer.” Just as they was about to hang up I pushed the answer button and said hello. He said this so and so one of the producers from Worst Cooks, I could not believe it. I said, “I didn’t think I was going to call I just did it as a joke” he said, “Are you still joking?” I said, “You can bet your bottom dollar I am not.” Now the idea of winning $25,000 seemed real.
You often referenced being from St. Vincent and the Grenadines on the show. How important has it been for you to remember where you’re from?
My mother was the oldest of 7 children and she was illiterate. She couldn’t even recognize her very own name but growing up in St. Vincent instilled some great values in her which she passed on to us and that carried the weight of thousands of dollars, St. Vincent was the core of her being. She used to say to us “tek time kill ants, yo go find e guts” or “pig bin ask the hog why she mouth so long, hog say wait yo a come yo go see.” I was unsure of what she spoke but found out the meanings later when she passed away and life presented its challenges for a period of 18 years. It was those fundamental teachings that set the tone for the fight that was ahead. The island is in my DNA and it is a part of my identity. I am grateful for the foundation laid out for me because of the principles and values thought by my elders who were the corner stone of the Vincentian society. I make it a point to visit St. Vincent once a year and whenever I am there, it is important for me to visit my elders, so they may remind me why I need to remain humble and hopeful. We can get so caught up in the things of this world, we are fooled by the glamour and glitter and lose our way and our focus but because of those teachings, I am able to exercise patience, to get to my destination. I took time and killed an ant and so I found its gut.
Some persons are convinced that once you’re from the Caribbean that cooking is in your blood. What would you say to persons who were shocked that a Caribbean person was on the Worst Cooks in America?
I believe that people can be naive and narrow minded at times. Sometimes I think it’s important for us to step out of the box for a bit and experience a world that is full of beautiful surprises. This is not “An Ant’s Life” where the queen picks what your future path would be. We are born clean slates and therefore are born with different gifts. We are born to do different things otherwise the world would be a boring place. I am pretty sure that there are more Caribbean people hidden in the gems of the Antilles who cannot cook.
What was it like having Anne Burrell as your mentor and what would you say was the number one takeaway working with her?
I was hoping that she would pick me. My sister Lucieann loves Ann and so she had me watching her on TV for years. Just to be able to be next to her and have her right in arms reach was incredible. She was no longer on my TV screen. She was a dream come true. She pushes you, so you can give birth to the potentials that are locked away inside you.
How was for you going into the practice cook? When you looked at the entire menu, was there anything that you were concerned about, any dishes you felt weren’t quite there yet?
Going into the practice cook was overwhelming because I was thinking, would I be able to finish all those dishes with the time allotted? I can’t allow fear to creep in now; we are too close to the end. I was worried about my rice and the fact that it burned. I was afraid the judges would say it tasted burnt.
Does it feel like you’re no longer a worst cook? What does it feel in this moment to win, and will you be throwing down more in the kitchen?
It doesn’t feel like I am a worst cook anymore. I can make pasta from scratch. My problem has always been my lack of creativity in the kitchen and being afraid to mix flavors. I was afraid to venture out and explore my palette. The moment we stood before the judges I kept telling myself this can go either way because Steven’s dishes had been just as good as mine. I kept telling myself, it’s you, and they must choose you. And they did. I wanted to run all over the place. I saw the endless possibility and how my life had just forever changed. Let’s just say I am taking more risks in the kitchen.
How would you sum up this entire experience of being there with these other competitors, and just the competition in general?
I naturally have a difficult time trusting people and at first, I tried to create a distance between myself and the cast. It was exhausting and unfamiliar. However, with the diversity of the cast, each one of them deposited a piece of themselves in me. Worst Cooks is a life-changing journey. It takes ordinary people and turns them into celebrities, win or lose.
What does it mean for you to win the prize money, and what do you plan to do with it?
This is the break I have been waiting for, for 18 years. I am naturally a go getter and I know I can take this 25 and multiply it to make 100. I just wanted some one to take a risk with me and the Food Network did. I was never the type to think ordinary and I made myself a promise after my dad died that I would live to my fullest potential so I am always creating. I will like to work on a few things for this year. I will like to release my book called “Suitcase of Dreams”. I would love to run a Marathon and I will love to do a toy drive for the children of North Leeward [St. Vincent and the Grenadines] for Christmas this year. My most important project would be my first invention. As an aspiring social worker I am always thinking of ways in which I can be more effective in my service delivery. My concentration is children who have been traumatized due to sexual abuse, so I am working on my first invention in the form of a doll. I hope is this would create an opportunity for sexually abused children to have an outlet to express the details of their abuse easily, parents and therapist will be alerted when these details are being recorded which would lead to assisting law enforcement in prosecuting abusers. The key is to be able to identify and target the problem in the beginning stages, so we can implement a solution to protect the mental health of children before they get to adolescence. I strongly believe that building strong self-esteem is a child’s passport to a lifetime of mental health and social happiness.
Where does Hazell go from here? Will we be seeing you on any reunion shows soon?
The only place I can go from here is UP. In the words of Ann B. “I am a Rockstar.” There has not been an official reunion but the season 12 cast members are planning on getting together in the summer for a weekend.