- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Joseph Harris was prone to praying before hopping from the frying pan into the fire of “All-Star Academy,” a Food Network show aiming to discover the best home cook in America.

Now Mr. Harris, of Glen Burnie, Maryland, is the undisputed champion of the competition and $50,000 richer to boot.

It is “one of the highest honors and highlights of my life,” Mr. Harris told The Washington Times after the winner was announced on the April 19 finale. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but a lot of fun. It was a great cast with great people. Just to top if off, I won.”

Mr. Harris, 25, once dreamed of going to culinary school and was on his way to doing so in Missouri when his mother’s stroke and other family issues required him to return home to Maryland. He kept the dream fires burning and continually auditioned for the Food Network, whose casting department came to know him as the “Church Singer” because of his penchant for singing gospel tunes while firing up dishes in the galley.

Raised in a Christian household, he would thank his Creator for his culinary skills and hoped to bring them to more people. Finally, the call came for him to go to New York to participate in “All-Star Academy,” which he described as a dream come true.

“As the [competitors] started dwindling down, I started to realize that I might be able to stick around,” Mr. Harris said of the kitchen tournament. “To be honest, I didn’t see myself ever winning. I was more there for the actual experience.”

Despite his humility — he said he did the show mostly to better himself as a cook — Mr. Harris knew he had the chops and the confidence in his abilities to keep making the next rounds of the show. With each Sunday’s episode, the competition whittled down until there were but a few left.

Even getting to the final elimination challenge came to him as a surprise. The ultimate challenge had the remaining contestants whip up their best breakfast, lunch and dinner.

For the breakfast round, Mr. Harris was joined by his celebrity mentor — and a professional hero — Bobby Flay. For the combined breakfast dish, Mr. Harris and Mr. Flay concocted a crab griddle cake, roasted egg and hollandaise sauce, which Mr. Flay complemented with waffles topped by mango and chili butter sauce.

“That was as cool as it was our first time cooking together,” Mr. Harris said of working with his mentor, “and I had a good time cooking with him.”

For the lunch challenge, which required the contestants to cook their “best” burger and fries, Mr. Harris offered the judges a Mediterranean-style beef burger with pancetta and a side of potato wedges.

For dinner, he made sea bass with a tomato broth and risotto topped with anchovy butter and an olive.

To add to the pressure, the final meals were judged by Food Network celebrity chef Curtis Stone, a veteran of such shows as “Kitchen Inferno.”

“Leading up to that last part was definitely a little bit nerve-wracking,” Mr. Harris said. “I didn’t think I was going to win. I had already checked out in my mind.

“And when [Mr. Stone] said my name, I really didn’t hear him, but when he said it again, the look I had on my face was one of complete shock” when he was named the best home cook in America.

With the prize money in hand and national recognition bestowed upon him, Mr. Harris said, he will use the winnings to pay off some debt and concentrate on building his “brand.”

“I initially said on the show that I wanted to go to culinary school, but looking at it now, the [prize] money would [cover] one semester — not even the whole year,” he said. “So I quickly re-evaluated that, because I refuse to go into debt.”

Conscious of the fleeting nature of fame, Mr. Harris said he hopes to parlay his newfound recognition into a cooking show of his own and perhaps open a family-style restaurant one day.

“I’m always open for trying new things,” he said, “but as far as competitions go, that was hard enough. I don’t want to do it again.”

Meantime, no doubt he will continue to sing as he cooks and practice his religion.

“I just believe it’s a tremendous platform,” Mr. Harris said of his honor, “and [to] have my name associated with ‘best home cook in America’ is just fantastic.”

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