- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Joseph Harris of Glen Burnie, Maryland, had a dream to be a professional chef. He even moved to Missouri to attend culinary school, but then life took an unexpected turn when his mother had a stroke. Mr. Harris returned from the Midwest to help his family care for his mother.

“Of course, I was a little bit disappointed, as I had the hopes of going forward in what I would consider a big step into my culinary passion,” Mr. Harris told The Washington Times.

While assisting with his mother’s care, Mr. Harris, 25, kept his ambition alive. An avid viewer of the Food Network, he kept up with auditions for its programs and applied for one himself.

“For that TV show, you had to be a professional chef, so I knew I wasn’t going to get on that,” Mr. Harris said.

But the network never forgot the chef known as the “Church Singer” because of his penchant for singing gospel music while cooking. When the Food Network sent Mr. Harris an email in August about participating in a new show called “All-Star Academy,” he jumped at the chance.

“I filled out the application, took a chance, and they called me two hours later and said, ‘We really like you and think you’d be a perfect fit.’”

“All-Star Academy” will show Mr. Harris competing with nine other skilled home chefs — mentored by such celebrity cooks as Bobby Flay and Alex Guarnaschelli — for a $50,000 prize. Mr. Harris made several trips to New York to tape the show, which premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. EST.

During taping, Mr. Harris was ever cognizant of his mother’s health.

“I just thought the right thing to do was take care of her, be responsible for taking her to the doctor and things like that,” Mr. Harris said. “It wasn’t a hard decision because you always sacrifice for the ones you love the most.”

Nevertheless, his siblings and father stepped up to help during his many trips to New York, allowing him to focus on the TV competition.

“She did have a seizure on the first day of shooting,” Mr. Harris said. “And I thought I might have to leave [the show] because I didn’t want anything else to happen. But it eventually worked itself out, and the Lord God took care of it, and the rest is history.”

Mr. Harris credits his mother’s ongoing recovery and his ability to concentrate on the show to his faith. He has sung in church with his family ever since he was a child and believes religion is his guide in the kitchen and in life.

“You know, going to church and being raised Christian, we had opportunities to sing a lot and minister at a lot of different places,” he said. “That just kept me very focused, kept me very humble and kept me very determined to live a certain way and walk a certain path.

“And how that started incorporating itself into cooking [is] I would always pray before I would cook anything, especially if I was cooking for other people, because I was nervous,” Mr. Harris said.

He enjoys playing gospel music while cooking and dancing while crafting a meal.

“I’ll have a lot of fun in my kitchen, especially if I’m by myself,” Mr. Harris said, “because it’s such a good time, and it’s my time. Sometimes I’ll pray or just sing. It’s a good way to just have fun and unwind.”

He describes his culinary leanings as a “fusion of North and South” that incorporates classic soul food mixed with fresh, natural products to “make the flavor even more intense and enjoyable for the person that’s eating it.”

He calls this approach to cooking “getting back to basics.”

“My grandmother actually taught me how to cook,” Mr. Harris said.

His cuisine, accordingly, is “the epitome of what I call soul food or comfort food,” he said. “That’s really the style that I stay true to because that’s who I am, that’s how I was raised. I don’t try to imitate or mimic something that I’m not, and that’s what I stay true to, but with the spin of incorporating fresh ingredients.”

Mr. Harris‘ competitors on the show kept him on his toes.

“You’ll see just how intense it is in just the first episode,” he said. “Naturally, before I got started, I went into the bathroom and just started praying and asked the Lord to help me, because that’s true to who I am, that’s what caused me to keep moving forward.”

Asked whether viewers might see his prayer routine on camera, Mr. Harris laughed and said, “[I did that] a couple of times, [but] I don’t know if you’ll see it.”

For a fellow with a passion for cooking and watching the Food Network, participating in one of its shows while being mentored by some of his heroes was a dream come true.

“That was just such an honor, a home cook’s dream,” he said. “You see people like that on TV, and you hope you have their job one day. But to have that be an actual live experience I still pinch myself sometimes, because I can’t believe that actually happened. The experience of that was just monumental.”

Despite his TV appearances, Mr. Harris said he is a simple man with down-to-earth tastes.

“I just love to cook,” he said. “I love to make people feel the joy and the passion that I have when I’m cooking.”

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