And the winner is …

Cookmeisters, beware: Royal Hawaiian chef James Harris is ready to defend his designation as "Champion Chef of Orange County."

Harris took the title Aug. 21 from head chef Nicola Bellazzi, of San Clemente's Enne Cucina Italia. The trophy now sits on the bar at the Royal Hawaiian in Laguna Beach — unless and until — another chef bests Harris in gastronomical combat.

Harris won the award in a battle of the chefs, called Sunday Night Chef Fights, a la TV's reality shows that pit master chefs against each other. The "fights" take place in a Huntington Beach kitchen showroom, Standards of Excellence, where an audience of 40 pays $50 to $80 for the privilege of watching the chefs put together a dish in 30 minutes.

They then get to eat and vote on the results. Similar food fights take place in the Inland Empire, the Coachella Valley and San Diego.

Harris, who became executive chef at the iconic Royal Hawaiian in February, said he was ready to put himself to the test in the contest, especially when the secret ingredient — cinnamon — was announced.

"I don't much like to cook with cinnamon, so it was not easy" to incorporate the spice into his planned menu, Harris said.

But he did it with so much success that his cinnamon-scented wheat and mango bread pudding ended up being the highest vote-getter of the evening, and it may have just put him over the top in the competition.

Harris' winning menu consisted of an "amuse bouche" of a mai tai with cinnamon-infused spiced rum. The first course was wild mushroom bruschetta with a variety mushrooms, thyme and pecorino. The second course was New Caledonian blue prawns with a togarashi rub and pickled vegetables with a ponzu sauce. The bread pudding was the dessert.

The secret, to the bread pudding's success, he said, was the use of overripe mangoes, which were cooked in the pudding as well as placed outside of it.

Harris is climbing the ranks of chefdom. His last job was as sous chef at French 75, after he got his chef's hat at the Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts and worked at various restaurants for several years. At Royal Hawaiian, he is credited with revamping the restaurant's menu.

Harris is no stranger to cooking contests. He recently entered the "I Love Poke" Festival, taking second place against many talented Orange County chefs, according to press materials from Sunday Night Chef Fights.

Now he's enjoying the view of his trophy on the bar at Royal Hawaiian, where it will remain until at least Nov. 6, when the next Sunday Night Chef Fights take place.

"I have to keep it," he said.

For information about the next food fight, visit

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