Fr. Leo Patalinghug minces vegetables, not words. Not long after he welcomed the editors of Dominicana into the kitchen of his Baltimore townhouse for an interview about his ministry as the “Cooking Priest,” as he has come to be known, he smiled and said, “Make sure you tell your readers this is going to be the weirdest article they’ve ever read.”
Weird may not be the right word exactly, but it will certainly be unique. You see, Fr. Leo Patalinghug is not your typical priest. Your typical priest has not defeated world-famous Iron Chef Bobby Flay in a cooking competition broadcast on the Food Network. Nor has your typical priest earned a third-degree black belt in taekwondo. Nor was he an award-winning choreographer for a break-dancing group before he entered the seminary.
Fr. Leo did not set out to be unique, but it just so happens that his priestly calling has led him down some unique ministerial paths. It has brought him not only to the Food Network, but also to appearances on ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS. It has led him to host the EWTN program “Savoring Our Faith” and to co-host the Sirius XM Radio show “Entertaining Truth.” It has led him to found and direct an international apostolate called Grace Before Meals, as well as a non-profit organization, The Table Foundation. It has also led him to move into a rundown neighborhood in Baltimore, where he currently resides in a one-bedroom townhouse. It has led him to alter the floorplan of that townhouse, in order to bring the Lord into its midst.
“You’re actually standing in the tub,” he told us as we toured the residence. Except we were not standing in the tub. We were in a chapel. We were standing in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, reposed in a simple tabernacle hanging on the wall. On the altar underneath the tabernacle stood a magnificent golden chalice, which had been used by Pope St. John Paul II. “This room is the center of my life,” Fr. Leo said happily. This chapel is the Cooking Priest’s first home, the kitchen his second. And the story of how he got here is an unusual one indeed. When we were scheduling the interview he wrote in an email, “I’d even prepare for you a meal—so you can get a fuller experience of what I do.” Over the course of the next several hours, Fr. Leo opened up about his life and his ministry—all while cooking a multi-course meal for us.
For Starters: The Calling of a Cooking Priest
Wearing his black chef’s coat and tossing a bowl of steaming pasta, Fr. Leo spoke of his early life. He was born in the Philippines, the youngest of five children (four living), and grew up in the Baltimore area. “As for my family,” Fr. Leo noted with a wry smile, “my dad says we put the ‘fun’ in dysfunction.” Despite differences of opinion and lifestyle, the members of his immediate family have always had the capacity to come together around the family table. For every family, Fr. Leo explained, that table represents “the sacramental altar of the domestic church.” The table is where the individual members of the family—and the family as a whole—grow, develop, and are strengthened.
Most mornings growing up, Fr. Leo was the one bringing his siblings to the table, albeit against his will. His brothers and sisters were the first ones to take advantage of what must have been some innate talent he had in the kitchen. They recognized that one of Fr. Leo’s pet peeves is running late. “I just have to be on time for things,” he said to us, his eyes growing wide. Using this character trait to their advantage, his siblings would make him cook breakfast for them, or else, they threatened, they would make him late for school. So cook he did. He learned to serve, never expecting where his burgeoning cooking skills would lead him some day.
Fr. Leo’s love for cooking deepened at the same time he was preparing for the priesthood. While attending the North American College in Rome, he also took cooking classes, as a way to balance out his life in the classroom. He became friendly with several Italian restaurant owners, too. Thanks to his gregarious personality, Fr. Leo found his way back into their kitchens, where they would trade tips and secrets. He would learn about rigatoni and lasagna, and instruct them in the ways of hamburgers and ribs.
Fr. Leo would go on to serve as a priest of the Archdiocese of Baltimore. He had not been ordained for long when the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 occurred. After doing what he could to care for his people in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, he and some priest friends went on a short retreat, recognizing their own need to recover and renew themselves spiritually. He did all the cooking. For recreation they would watch a little bit of the Food Network, which was the only station not devoting coverage to the attacks. One evening, as his fellow priests watched Fr. Leo cook dinner and carry on, one of them suggested he start his own cooking show. He could talk about food and the faith, his friend thought. Fr. Leo scoffed at the idea. His friends persisted, however, and eventually they put Fr. Leo in touch with a production company and a producer who loved the concept.
With time the idea developed into a ministry all its own, called Grace Before Meals (www.gracebeforemeals.com). Fr. Leo started recording and posting episodes of a cooking show for the website, and traveling to give talks and food demonstrations, all of which emphasized the connections among faith, food, and family. Fr. Leo remarked, “Grace Before Meals was a movement that grew to the point where it became about me basically traveling [and] speaking on what I call a ‘theology of food,’ but doing so in the context of a family ministry—where the entire family can do something together and be together. In the Church today we’re breaking the family apart. There’s youth ministry and young adult ministry and women’s ministry and men’s ministry. What can we do for the family? We can [have them] eat together.”
During these years, Fr. Leo was also helping form men for the priesthood. He taught homiletics and served as director of pastoral field education at the seminary located at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland. “My students absolutely hated my guts” he said with a laugh. The Dominican friar who taught Fr. Leo’s preaching class in Rome would yell “You’re boring me!” at the seminarians when their preaching proved unengaging. Fr. Leo would employ similar tactics. Reflecting on the experience of the people in the pews, Fr. Leo told us, “they’re starving for signs of God. They really are starving for it. We have to learn how to feed them, not by overfeeding them but by meeting them where they’re at.” As Fr. Leo served us our first course (a delectable rigatoni della casa), he continued, “it’s about portion control.” With practice, he said, “I [learned] when to turn up the spice. I know if I’ve overcooked my homily. I know if I’ve not given [too much], but made them hungry for more. I know if it’s too salty, too sour, too bitter. I know that a good homily hits all the flavor profiles, like a good sip of wine.” He wanted his students to preach with the same versatility and dynamism.
Soon Fr. Leo would be given an opportunity to take his preaching to a global audience.
The Main Course: The Theology of Food Goes Global
Steak fajitas. This is the instrument through which the Lord chose to work. “Fusion steak fajitas” are what Fr. Leo served up to defeat celebrity chef Bobby Flay on the Food Network program “Throwdown! with Bobby Flay.” The premise of this popular food competition show involved Flay traveling the country challenging chefs to a surprise cook-off, to see whether they could withstand the heat of world-class competition and the scrutiny of a panel of judges. I asked Fr. Leo which was more nerve wracking: celebrating his first Mass after being ordained or appearing on the program. “Neither of them!” he replied, without hesitation. “When I decided to become a priest, I felt God was calling me, and I had confidence in Him.” With the television appearance, Fr. Leo actually had to pretend he was scared, for added dramatic effect. “Being in front of people doesn’t bother me so much. . . . I was shocked but I wasn’t nervous.” With the cameras rolling, Flay challenged Fr. Leo to the showdown, and Fr. Leo looked the Iron Chef in the eye and replied, “Bobby, with God as my witness, I am not afraid of you. Bring it!”
The night that the episode of “Throwdown!” premiered, Fr. Leo’s website received two million unique visitors. Fr. Leo’s witness inspired many. One woman from New York City wrote to him afterwards describing how she had been away from the Church for thirty years. Something about seeing him on the show that night had moved her deeply, however. She went to Confession at St. Patrick’s Cathedral the next day and received the Eucharist for the first time in three decades.
Reflecting on the impact that this television appearance had on people, Fr. Leo was struck by something that may seem paradoxical: “In media, you learn that less is more. In your approach to everything [related to media work], less is more . . . I mean, when you watch it, Bobby Flay mentioned God more than I did.” The simple appearance of a Roman Catholic priest on a secular cooking show brought people back to the Lord’s table. The experience, and the fruit it bore, deepened Fr. Leo’s desire to, as he put it, “allow myself to be a man who allows the Holy Spirit to do in me what the Holy Spirit does in others.” It infused him with new zeal, and more of a fearless trust in God. It also provided many new opportunities.
Following his victory on “Throwdown!”, Fr. Leo’s food-related ministry expanded significantly. The more he gave talks, led retreats, and offered food demonstrations, the more he developed what he calls “the theology of food”: an exploration of the theological aspects and dimensions of food and eating. In 2014, he published a book on the subject, entitled Epic Food Fight: A Bite-Sized History of Salvation. The connections between food and faith are rich in our Catholic tradition, he noted. The Scriptures, for example, begin and end with food: the forbidden fruit (Gen 2:16–17) and the banquet of the Lamb (Rev 19:9). Even Fr. Leo’s affection for theologians is food-oriented. In speaking about the conciseness and direct presentation contained in the Summa Theologiae, he remarked, “I love the organization of St. Thomas Aquinas. It’s a recipe! This, this, this, and this.” In the structure of the Summa, then, Fr. Leo sees a kind of recipe book for the Catholic faith: how to understand and live it more fully.
The faithful are sometimes surprised by Fr. Leo’s theological approach. He remarked that
Some people . . . poke fun at me, saying things like, “the theology of food, what’s that? I’ve heard of Theology of the Body; are you just taking that idea?” I tell them that my idea came first: before God made the body, God made food. And in the body God created hunger, and a freedom to choose what to eat. And if we [priests] don’t do a good job of presenting the beauty of the faith as truly digestible, then the devil—who is a really good cook, too—will make bad things look good. The whole salvation history started with one stupid bite of the forbidden fruit. And the only thing that will correct it is one bite of the Blessed food [the Eucharist].
God wants to fulfill His children. He tells them He wants to give them a land flowing with milk and honey (Ex 3:8). But one of the big problems is that we just don’t hunger for God. We don’t crave Him. We’re not like the deer that yearns for running streams (Ps 42:1). That’s because we’re in a land of plenty; we think none of this ultimately matters.
We’re addicted to those “cheap carbs” of the spiritual life. That’s why we need the seasons of fasting. I tell people that if you don’t get fed at Church it’s because we’re not doing a good job, or because you don’t come hungry, because you come already fed. You come full, I tell them—of yourselves! So get penitential. Get rid of that which fills you up, so you can make room for God in your life.
I worked in the prison system for a time, and one time I had a prisoner draw me a picture of the crucifixion. And he had Mary there at the foot of the cross with tears coming down from her eyes, and Jesus was bleeding, and she was cupping her tears and His blood, forming what looked like little pieces of hosts. Isn’t that beautiful? Now he was hungry!
There is such passion and joy in Fr. Leo that, when he offers reflections like this one, you cannot help but put down your fork and listen attentively. This is precisely what I had done. He looked down at my plate and noticed the small pile of chicken skin I had amassed (the main course he served was Asian-inspired grilled chicken tenderloin, finished with a rub featuring Sriracha and Old Bay). Fr. Leo leaned in and said, “By the way, I’m not going to be insulted if you don’t eat the skin, but that’s like chicken potato chips right there! C’mon!”
While Fr. Leo expressed appreciation for Aquinas’s Summa, he sees himself as more of an Augustinian in his theological approach. In Fr. Leo’s reflections about our need to hunger for God—who wishes to nourish us with His tenderness and goodness—the influence of St. Augustine becomes clear. It was St. Augustine who once wrote, “Suppose that God wishes to fill you with honey; but if you are full of vinegar, where will you put the honey?” Pope Benedict XVI cites this quotation from St. Augustine in his encyclical letter Spe Salvi (2007). The Holy Father goes on to reflect, “The vessel, that is your heart, must first be enlarged and then cleansed, freed from the vinegar and its taste. This requires hard work and is painful, but in this way alone do we become suited to that for which we are destined” (§33). It is possible to recognize Fr. Leo as a kind of missionary, working strenuously to call people to do precisely this kind of spiritual work. He labors tirelessly to prepare souls to receive the Lord’s sweetness.
A Palate Cleanser: New Forms of Service and Stewardship
It is also possible to see Fr. Leo’s work as the Cooking Priest as a “call within a call,” so to speak. That is, it gave his priestly life a distinctive ministerial shape and structure. With time, Fr. Leo experienced another call. Fr. Leo left the Archdiocese of Baltimore after ten years of service in order to join Voluntas Dei, one of the Church’s secular institutes of Pontifical Rite. Much like religious communities (such as the Dominicans and Franciscans), secular institutes consist of individuals who consecrate themselves to God by making vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Secular institutes also have distinct charisms and missions. Unlike religious communities, however, the members of secular institutes do not typically live together in community, but continue to lead lives “in the world.” Voluntas Dei, which was founded by Fr. Louis-Marie Parent, OMI, enjoys a kind of twofold charism, or calling. First, members are called to imitate the Blessed Virgin Mary at the Annunciation, saying yes to God’s will in their lives (Voluntas Dei is a Latin phrase meaning “the will of God”). Second, the institute draws inspiration from St. Paul, as its members are called to be evangelists and missionaries in the secular world.
Fr. Leo says he joined Voluntas Dei because he felt called to reclaim the charism of what it meant to be a secular priest (as opposed to a “religious priest,” meaning a priest belonging to a religious order or community). Fr. Leo had first sensed a call to do something for the secular world, so he had become a secular priest. Yet something was still missing. He was moved with compassion for those who no longer came to Mass, and for those who did not know Christ at all. “The idea of going where God is not is all of our call. You might be afraid of the term ‘secular,’ but really ‘secularism’ is what we should fear. Secularity, and being consecrated in it, is exactly what Jesus was. He was a secular man, but a consecrated man.” For Fr. Leo, Voluntas Dei was a further way to say yes to God’s call in his life. Giving your life to God is about “doing the weird things that God may be asking you to do,” he reflected (and he pointed to the lives of many of the saints to illustrate the point). When people do not come to Church, Fr. Leo thought, we should go to them. So he is trying to do precisely that.
As a member of Voluntas Dei, Fr. Leo had to move into a secular environment. First he lived in his father’s old medical office, which, by his own admission, looked “totally ghetto.” “Then I moved into the actual ghetto,” he said, looking out the kitchen window onto the parking lot of the apartment complex below. He lives in a mixed residential area consisting of young professionals, individuals and families transitioning out of low-incoming housing, and those in low-income housing. The neighborhood is gritty. He says the experience of living in the world, and realizing what it takes to make ends meet, has changed both his perspective and his preaching. It has also given him new avenues for preaching and witnessing to Christ. “All my neighbors know who I am. They not only know it, they love it! They come over here and eat all the time. And in that, you know what? I’m eating with sinners,” just as our Lord did, much to the chagrin of the Pharisees (Mt 9:11). “And they’ll ask questions: why can’t you do that? . . . what do you all believe? . . . It’s always about their desire to know what we teach.”
Fr. Leo responds by teaching and ministering as a priestly servant and steward. “In our ‘clericalizing’ mentality sometimes, we love to be served,” he noted. But Fr. Leo tries to resist that temptation. “I’m a servant. That’s number one.” Fr. Leo is also a steward, seeking to utilize the various gifts and opportunities the Lord has given him. His ministry, Grace Before Meals, has grown into an international apostolate. In addition to his work in television and media, as well as his writing, it involves Fr. Leo traveling the world giving food demonstrations, talks, and missions, and leading retreats.
Fr. Leo is also working on a non-profit organization called The Table Foundation, which involves various kinds of outreach to and through the food and hospitality industry. “The non-profit exists to harvest the power of food to do good,” Fr. Leo explained. Upon saying this, the Cooking Priest grew slightly sheepish. “I know, it sounds hipster-y,” he confessed with a grin. Yet the purpose, he explained, is to help feed bodies, minds, and souls and to build a sense of community.
One plan involves the Foundation opening a space not far from Fr. Leo’s current residence. It will feature a cafe on one floor, which will serve breakfast and lunch. The cafe will be staffed by individuals who have been released from the prison system. The Foundation intends to offer these men and women training and mentorship, as well as transitional housing, that they might be able to start careers in the foodservice industry, while giving back to the local community at the same time. A second floor will feature “main event dining,” with celebrated chefs visiting in order to host meals and bring people around the table for a unique dining experience.
Another outreach project that falls under the auspices of The Table Foundation is the Olive Mass. Fr. Leo pointed out that while the Church celebrates the White Mass for healthcare workers, and the Red Mass for judges and lawyers, there is nothing offered to those who work in the hospitality industry. So two years ago he held the first annual Olive Mass, offered for those who make and serve food. The second annual Olive Mass took place in September, 2017, at St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans. Archbishop Gregory Aymond was the principal celebrant, and hundreds of chefs and food industry workers were in attendance. In explaining the concept to us, Fr. Leo stressed that “if we don’t feed chefs spiritually and intellectually, they’ll be their own pastors and they won’t have room for God.” Fr. Leo reminded us that it was St. Teresa of Avila who remarked, “if you want to find God, find him among the pots and the pans.” Fr. Leo wants to help those in the foodservice industry do just that.
The Final Course: Meals as Mission
In spending an evening with the Cooking Priest, it becomes clear that he loves to serve. (Fr. Leo spent several minutes hand-whipping some whipped cream to top off our dessert, a crushed berry and mint parfait—truly a labor of love.) To see the Cooking Priest in action calls to mind the parable about the man who gave a great banquet. There Jesus says that “when the time for the dinner came, he dispatched his servant to say to those invited, ‘Come everything is now ready’” (Lk 14:17). The servant performs a crucial function in announcing that the meal is prepared and in beseeching others to come participate. He proclaims and implores. He acts as the sacred banquet’s missionary, we might say. Fr. Leo is passionate about this kind of evangelism, and he works to inspire other Catholics to do the same work—to invite people to the Lord’s table.
Image: Fr. Leo Patalinghug, used with permission.