Fr. Leo Patalinghug is perhaps best known as the cooking priest who defeated an Iron Chef with his killer steak fajitas in the Food Network’s Throwdown! with Bobby Flay.
But off-screen, the Baltimore-based priest is famous for more than his fajitas. The chef uses his cooking chops to help bring families together around the dinner table with his organization Grace Before Meals. The movement offers healthy recipes, a cooking show, and resources to help families share more meals together.
We grabbed some time with Fr. Leo—who also happens to be a martial arts instructor and break dancer—to learn more about his ministry and how cooking spices up his faith.
1. How did your love of cooking begin?
My mother is a phenomenal cook, and my dad knows a thing or two about [cooking] as well. An understanding of food was taught to me when my family opened their doors and gave others the gift of hospitality, which gave me a full image of Christianity, even if I didn't know it at the time. My mother cooks so well and has a power to bring people together. The theological connection [with food] became palpable when I went to Rome and started to realize how powerful food was, not just in the company. [Cooking] gave me an extended family, who became seminarian brothers. Meals are such integral parts of seminary and Italian culture.
2. How does your faith tie into your cooking and meals?
Starting early in my ministry, I gained experience in visiting family homes. I came early to help with the dinner preparations, and this gave me the chance to demonstrate that I was not there to be served, but to serve. I put myself in the family's place to help set the table and make the meal. My [cooking] experience grew as I took culinary courses in Italy. Cooking became a natural thing for me as a priest and it became an evident reality in the ministry with movement for Grace Before Meals.
3. What was the inspiration for Grace Before Meals?
It was inspired from my experiences in recognizing my faith and seeing it lived out in everyday life. While I didn't expect it to be the big deal it is now, Grace Before Meals is really based on the concept of what Jesus did and what we read about in the Scripture.
Now in my book, I present a theology of food, and [the] movement grew to a point where people heard about it and invited me to speak. We created a website, but people wanted more so we gave them a book. The people still wanted more so we created a video series that can be found on GraceBeforeMeals.com. That's when the news started to pick up on it. It was surprising to be on the front page of newspapers. It acts as a reminder that God has blessed us with many talents. The Food Network then contacted me, and since 2009, we have become leaders in the movement of food and faith. My book—coming out in 2014—presents a pastoral epic food fight: a bite-sized history of salvation.
4. What do you hope audiences get out of your work?
This is hard to summarize because Grace Before Meals is a smorgasbord; it provides for a large and varied audience. We want people to have fun in their faith. I present a theology of food as a precursor to understanding the theology of the Eucharist. I want to provide a forum for religious sharing of meals even if we are not talking about the Eucharist, as we all have differences in the way we see our Eucharistic food.
There is a lot of bite-sized but deep theology of faith out there. The lack of catechesis these days requires the Church to offer more bite-sized teachings. We are reminding people that education is not limited to academics, it begins in the home. We support opportunity in a new way for the domestic church. Being Catholic means a full life. We don't just eat one thing; Catholics are not restricted by any dietary issues. We want to let people know that fullness for life comes when we live and pray the grace before meals tradition. This is an invitation for God to join [at the table].
5. What is one of your favorite dishes to prepare and why?
I have no favorite dish because I believe everything is God's gift. I'm not being cheesy, I'm being honest. My most popular dish was featured on the Food Network as it was the winning recipe in the competition with Bobby Flay. My dish is now titled 'Father Leo's Funky Fusion Fajitas.' This dish has a full palate of flavors including sweet, spicy, and savory all at the same time. The main ingredients are things you can find at home: soy sauce, brown sugar, white wine, and a couple secret ingredients that can now all be found in my book.
6. Where do you get your inspiration for your recipes?
My style of cooking is primarily fusion, which brings in different cultures and techniques and tries to put them together in harmony. My technique describes our Catholic faith. People are a hodgepodge group, and we all need to learn how to work together as it is something the Holy Father said. I'm inspired by everyone and everything, even people who I may at first find disagreeable. I learn much from them through humility.
7. What is your greatest or most special cooking memory?
On the Food Network, I had no idea what was happening—the cooking competition was a surprise. This challenge came over me and the reality was that God wants to feed hungry hearts and souls. God said make good food so that people can hunger for it. These award-winning recipes make people who are not Catholic want to taste what I'm going to offer them. It can then lead to have a conversation about conversion. The Food Network show reached millions of people, and I thought, 'This is a big deal now.' We as a Church need to be feeding hungry souls. I have to be very well-prepared and bring people to hunger for what the Church is offering. Our Church needs to do a better job of plating the truth and serving with graciousness.
8. What do you hope for yourself in the future?
I hope to be faithful priest, a generous father, and an obedient son who will receive anything the Lord gives to me. Whether it be sweet consolation or bitter herbs of truth, I will take it. I want to trust that food will eventually bring me to eternal life.
Broiled Figs Stuffed with Blue Cheese, Prosciutto and a Balsamic Glaze
Enjoy one of Fr. Leo’s Grace Before Meals recipes.
10 figs, stemmed and halved
2 tbsp. olive oil
1 tbsp. balsamic vinegar
1 pinch of salt and black pepper
5 slices of fresh prosciutto cut into quarters, creating 20 small pieces
1/8 cup of blue cheese
Set oven to broil. Prepare a baking pan, lined with foil and with nonstick spray. Wash and dry figs. Remove stems and cut in half. Slice a thin piece off the rounded edges to create a flat surface, preventing the figs from rolling around.
In a separate bowl, combine oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper, and whisk together. Assemble figs on baking pan, flesh side up. Top off with portion of prosciutto and blue cheese. Drizzle a little of the oil and balsamic vinegar on top of each of these stuffed figs.
When broil is ready, place under the direct heat source of the broiler for 2-3 minutes, or until the cheese begins to melt and caramelize. Remove from the oven. Rest five minutes to cool before serving with a cracker of your choice. This will also work for apples, pineapples, peaches or plums.