It’s no surprise that Fr. Chuck Frederico, SJ, has experienced some of his most powerful spiritual moments around the table.
Before he joined the priesthood, the 42-year-old Jesuit was a professionally trained chef who had worked as a waiter, bus boy, sous chef, maître de, and behind the counter at a Jewish deli.
His work life may have changed—Fr. Chuck is now the vocations director for three East Coast provinces—but his passion for food hasn’t. In fact, these three moments at the table continue to flavor the Italian Jesuit’s priesthood and spirituality.
Fr. Chuck remembers waking at 7 a.m. every Sunday when he was growing up to the smell of his mom making meatballs, gravy, and tomato sauce. He’d hop down to help her, working as her “official taster.” A few hours later, 25 or so members of their Italian family would gather at their table in the suburbs of Philly and eat.
“Even if the expenses weren’t there, the meals were top notch,” Fr. Chuck says. “We spent the money on food because it was important for bringing the family together.”
Cooking—and using it to bring people together—got young Chuck’s attention. In high school, he worked at an Italian restaurant as a bus boy, where the chef taught him how to make homemade pastas and sauces. After graduation he attended the Culinary Institute of America (which, coincidentally, was a former Jesuit residence).
But it wasn’t until a few years later that the seeds of his Jesuit vocation began to take shape—fittingly, while sitting with friends at a restaurant in Italy.
It was 1993. Chuck was studying abroad for the summer in Naples while attending St. Joe’s University, where he was getting a degree in food marketing.
He was sitting under a canopy overlooking the Mediterranean in Positano, a seaside town on the Amalfi Coast. The water was lapping against the rocks below, and Chuck smelled fresh fish just cooked on the grill as 15 or so friends talked and laughed, passing around clams and macaroni.
“I kept looking out at the water and thinking, ‘This is what the disciples and Jesus did on the coast.’ And then I would shake my head and say ‘Why I am thinking like that? This is bizarre.’”
It was a moment that stood out, one he didn’t deal with until a year and a half later; but it was where Chuck began to see how food, family, and faith connected.
“It was confirmation of what I had been doing my whole life with my own family,” he said. “It brought me an objective understanding of maybe this is more than just being with my family, maybe this is something Jesus is calling me to bring others to.”
Fr. Chuck visits the Culinary Institute of America, a former Jesuit residence.
Chuck answered Jesus’ call, and was ordained a priest in 2006. Ever since, the Jesuit finds inviting people to the table has taken on a newer, deeper meaning.
“When I celebrate Mass now, the notion of being at a table is very significant to me, inviting people to break bread,” Fr. Chuck says. “My chef background has deepened my understanding of the priesthood because of that.”
Just a few years ago, this connection really clicked.
Fr. Chuck was working at Loyola College Maryland when a student asked him what his favorite part of the Mass was. The question stumped him at first; no one had ever asked. But then it came to him: When he holds up the Eucharist in Mass and says, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God,’ looking at the host the same way the congregation does.
“It was like holy mackerel! This is what someone who’s involved in the hospitality industry is supposed to do. You create in order to engage. It just made a lot of sense,” Fr. Chuck says. “I started crying as I was saying it to him. It brought new insights into my own being; the newness of the priesthood took a deeper perspective.”
Fr. Chuck cooking at a friend’s home during Regency, a period of Jesuit formation.
Today, Fr. Chuck continues to bring people together around the table, often with members of his Jesuit community and those interested in the priesthood. He finds sitting at a table with possible recruits is an excellent way to evangelize.
“It’s been a major gift to my Jesuit life,” he says. “It boosts community. I’ll put a note up on Saturday and say I’ll cook, and 15 guys will show up. I put Sinatra on in the kitchen and go to town.”
Apart from the communal aspect of food, Fr. Chuck finds his culinary background figures into his spiritual life too.
For him, picking out ingredients and cooking is a form of prayer. He said he feels a moment of grace when tapping into his culinary gifts. Food has also helped him better understand his vow of poverty and better interpret the Scriptures. Not surprisingly, his favorite Scripture stories involve food: the loaves and the fishes and Martha and Mary.
“The creative juices necessary to cook, to be a chef are, transferred easily into reading into the Scripture and placing yourself in that scene,” he says. “Jesus can speak to my heart through that story.”
Food even helps bolster his homilies. People still remember a homily in which he compared the five mother sauces that every sauce stems to the Chair of Peter, which is where our faith stems from.
But in the end, the main reason Fr. Chuck enjoys cooking is for the people.
“I love going to the market and I love being able to bring it alive with the people I love,” he said. “Having great conversation, nothing makes me happier than being able to do that with people I love.”
Fr. Chuck’s favorite meal to cook is chicken parmesan. It’s one of his mom’s best recipes.
“With a good piece of pound cake, maybe a Chianti, Caesar salad, I’m in love. That, to me, is like Heaven.”
Step one: tomato sauce (sufficient for chicken and pasta)
1 can (28 ounces) crushed tomatoes
1 can (28 ounces) whole plum peeled
1can (12 ounces) tomato paste
1/2 bunch fresh Italian parsley
1/2 bunch fresh basil
5 cloves garlic (chopped finely)
Extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp. Kosher salt
1 tbsp. fresh cracked black pepper
1 tsp. red pepper flakes
1 tsp. fennel seed
Open the cans at the same time and get rid of the lids.
Chop the parsley finely.
Slice the basil leaves lined up top to bottom (equally) in thin slices at an angle. This creates a nice chiffonade.
Clean and chop the garlic cloves.
Pour 1/4 cup (enough to coat the bottom of the pot) extra virgin olive oil into a good sturdy pot. (heat)
Add the garlic, salt, crushed black pepper, crushed red pepper, and fennel seed.
Sauté lightly (do not brown the garlic).
Add the tomato paste into the pot and soak up all the ingredients.
Sauté for a minute to darken the paste.
Add in the crushed tomato and simmer on medium heat.
In the meantime hand-crush the peeled tomatoes in a bowl and then add them into the pot.
Simmer on medium heat for two hours stirring every 15 minutes (You may need to add a 1/2 cup of warm water to thin slightly).
Add in the parsley and the basil in the final 1/2 hour.
Step two: chicken
Wash the four chicken breasts.
Preheat oven to 300 degrees.
Pound the chicken breasts to a 1/4 inch thickness. (put in between a sheet a plastic wrap)
Assemble three equal size bowls; one for flour, one for three eggs whisked with a touch of milk, and one with Italian style bread crumbs.
Add 1/4 cup of finely grated Pecorino Romano cheese into the bread crumbs.
Add a tablespoon of ground black pepper and a tablespoon of Kosher salt into the flour.
Add a teaspoon of garlic powder into the flour.
First dip the breast in the flour, then the egg wash, and then the bread crumb mix consecutively.
Place on a wet paper towel until all the chicken breasts are completely coated.
Heat olive oil on the stove 1/2 inch thick in the pan.
Place the smooth side down and fry the breasts two at a time.
Flip the chicken breast and fry another four minutes.
Remove and place in a Pyrex dish in the oven at 300 degrees.
When completely finished frying cover the 9 by 11 Pyrex dish with foil.
Bake for eight minutes and then reduce oven to 200 degrees.
Open the foil on the Pyrex dish and add a small ladle of sauce onto each chicken breast.
Sprinkle each chicken breast with parmigiano cheese.
Sprinkle 8 ounces chopped fresh of mozzarella assuring that each chicken breast gets covered.
Bake in the oven for two minutes to melt the cheese.
Sprinkle with fresh finely chopped parsley.
Coat each plate with a ladle of tomato sauce covering the bottom of the plate.
Place the chicken breast on the sauce.
Serve with a side of fresh spaghetti (assume 5 servings per pound of spaghetti) boiled in salted water.
*NB—Garlic bread makes a nice addition.