Matthew Warner of Fallible Blogma recently launched “Support a Catholic Speaker Month.” As part of his initiative, he invited bloggers to “adopt” speakers and to share information about them and/or their apostolates in order to support those who give the Catholic Church a voice and help to spread the Good News.
I’m beyond thrilled to be showcasing Father Leo Patalinghug, the faith-filled foodie and face of Grace Before Meals, a movement that strives to build stronger families and communities one meal at a time. I had the opportunity to chat with Fr. Leo earlier this week, but this isn’t the first time I’ve encountered the down-to-earth priest. Back in 2008, I had the chance to hear Fr. Leo speak at the Catholic New Media Celebration. And along with millions of other viewers, I watched him duel it out with Bobby Flay on national television.
What continues to impress me about Fr. Leo – besides his charisma and the way he wields a chopping knife – is his humility. Sure, he’s funny and good behind a camera – a born entertainer – but right off the bat you sense that this isn’t about him. This is about God and giving others their daily bread.
During Throw Down with Bobby Flay, the renowned celebrity chef made the observation that Fr. Leo feeds appetites as well as souls. That he does. This is what I hope to do in my kitchen as well: To nourish my family both physically and spiritually and to serve them well.
Now more from the culinary master himself:
Please share with us your journey into the priesthood and into the kitchen.
“It was a slow conversion. It really started as a reversion back to the faith when I was about 19 years old and coming to understand the Eucharist better. I started praying more on my own, which led me to a more active life in the Church. From there it was a very natural progression of me realizing I enjoyed the faith so much.
Then there was that fated phone call of actually talking to someone in the priesthood about the priesthood. I went on some discernment retreats. I finally made the application. I was accepted. I went to Catholic University for one year, and then they sent me to the North American College in Rome for the rest of my training in the priesthood. That’s where I fell in love with the whole idea of cooking. I’d always done it, but there’s something about being in Rome and being with Italians. Their love for food is amazing. There were many times when dinners would last three or four hours. [The long meals] helped to turn my seminarian classmates into true brothers in Christ, so that’s how I ended up spending a lot of time in the kitchen. I missed family meals, and serving meals gave me a chance to start a new brotherhood with these guys.”
Tell us about Grace Before Meals. How did it get started?
“The idea for Grace Before Meals started shortly after September 11th because I was supposed to go to France with two other priests, but all of our flights were canceled. Instead, we went on retreat by ourselves, and I did a lot of cooking. A priest just suggested how much fun it would be to film me cooking and talking and sharing a little bit about faith, family, and food. I honestly told him that was one of the stupidest ideas I’d ever heard, but he kept egging me about it. And the other priests did, too, because they knew there was a great need to bring families closer together around the table, especially post-September 11th. I knew it, too. There was a real hunger for family, more comfort food, and for the spiritual encouragement that comes from a meal that is sacred when we make room for God at our table. So I joked around and said, ‘Okay, and we can call it Grace Before Meals.’
But nothing really happened until about two years later when I was reassigned at my church, and I met a man who produces TV shows and commercials. His name is Tim Watkins. He’s the owner of Renegade Productions. It was just by chance that we met. I simply asked him a generic question about what he did for a living and when I found out, another priest, who was there at the time and was in on the joke, brought up Fr. Leo’s Grace Before Meals – a priest cooking show! And I’m thinking, ‘This is ridiculous. It’s just a joke.’
This producer took it seriously enough to film a pilot. The pilot was put on the Web in 2003. The website received so many requests and hits that we had to keep producing information, which has turned into the weekly email blasts. We get 40,000 hits a day and that’s without really any advertising at all. It was the encouragement of my brother priests not only suggesting the idea, but telling others about it that made Grace Before Meals a reality.”
Grace Before Meals started as a web series, but now it’s become an international movement that aspires to strengthen relationships through the preparing and sharing of meals. What do you hope people will get out of your weekly email blasts, your speaking engagements, your cookbook, web series, etc.?
“Grace Before Meals is not going to turn you into a theological scholar. It’s just not. What it’s supposed to help do is turn you into a better person and to be a better person with grace. You can squeeze out a 15-second prayer and if you do it sincerely for you and your family, I honestly believe God can make a powerful moment for people.”
You’re a big advocate of regular family meals. What are some of the benefits of eating together as a family?
“There’s research out of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University that supports something we believe on the social level but also spiritually: If you want to reduce teenage pregnancy, suicide, drug addiction, plus increase your teenager’s SAT scores, then eat together as a family. The number one factor in successful teenagers is regular family meals. It’s such common sense, but we’ve complicated things. Common sense isn’t so common anymore.”
Explain the idea that a shared meal is a conduit to grace for families.
“I’m all about finding Catholic connections. The meal is the most Catholic thing because Jesus became our meal. If you want to have a good healthy, spiritual life, have children who are going to try to become saints, children who are going to stay away from sinfulness, the best thing is a regular Sunday meal with the Lord.”
As parents, how can we better feed our flock?
“Feeding the flock means we have to address the hunger. I think people want company around the table – a communion of persons. Also, allow mealtimes to become an opportunity for instruction. Make sure you are talking about the things that are important to the family. Teach young people how to talk appropriately and speak well – even when they disagree.
Another thing people can do to feed their sheep better is just to simply make better food. Not only healthy food, but fun food, food that’s going to make them say, ‘Wow! That’s awesome.’ Food that’s going to make you think of a memory. I still know Mom’s fried chicken. I still know Mom’s pan fried steaks with caramelized onions served over sticky rice with pickled vinaigrette. Serve delicious, fun food that has a purpose.
My recipes are in no way going to win five-star ratings, but hey, one won a throw down. I use ingredients that you can find in any grocery store and are perhaps already in your pantry. I just want to give people a chance to explore flavors, to play with their food a little bit and have good, delicious food.”
Yes, speaking of throw downs, your fusion fajitas beat Bobby Flay’s dish on the Food Network. What was your recipe for success?
“I won because I used the secret ingredient: Holy water. “
Besides learning how to prepare gastronomic delights, what lessons have you learned in the kitchen?
“Patience and humility, organization, an open mind, a desire to listen to people more because the only way I’m going to satisfy anyone’s hunger is if I know what they’re hungry for. This requires me to pay very close attention to the people I’m serving and feeding.”
Like any apostolate, Grace Before Meals depends on your generosity to keep dishing out quality programming. Here are four ways Fr. Leo says you can help support his mission to strengthen families through food:
1. Subscribe to the weekly email blasts on the Grace Before Meals website, what Fr. Leo refers to as the real bread and butter and meat and potatoes of the ministry.
2. Buy Fr. Leo’s cookbook. As an owner of Recipes for Family Life: Grace Before Meals, I can attest that this is so much more than a portfolio of delicious recipes. The book is as good for the soul as it is for the stomach and includes mealtime prayers, spiritual reflections, conversation starters, and ideas for celebrating family milestones and holidays like (ahem) Mother’s Day.
Keep in mind that book sales and Fr. Leo’s speaking engagements are what pays for the website productions. “People are always surprised by just how much it costs. We get a lot of press, but that doesn’t translate into dollars. I try to make sure people are being fed with good food, dynamic food that’s going to be entertaining because we’re competing against a very rich secular world that puts a lot of money into TV with junky messages. If you like quality programs like this, then support good Catholic media,” Fr. Leo says.
3. The website is always looking for sponsors as well. Learn more here.
4. Pray for Fr. Leo and Grace Before Meals. Believe it or not, this is his “side job.” Fr. Leo works full-time as a professor and Director of Pastoral Formation at Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary. After appearing on Show Down with Bobby Flay, Fr. Leo is well on his way to becoming a household name – at least among Christian foodies. The Grace Before Meals site received over one million hits after the show aired. “It’s been crazy with all the increased attention,” Fr. Leo says. “The whole TV thing has put a very simple priest on a different platform that I never expected. So pray for me. I’d really appreciate the prayers.”
Learn more about Fr. Leo and the Grace Before Meals movement here.
Check out more featured Catholic speakers at Fallible Blogma.