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Filipino Priest-Chef Feeds Both Body and Soul

Asian Journal, News Feature, AJPress Posted: Dec 21, 2009

It was a unique showdown. Celebrity chef and Food Network host Bobby Flay went to Mount St. Marys University in Maryland, and challenged one of its professors, Filipino priest Rev. Leo Patalinghug, to a "throwdown" for Flays show "Throwdown with Bobby Flay."

After recovering from the shock, the cooking priest gamely said, "With God as my witness, Im not afraid! Bring your fajitas, lets throw it down!" Cameras started rolling as the two began to create their versions of fusion steak fajitas, standing side-by-side before an excited crowd. The show aired nationwide last Sept. 9 and the judges declared Father Leos "fusion fajitas" the winner over Bobby Flays "red curry-marinated skirt steak fajitas. "What an honor," said Father Leo.

The 39-year-old Catholic priest is no stranger to cooking before a camera. When not busy teaching future priests at the seminary, Father Leo Patalinghug hosts a web and cable cooking show, which, along with his published cookbook and website, goes under the name Grace Before Meals. Father Leo calls it a "movement" that promotes the importance of families preparing and eating meals together. The family that cooks and eats together, stays together, he said, adding that family dinners can be an effective resource for parents looking to improve their relationship with their children. Fr. Leos two self-published cookbooks even lists Scriptural verses as well as topics to talk about at meals.

Born in the Philippines and raised in the Baltimore area, Fr. Leo pursued degrees in writing and political science with the intention of studying law and journalism at the University of Maryland. He also taught high school speech, debate and drama. He studied philosophy at Theological College at Catholic University in Washington, DC.

Before becoming a priest, he earned a black belt in Tae Kwon Do and has won a national competition in Arniz, a form of full-contact stick fighting. He founded a martial arts school in 1988, along with his brother. He also loved to dance and competed in break dancing competitions in the 1980s.

When he heard Gods call to priesthood, Fr. Leo attended seminary at the North American College in Rome and took up advanced theological degrees from the Pontifical Gregorian University and Pontifical Maranium Institute in Rome. It was while he was in Rome that he developed his love for cooking. There, he became friendly with several Italian restaurant owners and would often invite them back to the student kitchen to trade cooking secrets. The Italian chefs would teach him about their delicious pasta dishes; he would show them how to make all-American hamburgers and ribs.

Fr. Leo was ordained in 1999 and served as a parish priest for five years at St. Johns Church in Westminster, Maryland. He was often invited to his parishioners homes for dinner, where he would offer to cook for them, much to their surprise and delight.

Cooking and eating form an integral part of Fr. Leos life. "Its part of our Filipino culture," said the priest who disclosed that he regularly shares a meal with his parents, along with his brother and sister and their families. "I genuinely think we enjoy each others company," he said of his family.

His love for cooking and the power of the kitchen in drawing families and friends together provided the inspiration for Fr. Leos first book, Grace Before Meals: Recipes for Family Life. Then, one of his parishioners turned out to be a video producer. And thats how his web show, Grace Before Meals was born. The movement has become worldwide and his website has been drawing thousands of visits daily.

When he won over the Iron Chef in the Food Network show, Fr. Leo became a celebrity. After the airing of the show, the priest said he has received hundreds of e-mails from people of all faiths saying they enjoyed the show and were inspired by it. Suddenly, he was featured in the cover of The Washington Post, on ABC World News, at Fox Eyewitness News, and countless print and online publications. Surprised by it all, the cooking priest is most importantly grateful that the publicity "drew attention to the mission, which is the most important thing," he said. Currently, a pilot for a TV show is in the works.

On his website, Fr. Leo shares some valuable insights which inspired him to start the Grace Before Meals movement. Here are some of them:

"Research shows that having frequent family dinners can reduce the susceptibility of teens to risks like teen pregnancy, smoking, drug use and depression. And these benefits dont just apply to traditional families or people with kids. Stronger families foster stronger communities, and thats the goal were striving forone meal at a time."

"In my experience, nothing creates a better environment for a great conversation than time shared in the kitchen. Without realizing it, I first learned about the power of the kitchen as a boy. That was our gathering place, where we watched the simple ingredients of our native Pilipino dishes transformed into inviting meals."

"As a student in Rome, I discovered that the kitchen was the ideal place to break down language barriers. The cooks at the Italian restaurants in the neighborhood where we seminarians lived always enjoyed an invitation to come to our kitchen. There, theyd trade tips on preparing their favorite dishes for the secrets of our American cuisine. I returned home with a new respect for the kitchen as a place where you can have a great conversation without using a lot of needless words in the process."

"Those lessons about the kitchen came back to me as I took up my work as a priest. I wanted nothing more than to get past the mannerly surface chat that too often masked the real needs of the people I was there to serve. So one day, without advanced warning, I surprised a family who had invited me to dinner by announcing that I was going to take over their kitchen and, with their help, make dinner for them. My plan worked, and an evening that would have been polite and distant turned into a time for honest conversation and lowered barriers."

In a recent gathering, where Fr. Leo was the main speaker (and chef), many Catholics said they would like to see more priests like him. Many also sought him out after the program, not for spiritual guidance, but for cooking tips, such as why he didnt use Parmigiano-Reggiano as well as heavy cream. The priest was only too happy to share his culinary secrets. As he once said to a group of parishioners, "I know the only way I can reach your hearts and minds is through your stomach."

Praise God, Fr. Leo is fulfilling his unique calling, one meal at a time. (AJPress)

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