Filipino American priest Leo Patalinghug didn’t need divine intervention to win a fajita showdown with America’s “Iron Chef” Bobby Flay. Fr. Leo’s fusion fajita – which incorporated Filipino, Mexican and American flavors – was declared the winner in an episode of “Throwdown with Bobby Flay” which is shown in the highly rated Food Network.
As the “cooking priest”, Fr. Leo has carved a niche in Catholic ministries. He is director for Pastoral Field Education at the Mount Saint Mary Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland.
He is also a successful author. His book, Grace Before Meals, has sold over 6,000 copies and his website gracebeforemeals.com gets more than 10,000 hits a day.
Fr. Leo has obviously stumbled on a winning recipe to get people to listen to his message about the power of prayer and family.
It all starts in the kitchen and the dinner table. And maybe also his Filipino roots. (Maybe he can collaborate with Cristeta Comerford, the Filipina White House Executive Chef!)
“Without realizing it, I first learned about the power of the kitchen as a boy,” he said in his website.
Born in the Philippines, his parents, Dr. Carlos and Fe Patalinghug, brought him and three siblings to America a few months before martial rule clamped down the country.
They settled in the Baltimore area where Carlos started a practice.
Fr. Leo was the youngest in the brood, which in a typical Filipino family might have meant he was at the bottom of the pecking order for his two elder sisters and a brother; but his parents’ favorite. (I used to be the youngest with two elder sisters too.... then my brother unexpectedly came along.. haha)
Cooking as lesson for survival
Fe says she gave her children equal duties, including picking a day when they have to cook the family’s meal.
“There was a blackboard in the kitchen,” Fe tells Pinoy Herald with some amusement, “so everyone knew their responsibilities.”
His parents were among the first to arrive at the McCarrick Center where Fr. Leo was scheduled to address members of the Couples for Christ Foundation for Family & Life (CFC-FFL).
“I wanted to prepare them so they won’t starve,” she explained.
The Patalinghug kids – Maritess, Carlos Jr., Angelica and Leo – are familiar faces in the Baltimore Fil-Am community but perhaps no one more than the future priest.
Growing up, Fr. Leo was involved in break-dancing, folk dancing and the Filipino martial arts, arnis. He was also a tae kwon do champion and incidentally, is said to have a mean singing voice – perhaps an offshoot of the Filipino penchant for the karaoke. (Ah, the wonders of Magic Mic! This is a well-known brand of karaoke machine popular in Philippine homes)
The young Leo and his brother were also active in the local church, often volunteering as altar boys during Sunday Mass. (I used to be an altar server -- the only altar server at our village chapel in Pasig City, Philippines from elementary all the way to College. I almost made a decision to enter a seminary once...this will require a separate blog entry!)
“I was so happy seeing them at Mass. I prayed so hard, praying with my arms outstretched and without them knowing it, praying that one or both of them would someday enter the priesthood,” Fe intimated. (A very good example for parents!)
They lived near a Catholic church by design, she says, so she can pray constantly about her hidden ambition for her sons. But when the time came, she was caught by surprise. (Parents shouldn't certainly pressure their children to enter the religious life. But, they can definitely provide guidance and spiritual influence to them in a way that they (the children) would make their own decision).
Fe revealed that Leo appeared bent on becoming a lawyer or journalist, studying political science at the University of Maryland.
Then one day, the future cooking priest told his parents that he submitted his application papers with William Cardinal Keller at the Catholic University of America in Washington DC.
Finding God in kitchen conversations
After only a year, he was sent to study in Rome where he would stay for six years.
There, he struck friendships with Italian restaurant managers and their chefs, inviting them to the kitchen of the seminary of the North American College to trade cooking secrets.
He discovered the kitchen was a good place to overcome the language barrier.
“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,” he said.
Fr. Leo was ordained in 1999 and given the parish of St. John’s Church in Westminster, Maryland. When he was invited to the homes of his parishioners, he would turn the tables on them by cooking the dishes himself.
Grace Before Meals is not your typical recipe book, although each chapter does have 40 easy-to-follow recipes. But it also has suggested discussion guides, references to Scriptures and family-friendly cooking tips that provide a soulful accompaniment to the proffered dishes.
The chapters are organized by important dates such as New Year’s Day, Fridays of the Lenten season, landing your first job or experiencing a failed relationship, World Day of the Sick, Mother’s and Father’s Day, and the 4th of July, among others.
Fr. Leo is very much in demand in the speaking circuit, taking him all over the US which is just fine with him, confessing his love for travel.
“Hey Mom, pay attention,” he ribs his mother, explaining that she likes to keep track of where he is but forgets them anyway because of the long list of places his son has to be.
Over the next two weeks, Fr. Leo is scheduled to address thousands of people in Iowa, Texas and South Carolina, among others.
“I have a lot of frequent flyer miles,” he jokes.
Fr. Leo’s message is as simple and basic as preparing a well-cooked, nutritious meal.
If he has found a steadily growing audience, it is perhaps because his message hits the core of what troubles many Christian families today.
“We all are hungry, and that’s why people go everywhere to find something to satisfy them,” Fr. Leo said in a recent PBS interview.
“What I would like you to consider is to make sure you have a balanced diet for your body, mind and soul.”
Here's one TV interview clip:
By the way, he has a Facebook fan page as well.