by Edna Bautista, Ed.D.
The family is a strong cultural value for Filipinos. But in a hectic world filled with many distractions, the family unit all over the world is under the threat of becoming weak.Fr. Leo Patalinghug, who earned a global reputation as the “Filipino Cooking Priest,” is on a life mission “to bring families back to the dinner table – away from work, school, TV, games and many other things we get caught up in.”
Famously known for beating “Iron Chef” Bobby Flay in a Food Network “throwdown” a decade ago, Fr. Leo seeks to save families through food. With his dynamic ministry, Plating Grace, formerly known as the Grace Before Meals movement, he aims “to bring about a future of stronger families, closer relationships and a deeper understanding of Jesus as Food for our mind, body and soul.”
Family Success = Shared Meals
Philippine-born Fr. Leo is the son of Fe and Dr. Carlos Patalinghug Sr. His father’s job as a physician moved the family to the United States (coincidentally, Maryland was appealing because it sounded like “Mary’s Land”).
“I was born in Cataingan, Masbate, came to America when I was 2 and, ever since, Baltimore has been home. I am the youngest of five siblings, with one in heaven,” he said.
As immigrants, his parents were far away from their support system in the Philippines and had to adapt to a new culture as well as raise four young children. It was a challenge, but Fr. Leo credited them for being able to create and maintain a tight-knit and loving family, even though he admits that they are not perfect.
He realizes that not every family has the same experiences, and he has met many others who overcame even greater challenges to build happy, healthy families. He found that the common ingredient for success was simply sharing meals together.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT: FAMILY MEAL THEORY
“Filipino Cooking Priest” Fr. Leo Patalinghug proves that having regular family meals together strengthens family ties as well as provides positive outcomes for children:
– Increases academic performance
– Improves family communication
– Lowers high-risk behaviors
– Cultivates healthy eating habits
– Improves emotional well-being
Specific statistics and citations of research may be found in the preface of his book, “Saving the Family: The Transformative Power of Sharing Meals with People You Love” (2019).
A Divine And Delicious Destiny
The path towards becoming a priest and professional chef was divinely directed, but there were slight detours along the way.
Raised by devout Catholic parents, Fr. Leo had a firm foundation in his Filipino culture and faith. But as a teen, he was more interested in breakdancing and breaking boards in the martial arts than in breaking bread in mass. He had won awards for choreography and a gold medal in Arnis (Filipino full-contact stick fighting), but he felt lost in church.
He often whined to his mother, “Church is so boring, I want to kill myself!” to which she replied, “Well, then you picked the right place to do it.”
He also complained that the priest was boring, too, and his dad said, “Well…if you can do a better job, then do it!”
With such an attitude, Fr. Leo never thought God would call him to become a priest. But he did do it, after years of discernment, and his followers and fans feel that he is doing beyond a better job.
He received a Catholic education at St. Rose of Lima School and Mt. St. Joseph college preparatory, then went on to major in journalism and political science at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. He also studied philosophy at the Catholic University of America and attended American University in Washington, D.C.
He entered the seminary at the Pontifical North American College in Rome, Italy, and earned his degree in theology with a specialization in Mariology. Fr. Leo was ordained in 1999 and on his ordination card was the scripture passage:
“Do you really love me? Then feed my sheep.” After a few years of serving as a diocesan priest back in Baltimore, he became a priest member of a community of consecrated life, Voluntas Dei (Latin for “The Will of God”).
Feeding The Sheep
Fr. Leo literally followed the passage on his ordination card and his passion to cook for others.
He first learned how to cook from his mother, a home economics teacher, to help her prepare meals for their family and friends.
At seminary, his skills grew when he and his spiritual brothers had to take turns every week to prepare family-style meals for each other.
He honed his craft by exchanging trade cooking secrets with Italian restaurant owners and taking culinary classes at Le Cordon Bleu in Perugia.
He came home to America to preach and teach as well as to cook for fellow priests, parishioners and friends. Using the Internet as an evangelization tool, Fr. Leo started a website to share his faith and culinary experiences.
His cooking webisodes were so popular that it caught the attention of a Food Network producer. That led to a cookoff in 2009 when he beat Bobby Flay with his recipe, “Funky Fusion Fajitas with Screamin’ Sour Cream and Holy Guacamole.”
It was by the grace of God – and people praying the rosary at the event – that Fr. Leo won. But he joked, “I cheated. I put holy water in the marinade.” The winning recipe is in his first cookbook, “Grace Before Meals: Recipes and Inspiration for Family Meals and Family Life” (2007).
The throwdown was an unforgettable experience and turning point in his mission. The event brought the local community together to support and pray for him and gave Fr. Leo and the movement more exposure to the wider, secular audience. After the show aired on TV, his website crashed from more than two million hits.
Doing his early webisodes also prepared him to host “Savoring Our Faith,” a cooking show on EWTN (Catholic media), now in its 11th season. Fr. Leo demonstrates how to make a variety of recipes while talking about the Church’s teachings, delivering the lessons in “bite-sized” portions to leave people hungering for more and craving Christ. His “Theology of Food” is documented in his book, “Epic Food Fight: A Bite-Sized History of Salvation” (2014).
Fr. Leo also wrote “Spicing Up Married Life: Satisfying Couple’s Hunger for True Love” (2012) and “Saving the Family: The Transformative Power of Sharing Meals with People You Love” (2019).
He is co-authoring another cookbook with Dr. Michael Foley, a Baylor University professor who is a theologian and mixologist, entitled “Dining with the Saints: The Sinner’s Guide to a Righteous Feast,” due out next year.
The content of his cookbooks and TV show reflects his travels, so his recipes are internationally inspired. As a proud Pinoy, Fr. Leo always includes Filipino dishes in his repertoire. Using food analogies from the Bible, he encourages everyone to cook, eat and spend quality time together.
Besides writing books, starring in his cooking show and celebrating mass, Fr. Leo is also busy hosting podcasts (“Shoot the Shiitake”), leading pilgrimages through Select International Tours and doing live cooking demonstrations to spread the gospels.
His life is ironically hectic, yet he always makes time to share meals with others to fulfill his mission of “feeding the sheep.” The tireless pastor revealed that his energy comes from “prayer… and coffee!”
Include The Excluded “Extended” Family
Fr. Leo knows that some people come from nontraditional and broken families and who face food insecurities and ostracism. Like Jesus, he wants to show them they are loved unconditionally. He invites them to eat with him as “there is always a place at the Lord’s table.”
His compassion for serving the underserved led to the establishment of The Table Foundation (TTF). Some of the charitable nonprofit organization’s projects include helping the homeless, mentoring young chefs and celebrating an Olive Mass (to bless and honor hospitality industry workers).
When he turned 50 a couple of years ago, he got his milestone birthday blessing: a food truck. According to the TTF website, “Plating Grace and Grub…is a dynamic ‘faith to fork’ experience, serving up delicious international comfort food with a meaningful message.” The food truck’s internship program provides job formation and training to returning citizens (formerly incarcerated), veterans and people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Moreover, “the history and tradition of all religions have shown how the simple act of feeding people can promote peace and harmony and bring about the loving presence of God. This human reality, beautifully captured in the sacred traditions of Roman Catholic teaching, shows that food is the most universal language of all,” according to the TTF website. “The gift of food, along with eating the right food, can help sinners become saints! The Table Foundation is the place that will connect our families to build up our human race family.”
Fr. Leo believes we are all brothers and sisters in Christ and one big, global family and he continues to do positive things to make the world a much better place…one meal at a time.