The Cooking Priest: Savoring faith, food, family
LOS ANGELES — Inside a packed auditorium, the enticing aroma of glazed onion, garlic, and pasta, smeared in pureed tomatoes, olive oil, and vodka made hundreds of mouths water.
“Am I making you hungry?” teased renowned cooking priest Fr. Leo Patalinghug who traveled 4,200 kilometers from his home parish in Baltimore, Maryland, for a three-day speaking tour at St. Mel Catholic Church in the city of Woodland Hills.
Like a skilled circus juggler, but one deft with a 12-inch cooking pan, he tossed his special recipe of penne alla vodka repeatedly into the air.
“It’s cool, huh, but it’s my job to make you hungry!” quipped Patalinghug, whose last name in Cebuano roughly means “listen to me.”
Earlier, the Filipino-American Catholic priest chopped onions and parsley in seconds, reminding the crowd who came to see him that Saturday night why he was able to beat Master Chef Bobby Flay in a 2009 fajita cooking contest on the Food Network.
The television event watched by millions changed Patalinghug’s life, thrusting his hard-to-pronounce surname into popular American culture, conferring a measure of celebrity status on the then 39-year-old.
“But Jesus is the ultimate foodie, not me, not Bobby Flay,” said Patalinghug, now 52, who was visiting churches in California that week to celebrate his 22nd year as a priest, as well as his 12th as an icon on the culinary scene. A legion of followers still watch him religiously on his “Savoring Our Faith” cooking show, now on its 11th season at Eternal Word Television Network, where his kitchen becomes a pulpit for the Catholic faithful twice a week.
“I want to change your hearts and minds by going through your stomach,” is a line that has become famous in his cooking demonstrations around the United States.
For his 50th birthday two years ago, Father Leo bought a food truck with the help of crowd-sourcing sponsors. His retinue of dedicated workers, which includes ex-convicts, has been feeding the homeless in Baltimore since then.
Everyone gathered at the St. Mel Church auditorium that night of Nov. 12—including this reporter—forked $40 each to taste Father Leo’s version of the vodka-spiced famous Italian pasta dish, with a choice of wine and cake for dessert.
In every cooking show he does and every speaking engagement he delivers across the United States and other parts of the world, Patalinghug never fails to tell his audience about his Filipino roots.
“Don’t throw that away! There are so many hungry people in the Philippines,” said Father Leo, jokingly mimicking his mother’s Visayan accent, as he dispensed common-sense advice on how to turn leftover vegetables into instant compost.
“It is in my mother’s kitchen that I learned how to cook,” said the confessed mama’s boy who was born in his mother’s hometown of Cataingan, Masbate, on April 30, 1970, the youngest of five children. One sibling died premature.
His father, Carlos, earned his medical degree from the University of Santo Tomas in 1963 and immigrated to America in 1971, bringing his wife, Fe, and their four children, including the toddler Leo.
“My 85-year-old father, who is from Lapu-Lapu City in Cebu, is a direct descendant of Lapu-Lapu himself,” Patalinghug revealed to this reporter.
This remarkable bloodline—traced to Philippine history’s first defender of the land against a Western colonizer—may help explain why Patalinghug has a black belt in taekwondo, several awards as a break-dancer and multiple accolades as an accomplished arnis practitioner, a feat he shares with his father and older brother Carlos Jr.
“It’s been five years since I last visited the islands. But my Mom and Dad are over there right now, doing charity work,” Father Leo said.
His earlier ambition to be a lawyer and a journalist got sidetracked when he decided to enter the priesthood. At 24, he found his true calling.
At 5’2”, Patalinghug has proven to be a diminutive dynamo, becoming the most visible and busiest salesman of the Catholic faith in this part of the United States, and authoring four bestselling books about food, faith and family.
A sought-after lecturer, he has also become a social media juggernaut. His website, platinggrace.com, propels an international Christian movement that seeks to bring families closer through the simplest, everyday act of preparing and eating meals together.
Quoting several studies, Father Leo claimed that when families spend time eating together at the dinner table, problems like drug addiction, teen pregnancy, suicide and social isolation are prevented.
It was a thought that found resonance on the recent Thanksgiving Day, which marked the official start of the holiday season in the United States.
“But families should celebrate every day as if it’s Thanksgiving Day,” Father Leo said, concluding his talk to prepare for his next “stirring” engagement.
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