Food shopping with a Catholic priest who happens to be an award-winning celebrity chef isn’t just a spiritual and entertaining experience—it’s a culinary adventure.
“What do you like to eat?” asks Father Leo Patalinghug, the man behind the popular cookbook and movement Grace Before Meals.
A Maryland native with Irish roots, I explain that I enjoy crab cakes and fish and chips with equal enthusiasm.
“Well, we will have fun exploring what you are hungry for,” he says as we enter a Safeway not far from Our Lady of the Fields, the Millersville parish where Father Leo serves as an associate pastor.
Navigating the produce aisle, Father Leo is playful, taking indulgent whiffs of fresh parsley and handling white button mushrooms as if they were precious gems.
Following stops at the seafood and meat counters, our supplies are bagged and we hit the road, headed for Brooklyn Park, just south of Baltimore, the neighborhood where Father Leo grew up.
I’m honored to be the first dining guest in the 42-year-old priest’s newly converted “food flat,” a kitchen studio on the second floor of his father’s old medical office.
Born in the Philippines, Father Leo moved to Maryland with his family at the age of 2. Raised Catholic, meals and cooking were an integral part of his upbringing. His mother, a home-ec teacher, kept her son occupied in the kitchen chopping vegetables and learning the basics.
(He released his second cookbook, Spicing Up Married Life, on September 22, 2012, his parents’ 50th wedding anniversary.)
“We ate five times a day,” Father Leo says, laughing. “So there was a lot of cooking, which meant learning.”
While meals were a natural extension of family life, the road to the priesthood was a slow, deliberate path of discovery—“a calling,” he explains, to inspire and teach.
“I think our world is very microwavable,” says Father Leo. “The rector of my seminary said, ‘God doesn’t use a microwave, he uses a crock pot.’ It was a real crock-pot conversion.”
Ordained in 1999, Father Leo attended seminary at the North American College in Rome, where he picked up a few cooking tips from Italian chefs. He, in turn, introduced them to hamburgers and ribs.
Grace Before Meals started as a joke. A fellow priest mused on how much fun it would be to have a cooking show where a priest could discuss food, faith, and family.
“I actually said to him, ‘That’s a stupid idea,’” recalls Father Leo. “In fact, I said, ‘I can’t think of a dumber idea.’”
However, with encouragement from colleagues and parishioners, Father Leo embarked on this new mission.
“The movement, at its core, is to bring families closer together around the dinner table,” he says. “I am challenging people to do something that our world doesn’t do well anymore, and that’s spending time with people you love.”
In 2007, Father Leo created a website that went viral, receiving thousands of hits daily. The cookbook—a collection of recipes intertwined with theological and practical essays on how to strengthen family bonds—soon followed.
Studies show, Father Leo explains, “If you want to reduce drug addiction, teen pregnancy, and teen suicide, the number-one common factor of healthy kids is a regular family meal.”
The Food Network contacted Father Leo in 2009: Would he be interested in showcasing Grace Before Meals? Little did he know that he had just entered a competition—Throwdown! With Bobby Flay.
Never one to shrink from a challenge, Father Leo dueled with Flay and took down the Iron Chef with his fusion steak fajitas. Today, as he travels the world giving cooking demos and spreading his message (he’s appeared on PBS, CBS, and ABC), Father Leo often jokes, “I cheated by putting holy water in the marinade.”