Father Leo Patalinghug: ‘Faith can be as intimate as a meal’

Father Leo: He preaches respect for Filipino food.

By Lynn Alejandrino-Topel

Nobody with a crystal ball could have foreseen a breakdancer and a 3rd degree black belt holder in taekwondo would be a priest someday. Not just any priest, but a “Cooking Priest” at that!

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Father Leo Patalinghug is all of the above and more! After shedding his martial arts robe, he dons his habit and apron to host his cooking show on EWTN called “Savoring Our Faith” and a podcast called “Shoot the Shiitake.” He is also the author of many books, a motivational speaker, head of the “The Plating Grace” ministry, and still celebrates daily mass as a priest who belongs to the Voluntas Dei religious order.

Where do you even begin when you talk to someone with such an impressive resume? You start at the beginning.

Father Leo’s family migrated to Baltimore in 1972 from the small island province of Masbate in the central part of the Philippines. He arrived when he was 2 years old. As the youngest child in the family, he grew up helping his mother cook while his older siblings were at school, and his father worked as a physician.

Growing up, his family kept alive many Filipino values and traditions such as the “food, the cultural dances, showing respect, the Catholic faith, and all the things Filipinos are known for like hospitality.” His family also spoke the Cebuano language Bisaya yet encouraged them to learn and speak English fluently. They also studied the martial arts particularly the eskrima (or arnis) and his brother now runs a school in Maryland that teaches the national sport of the Philippines.

Saying mass as a Voluntas Dei priest.
With Chef Bobby Flay whom he met at a Food Network cooking show.

Faced with prejudices about who they are and where they’re from, his family never saw these as major setbacks. He explained, “We forged incredibly great friendships with people of all backgrounds. The challenge happens when we allow people’s lack of knowledge, ignorance, or prejudice…and make that our reality and our only focus.” So instead of excluding, they invited people to their homes in the spirit of hospitality that many Filipinos to this day are known for.

“We always had gatherings…. [My mom]’s a very talented cook, and she made Filipino food very accessible to non-Filipinos.” Among his favorites are his mom’s Lumpia, Adobo, and Pansit, and she even makes her own Chicharon.

He answered the call to priesthood at age 29, but his ministry did not see the light until after 9/11. After a week of difficult pastoral services, he and his fellow clergy were on a retreat and they decided they wanted to do something encouraging for families in light of those emotional times. It started out as an idea that they could record videos of him cooking and talking about faith. With the increasing popularity of The Food Network, the idea of a cooking show didn’t seem so farfetched. The “Grace Before Meals” movement was born. With its main message being that a meal can develop and strengthen relationships, it quickly led to speaking engagements, more published books, and a cooking show on EWTN.

In 2009, he was thrust into the limelight when he became a surprise challenger at the Food Network show, “Throwdown with Bobby Flay.” Father Leo got to meet Bobby Flay, whom he describes as having a “great personality” and “probably the most talented chef [he] has ever met.” His surprise win over the famous celebrity chef with his “Fusion Steak Fajitas” helped propel his ministry forward in ways that he never even imagined.

Recently, the movement had a major facelift. To eliminate the misconception that they are merely encouraging people to pray before they eat, “Grace Before Meals” became “Plating Grace.” This helps them “present grace in a more beautiful way; that faith is something that people can understand and it is something as intimate as a meal.”

So what’s in store for Father Leo for the rest of 2020? Viewers can expect a revamped season of his popular cooking show, and he and crew are working on more online video content. He is also hard at work penning a new book on how to keep college kids Catholic, and a few more books in the pipeline on fatherhood and how to feed the flock without boring them. As chairman of the TABLE Foundation — a non-profit for chefs and young food entrepreneurs — they hope to start a food truck manned by ex-convicts giving them a new lease on life.

There’s no other person who can juggle a million things at the same time. As an expert in fusion cooking, Father Leo transfers his knowledge of mixing flavors and ingredients into his many ministries. From integrating American lifestyle with Filipino traditions, merging food and faith, as well as jazzing up the use of traditional media with today’s online modality, he does all this effectively to serve up his “bite-sized theology.”

Lynn Alejandrino-Topel is a Maryland-based public school teacher and mother of twin boys. She graduated from Ateneo de Manila University and when not teaching, she writes about local food eats as well as travel tips for visitors to the Washington, DC area. Contact her through her website www.the-mama-travels.com.

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© The FilAm 2020

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