'Father Leo' cooks up faith, food, fun in family program
The Rev. Leo Patalinghug, author of the book "Grace Before Meals," serves his "Funky Fusion Fajita" dish during a cooking demonstration Saturday at McGill Training Center. More than 300 people came to hear "Father Leo" spread his message about faith and family and to sample his cooking.

FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Md. - For a second consecutive year, the Rev. Leo Patalinghug spread his message of love for God, family and food to the Fort Meade community during a cooking demonstration Saturday at McGill Training Center.

"This is a time to celebrate families, especially our military families," Patalinghug said. "We are only as strong as our military and we are all connected as one. This is my way of giving back."

Patalinghug is the creator of "Grace Before Meals," a movement designed to unite families in faith through easy cooking and good food. His cookbook, "Grace Before Meals," is based on that philosophy.

In the course of an hour, the Catholic priest known as Father Leo prepared his "Funky Fusion Fajitas" on an indoor grill and talked about topics ranging from how he once set off a fire alarm while cooking in a nursing home to shaking hands with the late Pope John Paul II.

But in addition to his entertaining banter, Patalinghug encouraged the audience of 335 people to cook and share meals with family members.

"No matter how imperfect the meal may be, don't vow perfection," he said, noting that no family is perfect and should not expect to be. "Vow faithfulness. This is a sign of love."

Patalinghug was invited to Fort Meade by the Installation Religious Support Office. Installation Catholic Priest and Deputy Garrison Chaplain (Maj.) Boguslaw Augustyn, organizer of the event, said congregants from the post's Catholic, Protestant and gospel communities volunteered to make the visit a success.

Volunteers helped Patalinghug prepare the guacamole and marinade sauce for his dish, while others brought punch and dessert for the audience who dined on samples of the priest's cooking after the demonstration.

"It's real good," said retired Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Moses Jackson, a member of the gospel congregation at Argonne Hills Chapel Center, as he took a bite of a fajita. "I thought [Patalinghug] did a wonderful job. He's very captivating and very precise in his cooking."

Augustyn said the installation supports Patalinghug's message, especially for busy military families.

"Father Leo stresses the importance of families being around the table. ... Jesus always shared meals with everyone. He never rejected a person," Boguslaw said. "This is disappearing from the family. People don't have time to share a meal with family and friends."

In an interview before the presentation, Patalinghug said his visit to Fort Meade is part of his commitment to help military families while they serve the nation.

"I've been a priest long enough to know that military families struggle with stress more than others," said Patalinghug, the director of pastoral formation and theology programs at Mount St. Mary's University Seminary in Emmitsburg. "Unless families have a foundation, most families will falter."

Military families endure divorce and deployments and sometimes experience abuse of all sorts, Patalinghug said. "In a small way, I want to let them know that I care about them," he said, "[and] to find comfort in food and community."

Born in the Philippines and raised in the Baltimore area, Patalinghug's love for cooking began in his home. His mother, a home economics teacher, used cooking to keep her son busy. While a junior at the University of Maryland Baltimore County studying political science and journalism, Patalinghug said he was called to the priesthood. He was ordained in 1999.

Over the years, Patalinghug has honed his cooking skills by reading books and taking culinary courses during vacations including one at the Cordon Bleu in Perugia, Italy. Patalinghug came up with the idea for the Grace Before Meals movement after the tragedy of 9/11.

It was then, Patalinghug said, that he realized people were "hungering for something -- community first and relationships."

The book, "Grace Before Meals," was first published in 2006 and is now in its third edition. The website by the same name soon followed. Two years ago, Patalinghug got his big break. TV "Iron Chef" Bobby Flay challenged him to a steak fajita throwdown on the Food Network. It was the priest's "Funky Fusion Fajita" recipe -- made from marinated flank steak, colorful spicy peppers and fresh guacamole -- that won the event.

Since then, Patalinghug has traveled the world cooking and spreading his message. He is editing a second book, "Spicing Up Marriage," which he hopes will be published next spring. In addition, PBS plans to broadcast the "Grace Before Meals" television show as soon as funding is secured.

"Do what you can to encourage one another to bring out the best in each other," said Patalinghug as he finished cooking and served his dish to service members. "This is a movement, not a ministry. You don't have to be a priest to do it."

After a book signing at McGill, Patalinghug led a 30-minute discussion about the Catholic faith and a Mass at Calvary Chapel.

"He really cares and he loves God," said Sheryl Brereton, a member of the installation's Our Lady of Peace Military Catholic Community after the cooking presentation. "He's one of Jesus' true disciples and walks in his footsteps in helping to bring families together."

Page last updated Fri April 8th, 2011 at 11:09