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The Cook with a Collar - Delaware News-Journal

The Cook with the Collar

Priest known for his culinary skills will hold cooking demonstrations at Delaware State Fair

The Delaware News Journal

The Rev. Leo E. Patalinghug, a Catholic priest and educator at Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., has gained flocks of followers over the years.

But it's not his religious sermons, black belt in Tae Kwon Do or even his breakdancing abilities that draw crowds. Rather, it's the aroma of Father Leo's fusion fajitas and other culinary creations.

Patalinghug's gift for cooking, which recently landed him on the Food Network series "Throwdown! with Bobby Flay," and takes him to the Delaware State Fair on Sunday, has become the inspiration behind his mission to draw families together at the table.

In 2003, Patalinghug began a movement, "Grace Before Meals," that shares his message. He has a Web site of the same name, www.grace, that includes a blog with recipes (grilled peaches with "honey minty lemon whipped mascarpone cheese" was a recent post) as well as a free newsletter and videos.

He also created a pilot for a TV show and wrote a book, "Grace Before Meals: Recipes for Family Life," (Leo Watkins Films, 2008) with more than 40 recipes and short essays about life's culinary celebrations and ways to embrace them with loved ones.

"The book is full of bite-size essays readers can absorb while their roast bakes, as well as recipes to try," he says. "Cooking is about feeding the body, mind and soul of His family -- God's family."

Patalinghug, 37, was raised in a Filipino household that embraced the culinary culture and valued family meals. He attended the seminary at the North American College in Rome, where he spent much of his time in Italian restaurant kitchens.

He was ordained in 1999 and served as a parish priest for five years at St. John's Church in Westminster, Md. Often invited to his parishioners' homes for dinner, Patalinghug found himself in the kitchen, cooking for his hosts. It was his way of building friendships and having relaxed conversations.

The opportunity to enjoy delicious food has always been a blessing in his life. Yet, Patalinghug never imagined that his own food would become popular.

"I never really tried to advertise my cooking. I just used my talent to cook for my family and friends."

Word of his culinary abilities grew, and in a short time, he was asked to travel for guest appearances, book signings and cooking demonstrations as well as to tape a one-time show for the Food Network. It unexpectedly turned into a "Throwdown!" competition with Flay, a celebrity chef who tried to one-up Patalinghug's fusion fajitas.

"As far as 'Grace Before Meals' goes, the cook-off was my greatest accomplishment thus far," he says of the competition, which took place last month at Mount St. Mary's University. "I don't believe in idols, but he is my hero."

After the "Throwdown!" was over, Patalinghug says Flay told him his fajitas were tender and delicious.

"I'm never washing my ears again," he jokes.

So did he best Bobby? Patalinghug isn't saying; the outcome will be revealed when the episode airs either in August or September.

Before becoming a priest, Patalinghug pursued degrees in writing and political science, with the intention of studying law and journalism at the University of Maryland, Baltimore Campus. He also taught high school speech, debate and drama, and along with his brother, founded a martial arts school in 1988.

His travels have taken him as far as California, Japan and Australia. At the Delaware State Fair in Harrington, he'll hold two cooking demonstrations using Delaware-grown products.

"I will be making signature dishes for you, Delaware, based on your famous sweet corn."

Dishes will include a creamy corn pasta sauce as well as his famous fajitas made with flank steak. Patalinghug also will mix two fruit cocktails -- one nonalcoholic and one with sambuca, an anise-flavored liqueur.

"The fair was, coincidentally, the only Sunday I had available all year," he says. "After the fair I'm going straight to Arizona."

Patalinghug says his unexpected celebrity status has left him strained and tired, but the opportunity to spread his message about family meals is gratifying.

"I have a lot on my plate right now," he says. "My body hurts, but I hate leftovers, and love trying new things."

Next on his busy agenda: Joining the military as an Air Force chaplain.

"I know how it is to be away from your family -- it could be lonely. Traveling can be lonely for me as well."

Patalinghug said he uses his few free days to share meals with his own family in Baltimore. He says he would be a hypocrite if he didn't practice what he preaches.

And when Patalinghug is on the road, he uses a traveling Mass kit.

"I sometimes need to say Mass alone in a hotel room. I need my daily bread. The most important thing I do all day is eat with God."

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