A convert to Catholicism, Alexandra Greeley is a food writer, restaurant critic, and cookbook author, who is passionate about every aspect of the food world—from interviewing chefs to supporting local farmers and to making the connection between food and faith
Getting to know Father James Searby is a delightful experience. Chaplain and Director of Catholic Campus Ministry at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, Father Searby is not only a very devout priest, but he is also a terrific cook—well, chef—who prepares for his college students a noble meal every Wednesday night. Not only that, he serves it and then cleans up afterward. And, he cooks often for other Catholic campus activities.
Raised in a devout Catholic household, Father Searby learned as a youth the beauty of the faith. “I encountered, from my early life, beauty through the arts, goodness from my parents, and Truth from my father and schooling,” he said. “And when you encounter beauty, goodness and truth, you always want more, and that ‘more’ is God through the Catholic faith.”
And why did he become a priest? Well, “God kept calling me very gently, and I responded,” he said. “I did not decide, God did. After six years of formation, Bishop Loverde called me to Holy Orders. That is the beauty of discerning — it’s never discerned alone.”
But at this stage in his priesthood, cooking plays a major role. He learned his culinary passion by watching his Greek grandmother and mother cook. “The two had a confluence, particularly my Greek grandmother,” he said. “We would spend time together in the kitchen. It was warm and cozy and welcoming, and cooking and serving associates that for me. Cooking is the most accessible art form that can be shared.”
Additionally, for many years, Father Searby worked in 10 different restaurants on and off, both in the front and back of the house. “I would come in early and help in the kitchen,” he said. “It was a place of daring,” adding that “culinary experimentation creates lifelines and a sense of delight.”
Now, at George Mason with its multiple small kitchens, Father Searby said it is like running a small restaurant. He cooks regularly for student gatherings. “We have constant meals,” he said. “There is always food and get-togethers, and weekly over 100 students come together with music and dancing to share a variety of cultural expressions. You really see the vibrance of life.”
On Wednesdays, Father Searby cooks a semi-formal, sit-down, three-course meal for one of the many student Bible studies on a rotating basis. “They get dressed up and the room is well-appointed,” he said. “We share, we talk. I serve them and we discuss everything from manners to theology. It’s a privileged place of encounter… I prepare the same meal every time, starting with hors d’oeuvres with a plate of pita bread, hummus, tzatziki and harissa sauce, a little spicy. Then the salad course with blood orange juice infused with olive oil, lime juice, cracked pepper, and salt.” Then a full Greek meal. “They are always fully present and never even check their cell phones,” he added.
Eating together, Father Searby believes, is a key way for people to get to know one another. “It breaks down walls as we discuss many things, food being one important element,” he said. “Food is the most encounterable art. … It’s similar to the liturgy in that all five five senses are engaged: sight, sense, smell, touch, and hearing (with music playing in the background).”
After all, he concluded, “Jesus chooses the table for the most intense and intimate human encounter, the Eucharist. The dining room table can be a first experience with the altar. The meal, as a dining experience, is the foretaste of the Eucharist, which is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet.”
Note: To learn more about Father Searby’s campus ministry, go to http://gmuccm.org
Father Searby’s Greek Chicken and Potatoes (Serves 4)
As Father Searby said, “I have all my grandmother’s Greek recipes, all ingredients written down without amounts. I can remember her taste, and always try to make something and get it just right.”
- ¼ pound unsalted butter
- 4 pounds skin-on, bone-in organic no-hormone chicken thighs
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon oregano (fresh preferably though dried can work in a pinch)
- 1 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper (preferable from a mortar and pestle)
- 1 teaspoon fresh or dried rosemary
- ½ cup fresh lemon juice
- ½ cup olive oil
- 6 cloves garlic, minced (be liberal though)
- 4 russet potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
- ⅔ cup chicken broth, (plus splash to deglaze the pan)
- Chopped fresh oregano for garnish
- Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
- In a large skillet, heat the butter over medium heat, and pan-sear the chicken until golden brown. Remove and place in a large bowl.
- Add salt, oregano, pepper, and rosemary. Add the lemon juice, olive oil (add extra olive oil, if needed) and garlic. Add the potatoes to the bowl and stir all together.
- Transfer the chicken pieces, skin side up, to a baking pan. Reserve the marinade. Evenly place potato pieces among the chicken thighs. Drizzle with some chicken broth. Add the remainder of the marinade.
- Bake in the oven for 20 minutes. Toss the chicken and potatoes, keeping chicken skin side up; continue baking until the chicken is browned and cooked through, about 25 minutes more. Cook the chicken to 165 degrees F.
- Remove from the oven and transfer the chicken to a serving platter to keep warm. Set the oven to broil. Toss potatoes once again in the juices. Place the pan under the broiler and cook until the potatoes are caramelized, (about 3 minutes but let it be nice and brown and tasty looking). Let it sit for a while under foil to soak and settle. Serve on a large tray, family style.