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
Something of a minor cooking celebrity, Father Christopher Cambre, pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus parish in Baldwin and Immaculate Conception parish in Charenton (both in Louisiana) made a name for himself as a participant in the annual Collarnary Cookoff at John Paul the Great Academy in Lafayette, Louisiana. Actually, Father Cambre has many names for himself as he has been a participant for six years, is a graduate of the academy, and plans to continue competing. (Note: the main challenge of the cookoff has always been making a dazzling gumbo.)
One of seven siblings and raised by very Catholic parents, Father Cambre noted that the family went faithfully to Mass every Sunday, which was really at the heart of their life. “That helped to influence my vocation,” he said. And choosing the priesthood had much to do with his studies at the John Paul the Great Academy. “A priest friend of ours would always come over for big meals,” he said. “And he was really close to our family, and having that kind of connection was important. He always told me that one day I would become a priest.”
Over his teenage years, Father Cambre said he kept growing deeper in his Catholic faith. By the time of his junior year in high school, he and his family felt he was not getting proper daily faith formation, so they looked into John Paul the Great Academy. “We loved what we saw,” he said, “so I went there in my senior year and grew so deep in my faith that I fell in love more with my faith and knew that this is where God called me.” (Note: Father Cambre entered the Academy in its first year of operation.)
As for his passion for cooking, he noted that his Cajun culture is all about cooking because everyone loves to cook. “What I learned as a child,” he said, “was how to make roux (a thickening agent made with flour and fat cooked until thick). I always told my brothers that you have to learn how to cook if you want a good life.” It helped the family’s food passion that the father owned a restaurant franchise, “The Ground Pati.”
When the Academy launched the cookoff Father Cambre, along with many other priests from other parishes, joined the competition. “It was a competition among local priests,” he said, “and we used our collars as a way to raise money for the Academy for families to get a good Catholic education. … The priests come together to cook a gumbo and local chefs come over and judge the gumbo.”
His first competition was when he was a seminarian, and with fellow John Paul the Great seminarians, they cooked a gumbo that won the competition. Over the years, Father Cambre himself has entered two gumbo versions, one with chicken and sausage and the other with shrimp with okra. He also won second place in 2017 for his bread pudding.
Now, as pastor of two parishes, Father Cambre, at the age of 29, has been dubbed by his parishioners as “the baby priest” who cooks not only for himself but for families as well. “The very nature of cooking is oriented towards building communion and love with those present,” he said. “It is a good way to get to know people and I am already incorporating food into my ministry.”