Father Ben Bradshaw, Memphis Pastor and Paris-Trained Chef
“Food and faith are unifiers.”
Showcasing that important connection between food and faith, a very popular and noteworthy Memphis priest has taken that show on the road, so to speak. That would be Father Benjamin Bradshaw, the pastor at St. Michael’s Catholic Church, where he hosts a show called Soul Food on Facebook and on the parish website.
Not surprisingly, before he answered the calling to the priesthood, Fr. Bradshaw was a professional chef with a culinary degree from Johnson and Wales in South Carolina, the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont, and Ecole Lenôtre in Paris. “I spent 10 years as a chef,” he said, “and that industry is grueling. I spent five years working in a restaurant and five years as a pastry chef.”
Raised in a Catholic home in Memphis by parents trying to choose which faith to follow, Father Bradshaw said they decided it would be cool to be Catholic. “I was lucky,” he said, “because their parish is about two blocks from the hotel where Martin Luther King was shot. That taught us the real sense of civil rights.”
His passion for food and cooking inspired him to start cooking when only 17 years old with French chef Jean Claude Prevot in Memphis and later in the Côte d’Azur before going to France to attend the Ecole Lenôtre Pastry School in Paris until he was in his mid-20s. “I had a very positive experience working with the chefs,” he said.
But the inspiration to become a priest started when he was doing mission work in Russia in 1995 with a Catholic religious community. “When I was there, the more I thought about it,” he said. “I was in the post-Communist era, and I loved working with the people. I realized I need to do more work with the poor. That was the catalyst, and when I came back, I had more thoughts and prayers.”
Father Bradshaw realized that that Russian experience really was a major turning point in his life. He wanted to help people in a bigger way and to make an impact on their lives. “I love prayer,” he said, “and I started praying that I could do this. I was nervous about going into seminary. I could write a doctorate about making hollandaise.”
He entered the Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, at the age of 27, and when he became an active priest, he came up with the Soul Food idea, adding that he had learned in culinary school in his class on culinary anthropology that food and faith are so pivotal in every culture. For him, then, the goal of his videos was to portray that connection between food and faith.
As the host, he sets up different venues and different guests, even having interviewed atheists on one show. But he usually goes to parishioners’ home to cook something. “We set up cameras around the house,” he said, “and cook something, film and then edit it.” Sometimes the family members don’t want to be on film, but usually people come into the kitchen to help him cook.
Father Bradshaw always selects comfort foods such as macaroni and cheese or ramen noodles — something that elicits memories in people. Not surprisingly, chocolate has been the favorite, and as he noted, it is a very diverse substance that can be prepared in many different ways. But because most of his parishioners are Latino, he also likes to make things like goat tacos.
He noted that he has filmed about 28 episodes, doing one about every three weeks. After all, he concluded, “Food and faith are unifiers. Food is a vehicle because everyone wants to eat, so using food is a way to get to know people. Food connects with culture.”
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Father Bradshaw’s Recipe for Eclairs
- 3 cups water
- 1 pound plus 2 tablespoons butter, chopped
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 12 large eggs
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Line baking sheets with parchment paper. Combine the water and butter in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Add the flour all the once and stir until the mixture pulls away from the sides of the pan. Stir in the eggs, one at a time.
After the dough is ready, using a pastry bag with a one-inch tip, pipe the dough into 5-inch strips onto the parchment paper.
Bake for 30 minutes until the eclair shells are hollow. After baking let them cool before cutting shells in half lengthwise; set aside the tops. Fill with pastry cream or sweetened whipped cream. Dip the tops in melted chocolate mixed with some vegetable oil. After dipping, chill the tops for 10 minutes before placing them onto the bottom halves.