Whether you are Catholic or not, one of the most familiar names in the food world is Father Leo Patalinghug. An icon for connecting food with faith, Father Leo, as he is more popularly known, busily travels from town to town and country to country to spread love and faith through food and cooking demos. “If you want to find God, look for God between pots and pans,” he said. “This is from St. Teresa of Avila. This is not my idea. I am just promoting it through modern evangelization.”
A native Filipino whose family moved to the U.S. when he was a toddler, Father Leo received his food passion from his mother: “I think the reason my family has so many friends was because my mother cooked so well,” Father Leo said. “We all became family because of the hospitality my mom and dad showed to family and friends. … Food is that connection.”
As a youngster, he said, he went to church only to please his parents, who wanted him to learn to be kind to others. “The church was a part of what they were,” he recalled. One Sunday his parents did not join him, but the missionary priest approached him after Mass and asked him to come over and talk about missions. “He opened my eyes,” he said, “which is why I still do mission Masses. I took it seriously. I went on a pilgrimage ... and that is where I really got the message.”
Later as a seminarian in Rome, Father Leo noted that all were required to share meals in the seminarian community. “I became immersed in Italian culture, long meals and the churches in Rome,” he said. “But it wasn’t until I became a deacon when I was on a retreat led by a clinical psychologist helping us understand who we are as priests and humans… that it impacted me.”
During a silent meal, she reflected on where food comes from. Father Leo kept thinking, from farmers, servers, chefs and ancestors. “And if you keep going back,” he said, “you get to Father [God] as the provider. I experienced a sacramental moment of God’s embrace, an internal embrace. … That thought stayed with me, and got me closer to the Eucharist and to becoming a chef.”
In fact, just before the seminarians were ordained, Father Leo decided to choose Jesus’ passage, “‘Do you love me? And He said, ‘Feed my sheep.’”
To launch on this food-faith mission, Father Leo took culinary classes, and said he always makes friends with chefs. “And with every chef I ask ‘How do you practice what you are taught?’” he said. “Everywhere I go, I do learn about that cuisine, whether it is Asian, European, Latino, and even parts of America. I become a disciple to that food and to those people.”
As a result, he strives to feed people without the desire to convert, like Saint Mother Teresa and Saint Paul, “who were an amazing influence… Evangelize, not proselytize, that is what we are called to do,” he said.
Several years and many miles later, Father Leo communicates that spiritual and earthly tie between faith and food: he travels globally. He has written several cookbooks, including Grace Before Meals, Saving the Family, Epic Food Fight, and Spicing up Married Life, and he also has produced podcasts, including “Shoot the Shiitake.” For a full list of his works and to check out his culinary pilgrimages, visit https://fatherleofeeds.com.