Sliding behind the wheel of a shiny new convertible is how many people imagine celebrating their 50th birthday.
But as Father Leo Patalinghug, a Catholic priest member of the Voluntas Dei (“The Will of God”) consecrated life, approached his 50th milestone, his wheels turned in a different direction. He focused his wishes—and a fundraising campaign—on a food truck.
Fresh off his 51st birthday in May, this dream became a reality as the Plating Grace and Grub food truck hit the streets. But the truck is a vehicle for so much more than food.
Father Leo, as he is known, is an award-winning chef and host of “Savoring Our Faith” on EWTN. Fans of his cooking talents might remember his win in 2009 on Food Network’s “Throwdown! With Bobby Flay” with his Funky Fusion Fajitas with Holy Guacamole and Screamin’ Sour Cream. Indeed, Fr. Leo is on a mission—actually, he’s on multiple missions.
“This is really a desire, a dream and a prayer of about two years in the making,” says Fr. Leo, who grew up in Baltimore’s Brooklyn Park neighborhood. “A few years ago, Pope Francis declared something called the ‘Year of Mercy.’ My prayer was ‘Who needs God’s mercy?’ Everybody does, but particularly those who might not feel invited to the table.”
The word table is important because it conveys both a spiritual and literal definition—not only the Lord’s table, but also a real human need for food. Four years ago, Fr. Leo founded The Table Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to “harvesting the power of food to do good.”
Fr. Leo shared his prayer with The Table Foundation’s board, and they began looking at traditional brick-and-mortar restaurants, “but nothing seemed to fit,” he says. “The board suggested a food truck instead, and that became our focus. When COVID-19 hit, we were glad we didn’t get a restaurant.”
A GoFundMe campaign, launched amid the pandemic, exceeded all goals by raising more than $90,000 in funding. And the concept of a table?
“Our table is mobile,” says Fr. Leo.
Serving the Underserved
“It’s really a social enterprise serving two groups of people,” says Fr. Leo.
First, the Plating Grace and Grub program aims to employ and mentor returning citizens—the formerly incarcerated—as food truck interns, earning more than minimum wage and providing a springboard into future employment. Second, in partnership with the Franciscan Center in Baltimore, using their kitchen and head chef, meals will be prepared and delivered to city residents experiencing food insecurity. But the truck doesn’t stop there.
Fr. Leo envisions the Plating Grace & Grub food truck rolling into a full schedule of private catering gigs and food truck events to continually fund the outreach efforts for his organization’s programs.
“We’re excited to take it on the road and impact lives,” says Mike La Charite, Plating Grace and Grub’s project manager. His involvement in the project was quite serendipitous.
“I really just asked Fr. Leo to lunch to see what we could do together,” La Charite says with a laugh. “Apparently that meeting (two years ago) was supposed to happen because it led me to working with The Table Foundation, then Plating Grace. Honestly, I’m just so grateful to be part of this team … put together with divine inspiration.”
La Charite brings event management skills, a robust culinary background and his Catholic faith to this outreach mission and vision.
“It’s a great opportunity to pair my ministry desires and also my professional interests,” says La Charite.
What it is like working with the dynamo known as Fr. Leo?
“It’s unbelievable—I’ve never known somebody who is so dedicated to reaching out to people on the margins. It’s really inspiring,” La Charite says.
Three M’s on the Menu
When you meet Fr. Leo, you soon realize that, along with a heart for people, he also has a way with words and a passion for food. It all comes together in Plating Grace and Grub’s menu. Fr. Leo describes it as “international comfort food.” Like much of Fr. Leo’s lingo, he has a catchy description of the menu—”the three M’s.”
First, diners select their “main” (beef, chicken, vegetables or shrimp), then their “method,” (quesadilla, salad or noodle stir-fry).
“Then you choose your mood,” says Fr. Leo. “How are you feeling—creamy Parisian, Asian island, barbecue USA, Latin fresh or Italian seaside? All sauces are reminiscent of international countries’ familiar cuisine.” In true food-truck style, it’s quick cuisine.
“It takes less than a minute to assemble because we’re using a sous vide (under vacuum) type of cooking … that literally cooks things so they melt in your mouth,” Fr. Leo describes.
Everything seems to be falling into place on a divine timeline. The food truck’s dedication date, May 1, was the feast day of St. Joseph the Worker. “We’ll be using his example of being a dedicated father and worker by providing the dignity of work to people in need,” Fr. Leo explains.
If you think this date is a coincidence, consider the date that Plating Grace and Grub hits the road.
“June 1 is the feast day of St. Justin the Martyr, who talked about serving people,” says Fr. Leo. “The church has it all scheduled for me.” The entire team is grateful to everyone who donated to and prayed for the project.
“There’s so much on the news that’s negative,” says La Charite. “To have over 500 people donate to the campaign and invest in the message to give back to a population typically looked down upon—there’s a lot of hope there.”
Chef Steven Allbright can relate to the prison population. He’s been there himself. Domestic violence charges and an active addition were the factors that led to his six-year incarceration.
Upon his release in 2014, a new path and culinary career intersected with Fr. Leo and The Table Foundation. Allbright currently serves about 500 meals to the homeless every day at The Franciscan Center.
“I’m 59 and just really starting my life,” says Allbright. “It’s nothing but rewarding when you give them a good meal made with love. How they respond to that, it’s a conversation without words.”
The partnership with the Plating Grace and Grub food truck will accelerate outreach.
“There are 22 homeless encampments in Baltimore, and we are serving 10 right now through the Franciscan Center,” says Allbright. “The food truck gives us the ability to bring something warm and to serve them with dignity—by giving them menu choices.”
Accompanying Fr. Leo’s international menu are Allbright’s “Elevated Soups,” which he developed as a Johns Hopkins social enterprise project. He’ll be mentoring and training food truck interns.
“Working with returning citizens, it’s a formation of an individual’s mind, body and soul. I have those life experiences, where Fr. Leo has the formation experience,” Allbright says. “Everyone has to go through a path. I had visions of winning a James Beard Award, but my mission changed when I saw the rewards from serving the least of these. Having the ability to work with Fr. Leo gave me more insight.”
Allbright’s life has come full circle, like the wheels on a truck. “Who would think a Catholic priest, working with an ex-con—me—would serve the homeless population, possibly going into encampments, with a food truck?” asks Allbright.
There’s another big question driving this story: Where does Fr. Leo get his energy and ideas?
“Really, from prayer and coffee,” Fr. Leo says with a laugh. “I also have an incredible team who has responded as missionaries … true saints in the making, and I am not kidding. But the ultimate leader in our team is the grace of God.”
For more information on Fr. Leo, The Table Foundation and the Plating Grace and Grub initiative, visit thetablefoundation.org.