By Becky Sindelar
August 31, 2015 — A chef-turned-Jesuit priest is not a common career path, but to hear Fr. Chuck Frederico, SJ, explain it, both vocations are more similar than you might imagine. For Fr. Frederico, who graduated from the Culinary Institute of America before eventually joining the Society of Jesus, sharing great meals and caring for souls are both about gathering people together.
“When I celebrate Mass, it’s so important to bring people to the table. And it’s the same sense of hospitality that I feel when I’m cooking and want to bring my friends and family together to have a meal. It really makes a key impact on my ministry.”
Fr. Frederico celebrating Mass at Xavier High School in New York City.
Growing up in an Italian Catholic family in the Philadelphia suburbs, food was an important part of life. Sundays were centered on going to Mass and then having a large meal with the extended family. As a young boy, Fr. Frederico would wake to find his mom in the kitchen, prepping food before Mass. “There would be all kinds of delicious smells coming up the steps into the bedrooms before church,” he recalls.
Fr. Frederico got to be her assistant — whether it was rolling meatballs or making ravioli. In high school, he took his first official restaurant job, as a busboy at the Italian restaurant Positano. The restaurant’s owner took Fr. Frederico under his wing and gave him further cooking instruction. On Saturday mornings, Fr. Frederico would help him prep food, from learning to make sauces to filleting fish to baking cookies.
When Fr. Frederico graduated from Cardinal O'Hara High School, Positano’s owner encouraged him to apprentice in Italy, but Fr. Frederico’s dad insisted he go to college, so he attended the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, New York — whose building and grounds just happened to serve previously as a former Jesuit novitiate, St. Andrew-on-Hudson.
The dean of his high school told Fr. Frederico to take notice of a few things at the CIA, including the “AMDG” (Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam, the Jesuit motto meaning “for the greater glory of God”) carved in the marble floor. The phrase was familiar to Fr. Frederico, as the nuns who taught him in grade school required even the first graders to head their loose leaf papers with those four letters. Little did he know how that AMDG would foreshadow a vocation that was still years away.
Fr. Frederico graduated from the CIA in 1991 and then earned a food marketing degree at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. Although he had dreams of owning his own restaurant, the Jesuits at Saint Joseph’s helped derail the budding chef’s career.
He had several Jesuit professors and was impressed with not only the quality of their teaching but also their clear passion for Jesus. “I found that really intriguing and desired to look into what it is about these guys that makes me so comfortable and charged up. When I went to Mass when the Jesuits celebrated it, it was a faith that called me to action.”
Fr. Frederico cooking at a friend’s home during his Jesuit formation.
Outside the classroom, Fr. Frederico was still cooking, sometimes preparing meals for the university’s president, Fr. Nick Rashford, SJ, for his lunches with benefactors. And while working at restaurants in the city, Fr. Frederico would often find a table of Jesuits there. “I’d greet them at the table and send something out to them.”
At the end of his junior year, he reached out to the Jesuit vocation office. When he told his parents he was thinking about joining the Jesuits, his dad and grandparents weren’t happy. “They wanted me to have a restaurant.”
Fittingly, a family meal helped warm them toward the idea. Fr. Frederico invited the Vocation Director, Fr. Joe Costantino, SJ, over for a Sunday meal so he could answer their questions. “I helped my mom make a fabulous four-course meal, and throughout the meal there was not one word spoken about vocations,” he recalls laughing.
Fr. Frederico cooking a 50th anniversary dinner for the parents of his friend, John Cunningham, SJ, at Loyola University Chicago.
At the end of the meal, Fr. Costantino asked if anyone had any questions. “My dad banged the table, and said, ‘I don’t like it, no way, no how,’ and my grandmother said, ‘And neither do I!’ Joe got a big smile on his face and said, ‘Tell me more, tell me more.’ I wanted to crawl under the table. But it was the beginning of the melting of their hearts toward it.”
Fr. Frederico finished his degree and entered the Society in 1995; he’s celebrating 20 years in the Society this year and recently professed final vows. Ordained a priest in 2006, he then worked at Loyola University Maryland for three years as assistant campus minister. For the past seven years, he has served as vocation director for the Maryland and Northeast Provinces, working directly with young men as they discern their vocation to the Jesuits. Through it all, food has been a key component of his vocation.
Fr. Frederico talks with students at Regis High School in New York City about vocations.
“I started cooking even in the novitiate. At that point I was struggling with how to incorporate it in my Jesuit life. Part of me wanted to leave it behind. But I realize now my priesthood is so rooted in the notion of hospitality and the meal.”
Fr. Frederico still cooks occasionally, oversees the food service and helps plan meals at his community. And when he cooks dinner, he puts up a sign and everyone shows up.
For him, cooking is a full-day experience. He’ll go to the market in the morning, pick his main ingredient at the meat or fish counter and then plan the rest of the meal around it. Then he goes back, puts on Sinatra or Pavarotti and goes to town. “I want to be in the kitchen. It’s like a church for me.”
Fr. Frederico grilling for his Jesuit brothers on St. Ignatius Day in 2013.
Cooking in the Society goes beyond making an incredible meal for his fellow Jesuits. It’s also using his talents to further the mission, such as having his cooking services auctioned off to benefit a local Jesuit high school.
Additionally, he’s using his culinary skills to promote the Society and vocations. On August 30, he’ll be featured on an episode of Cooking Channel’s “Holy and Hungry,” which showcases religious leaders who use food in some way in their ministry.
Fr. Frederico says he had a blast during the one-day shoot with host Sherri Shepherd, formerly on “The View.” In the episode, he makes spaghetti and clams, a recipe he ate growing up on Fridays during Lent. “Bringing people to the table over a good meal and a glass of wine, I think, can solve the problems of the world.”
Tune in on Wednesday, September 2, 2015, at 10 p.m. Eastern to watch Fr. Frederico on Cooking Channel’s “Holy and Hungry.”
Some of Fr. Frederico's creations from the kitchen.
Do you want to learn more about vocations to the Society of Jesus? Visit www.jesuitvocations.org for more information.