NEW YORK — Faith, food, and friars are the main ingredients of Friar Chef, the video series in which friars of Holy Name Province demonstrate their cooking skills, provide how-to instruction, offer kitchen tips, and share their favorite recipes with viewers around the country. Friar Chef, one of the silver linings to emerge during the pandemic, is marking its first anniversary of dicing, chopping, baking, sautéing, and simmering since its launch last spring.
The concept originated before the COVID-19 outbreak when Michael Carnevale, OFM, demonstrated an unusual recipe in a video scripted by David Convertino, OFM – the ingredients that make a friar. The video was presented at the 2019 “A Night of Stars,” the HNP Development Office’s annual cocktails-and-hors-d’oeuvres fundraising event that features entertainment by Broadway performers.
The video was such a sensation that David, executive director of the HNP Development Office, tossed around the notion of a video series featuring the culinary skills of friars. If Michael captivated the audience talking about an 800-year-old “recipe” that makes a Franciscan friar – with figurative ingredients like prayer, brotherhood, compassion, acceptance, social justice, and a good sense of humor – just imagine what his tantalizing pasta recipes would do, David thought.
While his idea was simmering, the pandemic struck – forcing the nearly 25 friars at the St. Francis Friary in New York City — on West 31st Street, next to St. Francis of Assisi Church — into lockdown mode with the rest of New York. They ministered remotely and found themselves cooking more than just on weekends since the outside staff was not allowed in the building. But friars are used to fending for themselves when it comes to the kitchen.
David decided that with everyone stuck at home and looking for new hobbies and kitchen creations, the shelter-in-place edict provided the perfect time to launch the cooking series. He summoned the skills of several friars, among them Michael, Thomas Gallagher, OFM, Julian Jagudilla, OFM, and Barry Langley, OFM. Other friar chefs will be shooting new episodes in the weeks ahead. They include Frank Critch, OFM, a trained chef who owned a restaurant before becoming a friar, and Michael Reyes, OFM, an artist who already shoots a series called Friar Art, presentations that are part art history and part spiritual reflection.
“A little-known secret about friars – we love to cook and we love to eat. Most people don’t realize that friars are pretty good chefs, too,” said David, who created the Friar Chef video series that was launched last April.
Needless to say, the secret’s out with more than a dozen episodes of Friar Chef now on the web pages of FriarWorks and St. Anthony’s Guild – HNP entities that support the Province’s ministries, including outreach services to the poor – such as food, shelter, education, and healthcare. The series can be accessed on the websites and by subscribing to FriarWorks and St. Anthony’s Guild to receive new episodes via email when they are released. The videos produced during Lent 2021 were also posted on a website called Lent with the Friars.
Look no further than the numbers to measure the popularity of the cooking series. In a single week during Lent last month, Friar Chef received more than 3,250 views. Along with other innovative programs and devotions offered by St. Anthony’s Guild, the series has helped generate close to 4,000 new subscribers in support of the Development Office.
“Phenomenal numbers in terms of who is watching and who has joined the Province’s development movement,” said David, who demonstrated how to make pizza fritta in one episode, filling the pockets of the fried homemade dough with cheese and fresh tomatoes.
“The show isn’t a hard sell, it’s not ultra-polished. It’s just friars sharing what they love to do in a very casual setting. People appreciate what we are doing, and they show their appreciation by supporting our work with the poor, homeless and hungry,” added David, whose culinary skills are mostly derived through learning from others and watching celebrity-chef cooking shows, but also from classes at the cooking school at Eataly, an Italian marketplace in Manhattan.
Besides its entertainment value, the series has reconnected viewers with friars who have served at their parishes. Viewers have been emailing, calling, and leaving messages on social media to chat with friars, ask a question about a recipe, or look for other recipes and culinary ideas.
Although each episode features just one friar chef who is introduced by Michael Carnevale, the pace in the kitchen at the 31st Street friary is far more hectic at dinner time. The axiom, “too many cooks spoil the broth,” doesn’t apply here. In the friars’ kitchen, the more cooks, the merrier.
“It’s a family affair in our kitchen, with most friars being collaborative and helpful, others just watching from the sidelines, and – yes – others interfering, but in a good and fun way. It’s not so much about the cooking, as it is about being together as a fraternity. Community building is important to us – and food is one of the things that brings us together,” said David, who shared a behind-the-scenes production secret, noting that the episodes are shot in two parts – the video demonstration portion of the recipe in the kitchen, and the audio narration in a quieter location to avoid the background noise of the refrigeration and exhaust fans.
“It has also been an enjoyable way for the friars to share in communal life, and to connect with friends and supporters of Holy Name Province during the pandemic. The recipes are usually simple and the ingredients inexpensive so that everyone watching can enjoy them in their own homes. The series is aimed at encouraging the family experience of preparing a meal together, and then sitting around the table as a family – which has been especially important over the past 12 months,” David added.
Distinct Recipes, Diverse Friars
The recipes are as diverse as the friar chefs themselves, from pastas and soups, to seafood and desserts – all tried and true creations that have passed the test of some of the most experienced palates: other friars. The friary kitchen is truly a melting pot of cultures, according to Michael Reyes.
“Our house is very diverse – we have friars who are Peruvian, Filipino, Irish, Italian. Food is one of the things that ties us together and keeps us connected. Food helps us appreciate our differences. Everyone has their own specialties and style in the kitchen. It’s a way for us to share one another’s cultures and traditions. Friar Chef enables us to share this with others,” said Michael, who along with David, videotapes, produces, and edits all of the episodes.
Although not spiritual in content, Friar Chef brings people into contact with the Church in a different way, according to Michael Carnevale, who is the on-camera host of the series.
“At the height of the pandemic, people saw that friars were going through the same things as everyone else. We were home, working and ministering from the friary, and doing ordinary, everyday tasks like cooking. People view friars differently than they do other members of the clergy. In Friar Chef, they see us in a setting doing the same things that they like to do. They see we are down to earth,” said Michael, who gets things started in each episode with his trademark, “Light that flame, put on that oven, put on that apron, let’s cook,” before turning it over to the kitchen and featured friar.
“It’s nothing like the food shows they’re used to watching. We’re just a group of guys, each sharing his own experiences. For most, culinary school was the friary when we were on cooking duty,” said Michael, who has a slight advantage over the others, having learned his way around the kitchen from his Italian mother.
“Cooking comes easy for me. I find it relaxing and I love to see people enjoying good food. Coming from a big family (he is the youngest of 13 siblings), sitting down to dinner was important in my household. My mother cooked seven days a week, but Sunday was the big day when dinner would start at three in the afternoon and we wouldn’t get up from the table until eight at night,” said Michael, whose specialty is anything pasta, including recipes he demonstrated on two Friar Chef episodes – pasta Bolognese, and pasta with anchovies and garlic, a dish, he says, that his parents often made when he was growing up in Hoboken, New Jersey.
Preparing meals for the large group of friars, all with different tastes, at the 31st Street friary isn’t the least bit intimidating for Michael. “My mother never cooked anything she wouldn’t eat. My rule of thumb is to cook what I like – but I must be doing something right because everyone seems to like what I make,” he said, noting that the best thing about cooking is the camaraderie and fraternity that can be found in the friary kitchen. “When someone else is cooking, it’s nice to join them and watch what goes into their preparation. Sometimes you help. That’s what fraternity is about.”
For Tom, food and cooking are not only about nutrition and sustenance, they’re about the friendship and community that happens at a table.
“Sharing a good meal is a way of bringing people together. With most restaurants closed during the pandemic, you couldn’t go out for dinner or have meals with those outside your group. Friar Chef demonstrates how people can create a new way of being together – gathering in small groups within their nucleus of family and friends, and preparing and sharing a meal,” said Tom, pastor of St. Francis Parish since last September.
Tom’s culinary skills were developed while working at New Jersey restaurants during his high school and college days – doing everything from dishwashing and bartending, to waiting tables and serving as a line cook. These skills have been showcased on several Friar Chef episodes with creations of baked codfish, chicken with shallots and grapes, orzo with sautéed mushrooms and peas, and cheesy baked pasta with sausage – which Michael Carnevale says have friars going back for seconds and thirds.
Tom believes that the audience draw of Friar Chef is in seeing friars doing different things. “People are genuinely interested in how we live, how we take care of each other, what we eat, how friars live together in fraternity,” explained Tom, the second of seven siblings who said that cooking was always an adventure in his house, accommodating everyone’s diverse tastes, just as it is cooking for a large group of friars.
“Through our cooking and creativity on Friar Chef, it shows how we celebrate life and live as a fraternity,” said Tom.
The soup establishment made famous in an episode of the television comedy series Seinfeld has nothing on Julian, who, so far, has shared two of his soup specialties on Friar Chef – a spicy shrimp dumpling miso soup, and a family recipe for a traditional egg drop soup. Both had friars and viewers looking forward to Friday dinner during the recent Lenten season whenever Julian was standing over a 12-quart stockpot preparing these comforting and hearty meatless meals.
“Friars love soup. Most people love soup. It’s an easy food to aim for in the middle when you’re cooking for a crowd – easy enough to make sure it’s not very salty, not too bland, not too spicy. I make sure the majority will like it,” said Julian, who is director of the Migrant Center, based at the Province’s 31st Street offices.
“Cooking for a community is an excellent sign of our fraternity and brotherhood. When you are sitting around a table sharing a meal together, it builds community. It’s the same for every family,” explained Julian, who taught himself how to cook “out of necessity” after migrating to the United States from the Philippines in 1992.
“Before I became a friar, it was survival cooking. It was either learn or don’t eat,” Julian continued. “I never cooked as a kid, but I always loved to eat. I came to appreciate good food because back home there was always lots of food during weekend-long family celebrations and fiestas (religious feasts). When I came to the U.S., I found places to buy ingredients for Asian and Filipino recipes that I taught myself to cook.”
Julian says that the Friar Chef series is a good expression of the friars being one with the people.
“Viewers see us as human beings when they watch us doing something ordinary that they can identify with. They see that we cook and enjoy good food. It shows solidarity with them – and that goes a long way,” said Julian, who has been stationed at St. Francis of Assisi Parish as a parochial vicar since 2013. “The anticipation and excitement of what they’re going to see a friar cooking in the next episode is what makes Friar Chef so appealing and keeps people coming back.”
Cooking has always been appealing to Barry because he can transform an idea and simple ingredients into something that is vastly different from when he started.
“It’s a wonderful sense of accomplishment. I find it relaxing, to be able to go to the kitchen and listen to music while I’m chopping, mixing, and baking. I am a creative person, which is why I like the creative process in cooking – making something that looks and tastes great and is satisfying to others,” said Barry, who also quilts as a hobby and whose quilted creations are mostly wall-hangings and infant blankets.
For Barry, participating in the Friar Chef series is an opportunity to engage with others and help people break the monotony of the pandemic. “People haven’t been able to go out, but they can tune in to Friar Chef and try something new without needing an industrial or professional kitchen,” said Barry, a parochial vicar at St. Francis Church and a certified spiritual director on staff at 31st Street. His first Friar Chef episode was classic Christmas spritz cookies.
“The attraction is friars not just sharing recipes, but being part of the demonstration process. Although we are usually cooking for close to two dozen friars, we scale our recipes to a regular-size family. We are bringing our recipes to their homes. It’s a connection that people appreciate – and because it’s not a heavy theological series, people enjoy the way the show is put together,” said Barry, who added, “We are blessed as friars that people find us approachable and that they find the habit inviting.”
Barry has catered banquets for St. Anthony Shrine on Arch Street, a silent auction dinner with the Boston mayor, and Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner for 30 friars and 10 guests – all with no formal training. But getting dinner started with his older brother before their mother got home from work, watching endless hours of television chefs, cooking his own meals in his college dorm, and learning from chefs at restaurants where he worked as a waiter was all the schooling he needed, according to Barry, who’s planning to make a four-cheese mac and cheese dish, adding blue cheese to provide a tangy bite, in an episode of Friar Chef.
“Everyone loves mac and cheese. It’s one of those comfort foods that’s easy to make,” said Barry, who is also planning episodes on hot and sour soup and a simple recipe for General Tso’s chicken.
Moving into its second year, Friar Chef is planning a dash more spice and a cup more sizzle as it adds new friars to the mix – among them Frank Critch, OFM, a trained chef who attended culinary school in Victoria, the capital city of the Canadian province of British Columbia, and was chef-owner of Duck Street Bistro for seven years in St. John’s Newfoundland before becoming a Franciscan friar.
“For me, preparing meals is peaceful. Cooking is prayer. I enjoy the alone, contemplative moments in the kitchen and I feel most at peace as a friar being at table with friars, friends, and guests in conversation and laughter. It’s more than food, it’s the experience,” said Frank, pastor of St. Mary’s Parish in Pompton Lakes, New Jersey, since last September. “It is an extension of the table of the Eucharist. The table experience called me to the Franciscans and sustains all the other areas of friar life in which I am called to participate.”
He became enamored of cooking because of the role that food plays in conveying history.
“Food provides a generational connection to our heritage, ancestors, and past. It deepens who we are as a people and aids us in exploring other cultures. As Jesus says, ‘Do this in memory of me,’ we involve ourselves in another person’s family, culture, identity, and memories – with each meal telling a story,” said Frank, who is looking forward to contributing episodes to the Friar Chef series, but also admits that he rarely follows recipes to the letter so that he can be more creative.
Despite the isolation of the pandemic, Frank said the culinary series enables the friars to communicate with people, even if it is through a virtual connection. “Our pastoral life is based on community. We have been able to continue our connection with the community by creating new experiences for people through social media – such as the Friar Chef series – and growing and evolving our ministries [to adapt to the conditions of] the pandemic,” said Frank.
Commenting on the social issue aspect of nutrition, Frank said that everyone should be treated with the same dignity when it comes to food. “Unfortunately, we know this is not the case. All people need to be respected and honored. Whether shopping for ingredients, setting the ambiance and planning seating arrangements, or cooking or serving food for a fundraising banquet or at St. Francis Inn soup kitchen in Philadelphia, the whole experience should be one of service,” he said.
Future Menu: Cookbook, Franciscan TV
The Development Office plans to publish a Friar Chef cookbook, an idea conceived by Michael Reyes as a response to the extraordinary interest in the video series and requests from viewers for other friar recipes. The book will offer a collection of recipes, complete with ingredient lists, detailed preparation and cooking instructions, and photos. The cookbook will be available at the Franciscan Store, the Province’s e-commerce site for which Michael serves as director.
Once pandemic restrictions are lifted, the Development Office will take Friar Chef on the road, according to David, as part of an expansion to involve more friars and to videotape episodes on-location in friary kitchens throughout the Province. Episodes will continue shoots at 31st Street.
David revealed that plans are on the drawing board for a spinoff travel series – which will take viewers on virtual pilgrimages and tours of Franciscan and other holy sites, such as the Holy Land, Assisi, the mountains of La Verna, the Basilicas of Sts. Francis and Clare, San Damiano, the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher, and the birth homes of Francis and other Franciscan saints.
Paul O’Keeffe, OFM, clinical director of the counseling office at St. Anthony Shrine in Boston, Massachusetts – and who also is assigned in ministry to the Franciscan Missionary Union, which coordinates trips to missions and holy sites – will host the virtual travel series. With the help of technology, Paul will jet virtually to a different destination in each episode, explained David, who called it the perfect venue for those who are reluctant to travel because of the ongoing pandemic or who don’t have the finances to make such trips.
A second spinoff called “Dear Friar,” a counsel and advice-centric series is also in the planning stages – as is a series of eight videos that will take the place of this year’s Franciscan Challenge. The challenge, an annual fundraiser, will be held virtually over eight weeks instead of the one Sunday a year at which Development Office friars speak at Province parishes and ministry sites.
The Development Office is also planning a June launch of a Province YouTube channel called Franciscan TV – which David said will have a unique logo and jingle, and will serve as the central broadcast platform for the Franciscan family of shows – including Friar Chef and Friar Art with Michael Reyes. The new travel and advice series, as well as seasonal reflections and other programming, will be aired on Franciscan TV.
— Stephen Mangione is a frequent contributor to HNP Today.
- “Franciscan Store Launches Christmas Catalog” – Nov. 19, 2020, HNP Today
- “Getting Creative: Friars Sustain and Strengthen Fraternity” – May 14, 2020, HNP Today
- “Making the Most of a Pilgrimage” by Paul O’Keeffe, OFM — Feb. 6, 2019, HNP Today
- “Franciscan Challenge Offers Opportunity to Learn About, Help Friars” – April 10, 2013, HNP Today