Can superior culinary skills breed good priestly skills? Not everybody would make such a connection, but it’s one that Father Joe Marcoux has heeded for quite some time.
Father Marcoux, who once spent five years working as a cook and five more as a chef, said that during priestly formation he received a vital affirmation from the late Father Edward Zimmer.
“He told me, ‘You already have a leg up on everybody else. This gift of cooking, that’s all about hospitality and welcoming folks. You’re going to do great.’ I never forgot that,” recalled Father Marcoux, who was ordained in 2001.
Father Marcoux’s cooking expertise and congeniality were on full display Jan. 28 at Ithaca’s St. Catherine of Siena Parish. Longtime parishioner Carol Ast, along with five guests of her choosing, were treated to a seven-course gourmet French dinner prepared by their first-year pastor. Ast had earned this rare privilege by winning a parish fundraising raffle held during the fall.
“When they announced the winner, I was actually out of town. I didn’t know about it until I got back. I was absolutely ecstatic,” said Ast, who sings in the parish choir and has donated several pieces of her artwork to St. Catherine — including a banner in the church noting the parish’s ongoing 50th-anniversary celebration.
Ast acknowledged that it was difficult to decide which five people she would invite to join her.
“Father Joe had said that he was interested in not just doing this to benefit the church, but to get to know the parishioners better. With that thought in mind, I chose parishioners I didn’t know that well so I could get to know them better, too,” she explained.
Guests arrived at 6 p.m. at the parish house located behind the church, and received a tour of the facilities by Father Marcoux, who had begun cooking that day at 9 a.m. Dinner then commenced at 6:30.
And what a dinner it was. The first courses were oxtail onion soup; champignon en croûte (croutons with mushroom and garlic); fruits de mer (seafood); and goat cheese and fig en croûte. After an intermezzo featuring tangerine ice, it was on to the main course of venison with sauce truffle. Coffee service and a dessert of almond napoleon topped off the evening’s menu. Father Marcoux was extended the ultimate chef’s compliment: All the courses disappeared quickly.
Ast was so impressed that she took photographs of the various food offerings. She added that she was awed by the attention to detail from Father Marcoux, who donned a black chef’s jacket for the evening.
“Father presented us with a different wine with each course and explained the reason for the selection, what we could expect for the flavor — although that went over my head,” she said with a laugh. “The care with which he created the menus, the food, the place settings — it was done with such thought and artistry. He did everything so beautifully. Even the ladies were served first, going to the absolute letter of fine dining.”
Father Marcoux noted that three days after the dinner he received a card of thanks stating, in part: “Each course was almost too beautiful to eat, but I’m glad I forced myself.” In fact, the priest said his guests’ only complaint had nothing to do with the menu.
“They wanted me to sit down with them, but I said if I did that, they’d never get anything to eat,” he quipped.
However, he did get to join them not long before the scheduled ending time. The guests then engaged in pleasant conversation with him for about an hour, not leaving until 10:30. So, Father Zimmer’s observation about the link between cooking and socializing held up nicely that night for Father Marcoux.
“I was incredibly pleased with the whole thing,” he said.
Father Marcoux said the dinner’s success was due in large part to the volunteerism of several parishioners that day: Mary Lee Noden and Pat Williams, who cochaired the event; and Paula Valencia, Ben Boynton and Dawn Redlin. This quintet tended to such duties as chopping and slicing food, arranging the flowers, setting the table, shoveling the steps, serving dinner and drinks, clearing the table, and washing dishes.
The event grew out of an initiative by the parish Leadership Council to create a unique means of raising funds. Raffle tickets were sold for $25 each, and a net profit of approximately $4,000 was raised for the parish. Things went so well that Father Marcoux said he’s now looking to stage similar meals in the future. In fact, All Saints Parish in nearby Lansing is currently conducting a raffle featuring dinner for six cooked by Father Marcoux. The drawing is March 13; funds raised will support mission trips taken by All Saints’ youth group.
“I try to keep my hand in this so I don’t lose my skill,” said Father Marcoux, who noted that his services used to be “auctioned” by Rochester’s Catholic Family Center and that he once cooked dinner for about 60 people while stationed at Sacred Heart Cathedral.
As far as Ast is concerned, Father Marcoux’s skill hasn’t wavered one bit — and she’s equally impressed with his social expertise.
“It was quite a lovely, relaxed evening. It was such a fantastic, superb job Father Joe did. It was marvelous, it really was,” she remarked.