The poultry donation had arrived, completely frozen, two hours before dinner was to begin. “Get three cutting boards and six chef’s knives!” I directed Sister Laura. Soon we had hundreds of thin strips of frozen chicken on trays ready to roast. By dinner time, with just minutes to spare, the chicken with sherry gravy was ready to enjoy.
Experiences like this one are what led me to compete on a special Thanksgiving episode of the Food Network's Chopped. This cooking competition challenges chefs to transform “mystery basket” ingredients into original dishes in thirty minutes or less. After a heated competition, I came out the winner! If I had an advantage over my fellow soup kitchen chefs, I credit it to divine providence.
Before I entered religious life with the Franciscans of the Eucharist of Chicago, I had no concept of ingredients like celeriac, quinoa, or flank steak. Depending on divine providence opened up a whole new world of possibilities in the kitchen, and prepared me for Chopped.
I cook at the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels on Chicago's West Side, the site of a tragic school fire on December 1, 1958. Decades later, the neighborhood is one of the most needy and crime-ridden in Chicago, and the Mission is now a haven of hope for so many hungry people. It may appear that I run the kitchen, but really I don't. I don't place food orders, I don't even hire the staff. All the food, the people who help, the dishes … even the guests who come to eat—every element is provided by the Lord. My only task is to receive all the blessings that He sends our way.
Imagine a truck load of organic chicken that can only be delivered at 4:00 a.m.! I rarely have control over when something arrives, but I'm never disappointed. Last winter, twenty pounds of fresh herbs came in, and with the help of a very patient novice, thyme was meticulously plucked from each branch and added to the sherry gravy. The Lord provided something special, and I had an obligation to share it with the little ones who are so dear to his heart, and mine.
What motivated St. Francis motivates me: love for Jesus and for the least of our brothers and sisters. As I look down Hamlin Avenue, I see many people who might easily be labeled as gang bangers or prostitutes. But that is not how Jesus sees them. He sees beloved sons and daughters of our Heavenly Father, waiting for a hand to reach out to them, a heart to love them, a friend to share something to feed their bodies and souls.
One grace I often reflect on are words recorded in the Last Supper Narratives, that Jesus “took ... blessed ... broke and gave.” Then He said, “Do this in remembrance of Me.” At Mass, we can receive Jesus, Who is the Bread of Life. The love I share comes from Jesus, who gave himself, challenging me to do the same.
In a very real way, I too have been taken. After a brief struggle, I surrendered with my own fiat to the Lord’s call one muggy summer day nearly nine years ago. Then in his providence Jesus blessed me with strength for the journey and with the conviction that this life lived for God was enough for me. Next, he broke me. The Lord didn't crush my spirit or undo my personality. Rather, he began to show me the lies I'd believed about myself and others, and how he wanted to set me free. Finally, he gave me—to his Church and his people, to be a living sign of his love and mercy in the world.
I carry this all into the kitchen. Daily I take ingredients into my poor hands, and in my better moments I am aware that the Lord is with me, blessing what I touch. I break what I have received, chopping, dicing, pounding, and stirring so many different elements into one dish. And then, as if it were mine, I am honored to give what I've prepared to those who will receive it, the little ones, the poor and broken who live on the peripheries of society.
Imagine little Persephone’s delight when she found baked chicken nuggets on our buffet line. The children haven’t quite refined their pallets to enjoy my signature gravies yet—but one day! I remain humbled by how these beautiful people see me. Since I won Chopped, they consider me an authentic celebrity chef: “Sister, this meal is so good, it's like we are eating at the Drake tonight.”
I don’t have my own cooking show and I haven't penned a cookbook—despite the encouragement of many. Whether I’m serving six people or six hundred, I simply strive to live each day with authenticity and joy. I've realized that my life is not about me. It is about Jesus and sharing the love He's given me in so many simple, little ways.
Sr. Alicia Torres is a member of the Franciscans of the Eucharist of Chicago, and serves at the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels on Chicago's West Side.
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