When is the last time you had a great home-cooked meal with all the fixings? Easter and other major holidays allow professional and even amateur cooks to whip up something fantastic and mouth-watering. Diocesan priests, on the run with many parish responsibilities, have little time to cook for themselves from day-to-day. Full-time or part-time cooks are called in to provide delicacies to make even the most stressful day conclude with a smile.
Cooking for two priests can be a full-time job. In the case of Lisa Valla, parishioner of St. James Church in Johnson City, cooking for two priests is part-time responsibility while holding a full-time job as a registered nurse. When needed by Father Thomas Ryan, pastor of St. James Church, and Father Clifford Auth, parochial vicar at St. James Church, Valla springs into action, preparing meals shortly before going off to her job as a night shift nurse.
“The priests here are easy to cook for. They eat anything and everything in sight,” said Valla. “I really don’t make anything special. They usually call me when they need me or if they are having a guest, like the bishop.” Valla doesn’t have formal training in cooking, learning the craft by watching others cook. “I used to help out here at the parish and I would watch the lady that cooked when Msgr. [Peter] Owens was here. I would cook on the weekends, or when she had a day off,” she said. “I learned a lot from my grandmother and mother.”
In addition to cooking, Valla shops for all of the church’s groceries, making sure the refrigerator and shelves are well stocked. One memorable meal included Father Ryan, Msgr. Owens and Bishop Joseph O’Keefe. “Bishop O’Keefe came for dinner before confirmation and I made barbeque lamb steaks. They all loved the meal,” explained Valla. “I received a wonderful letter from Bishop O’Keefe, thanking me for the festive dinner. He said I was a ‘master of the grill.’” Valla said she grills all year long, varying the type of meats she uses. But the most important thing about cooking is the final presentation, she said. “I’m very conscientious about how I serve it. I decorate the dish and go out of my way to make even the most basic dish look fantastic,” said Valla.
Armed with over 30 years of cooking and restaurant management experience, Rick Connor has worked in a number of different settings preparing meals. Connor, the new full-time cook at the Tommy Coyne Residence for Retired Priests at Dillon Hall in Syracuse, has worked at nursing homes downstate, in small restaurants and businesses, as well as at St. John’s University in New York City. He has formal training in hotel and restaurant management, along with a degree in nutrition and diatetics. A native of Long Island, Connor has been in the Syracuse area for over 10 years. Cooking is more than just a job; it’s more of a recreational activity, Connor said. “Over the years, this is the easiest job because I’m enjoying it,” he said. “My job here is to make life good for the retired priests and I make sure of it. I ask them what they want, I get to experiment and they like most everything I put on the table.”
Connor, a parishioner at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Baldwinsville, arrives at work at 6 a.m. and begins preparing breakfast. Some of the retired priests have specific items for breakfast each day. Usually he will make something more substantial than oatmeal or cereal, such as blueberry pancakes or garden omelets. “My job is to take care of them and give them good quality food made fresh,” said Connor.
After breakfast, Connor moves to lunch preparation. Most days soup is on the menu, with a sandwich. On this day, Connor made a beef noodle soup. “I make all my soups fresh and all from scratch. Lunch isn’t a set meal, like dinner. I usually just call it ‘Chef Surprise’ and make something different,” he said. “They really appreciate the fresh soups.” Connor also made a New York-style potato salad and BLT sandwiches. One of the priests’ favorite snacks is oatmeal raisin cookies Connor makes from a recipe in a book he has on hand. “I bake like a cook. I’m not a baker. I have to be careful and follow the recipes when I bake,” he said. “But when I make these cookies, I make four dozen and they are usually gone the next day.” With a number of refrigerators, including a walk-in model in the basement of Dillon Hall, there is plenty of space for food and backstock. “It’s like I have my own little grocery store down here,” he said. “It’s a unique place. It’s not a tough job, but if you don’t do it right, it will become tough.”
When a cook’s job opened at St. John the Evangelist Parish in New Hartford over 20 years ago, Monica Martyniak applied. “Father Fred Elkin, who was the pastor then, was looking for a cook and he hired me. I’ve been here ever since,” Martyniak said. “I think it’s the best thing I could have done.” Today, Martyniak buys groceries, cleans the kitchen, plans the meals and cooks for Father Joseph Zareski, pastor of St. John’s, and Father Bogdan Siewiera, parochial vicar at the church. “My schedule depends on what their schedules are,” she said. “Father Joe calls me on Monday morning to let me know when I’ll be needed. It makes it easier on me to plan. I used to work five days a week, but now just three.”
Menu planning is fun, Martyniak explained. “I just sit down with my cookbooks and put something together. It’s always different from the week before. I might start with beef and then steak, with lasagna next,” she said. “I want to make sure the priests get their proper nutrition. They are young men, so I just provide a balanced diet.” Lasagna and pot roast are among Martyniak’s favorite dishes to make. “I know that Father Joe’s favorite is a Veal Francais that I make,” she said. Father Zareski said Martyniak is a great person to have on the staff and in the kitchen. “Anything Monica does, she does it excellently. She’s a wonderful cook. And you will get the same comment from everyone that has experienced her cooking. I’ve only been here nine months, but it’s a real pleasure to sit down at the table,” Father Zareski said. “When you have been fed by Monica, you have been fed by Monica!” Cooking has been quite enjoyable, Martyniak said. She said she’s made her share of mistakes, but has fun no matter what. “Father Joe and Father Bogdan are so nice to me. They never ask for anything specific, but I know what they like — which is just about everything,” she said. “It’s a real pleasure to come to work.”
Cooking is a way of life for Pauline Cody. A full-time cook at St. Michael’s Church on Onondaga Hill, Cody learned how to cook from necessity. “When you are one of 13 children, you learn how to cook or you starve,” Cody said. “I learned from my mother mostly, but picked up a thing or two over the years.” Cody has cooked all her life. She retired for two weeks back in 1985 before Father Richard Morrissette, then pastor of St. Michael’s Church, “came after me.” She has family close by and keeps very busy. Cody has been feeding priests for over 25 years, which included her first nine years as cook at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Syracuse. Affectionately called her “boys,” the priests Cody cooked for still keep in touch with her. Some of them, she said, still stop over for cookies or a sandwich when they are in the area. “I never had any problems cooking for them. I’m just a plain cook,” she said.
Her stories about the priests she’s served are as numerous as the cookies she has baked over the years. Cody rattled off names of priests she has worked for, which included a number of bishops. She talked about which priests were the best eaters and which ones were known for running off with cookies. “I’ve made meals for five bishops. I served Bishop [Walter] Foery the last meal he had before he died. Bishop [David] Cunningham liked to come to dinner. He loved my sweet rolls,” she said. Cody recalled one meal she cooked for Bishop Frank Harrison, on the 13th anniversary of his ordination as auxiliary bishop. “Bishop Harrison had supper and I made a turkey. I never carved a turkey in the kitchen. I always brought it out to the table. I wanted the boys to have a whack at carving the turkey. I always put it at the center of the table and because Bishop Harrison always sat in the middle, he cut the turkey and he loved it,” she said. “He told me it was the best anniversary meal he ever had. When I brought out strawberry shortcake for dessert, I kissed him on the forehead and said, ‘Well, whatever you are celebrating Bishop, I hope you have many more of them.’” Cody does just about everything at the St. Michael’s rectory, serving as its “chief cook and bottle washer.” She still makes everything from scratch, never wasting food in her preparation. Her affinity for the men she served is apparent.
“I still keep in touch with many of them,” Cody said. “I go on vacation with Father Morrissette, and [Msgr. James] McCloskey will stop in every so often for lunch. Everyone is always welcome at the table.” Father John Schopfer, director of the Brady Faith Center, recalled Cody’s cooking while she was cook at the Cathedral. “Pauline was just amazing with what she would create. Every meal was a special creation. My favorite thing she made was a strawberry chiffon pie, which I haven’t had since,” Father Schopfer said. “She’s truly a delight.”
Anna Mezzanini has spent the last 32 years as the cook for St. Mary of Mount Carmel Church in Utica. She has become an institution at the parish, recalling with fondness all of the priests whom she has cooked for. When asked about her age, she replied, “I’m 26.” And when asked, every priest there will say the same.
Currently, Mezzanini cooks regularly for the four priests in residence at St. Mary’s, including Msgr. Ronald Bill, administrator of the church, Father Luis Olguin, Father Joseph Salerno, former pastor of the church but now pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Utica, and Father John Manno, parochial vicar of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish. “You cook basically the same thing, with little variation. They don’t tell you what they want,” Mezzanini said. “Occasionally they will ask me to make something special, but it’s usually an hors d’oeuvres or something like that.” A big dinner would start with hors d’oeuvres and antipasto, followed by the main dish with garlic bread, finishing with dessert and espresso, explained Mezzanini. On most days, Mezzanini will prepare the meals ahead of time and the priests will heat them in the microwave. “They are so busy, they just don’t have the time,” she said. “They need help in the rectory. You can’t expect them to cook and clean. Visiting all of the nursing homes, hospitals and other people, it’s a lot to do. It’s not an easy life.” On this day, Mezzanini was making Pork Tenderloin Diane, using lemon pepper. She also made Italian rice as a side dish and a salad. The incredible aroma from the kitchen drew many of the church staff in for a peek at the meal, or a cup of coffee.
“Her food is wonderful. Anna is so flexible,” Father Salerno said. “She has really met the needs of the priests who live here — not only to the best of her abilities, but with a smile on her face. She truly takes care of us, as if we were her own sons.” This year, Mezzanini is retiring. She will be missed by the church staff who visit her in the kitchen throughout the day. She will spend time with her family that includes four grandchildren. “It has been very pleasant working here,” she said. “You have to work with a smile on and keep on going. God will take care of the rest.”
2 lbs boneless chicken cutlets 1 1/2 cups flour 1 tsp salt/pepper (for taste) 1 qt. chicken stock 1 12 oz. can of sliced mushrooms parsley flakes or fresh parsley 1 cup of marsala wine Combine salt and pepper with flour in a bowl. Trim cutlets into 4 oz pieces. Dip chicken into flour mix and pan fry until golden brown on both sides. On the side, sauté mushrooms and add salt and pepper to taste. Put chicken cutlets into pan, add chicken stock, mushrooms and one cup of wine. Cook for 20 additional minutes. Use broth on noodles or rice. Serve with vegetable. (from Rick Connor)
Prime Rib 1 prime rib roast 1 package Lipton Onion Soup Mix 2 cups water Preheat oven to 500 degrees. In a roasting pan place 2 cups of water and 1 package of soup mix. Place roast, uncovered, in oven at 500 degrees for 20 minutes per pound of meat. Baste roast with pan juice every so often. Add more water if needed. Will cook to rare to medium rare. Cook longer to be more done. Serve with baked potato and vegetable. (from Lisa Valla)
(Serves 4) 20 min 1 lb. fusilli pasta 1 cup ripe olives, coarsely chopped 1/2 lb. feta cheese, crumbled 2-3 tbsp. olive oil 1 tsp garlic (more or less to taste) 3 oz. sun-dried tomatoes in oil, chopped 1/4 cup water Cook fusilli according to package directions. Heat oil and garlic in skillet over medium heat. Stir in olives, feta, tomatoes and water. Gently heat through. Cover, reduce heat and keep warm. Drain fusilli, transfer to large bowl. Pour warm sauce over pasta; toss well and serve. (from Anna Mezzanini)