Reflections by Brother Luke
When I entered the Monks of New Skete back in 1995, all the monastery cooking was done by monks. Even the abbot pitched in from time to time, since he also loved food and loved to cook. After all, the monastery table was a central part of our life and the core of the tradition of monastic community and hospitality, so it was unthinkable that someone other than monks would prepare the food. After we turned the corner into the new century, monks were still the cooks. Brothers Elias, John, James, and Peter took turns at the stove. And the Italian roots of Father Laurence and Brother Elias were still very much in evidence on our monastic table. However, as we moved further into the 21st century and witnessed the change in our house demographics, we realized that we were going to have to make some changes in the way we managed our community meals.
With our abbot retired and Brother James moving on to become a parish priest in Georgia, we were down two cooks. Brothers David and Marc stepped into the breach and joined the cooking crew. We also pressed the so-called “non-cooks” into service: these were the brothers who set tables and washed dishes. Now they rotated in on Saturday nights as cooks. I was one of those “non-cooks.” Saturday meals brought together all three communities and their guests at the monks’ monastery for dinner, so the menus tended to be fairly simple. This arrangement held for several years.
At about this time we hired a woman to help with housecleaning chores, and she had a friend (later to become her husband) who was a professional cook. He was looking for part-time work, and she suggested that he inquire about cooking for us. When he first talked with us, we were not ready to hire anyone to prepare meals for us. However, the health of some of the cooks was limiting the amount of time they could devote to cooking, and we finally crossed the Rubicon of denial about our need for help and turned to the professional cook. So Bill Smith became our cook. But he needed only part-time work so we devised a strategy whereby he would prepare meals for three days and the monks would cover the other days. We also experimented with some other employees to serve as cooks to fill in the gaps. It was definitely a makeshift arrangement, but it worked for many years.
Bill was an accomplished chef, and I was always in awe watching him prepare meals. He could work with whatever was available and make a meal out of it. And he was fast! I kept my hands in my pockets watching him cut up fresh vegetables. His knife moved so fast that the process was all a blur. He had worked for institutions that required special diets, so he had no problem accommodating to some changes in our diet. This was useful when we decided bring in a heart doctor to talk to us about healthy eating habits, and this led to changes in our menus. But nothing lasts forever, and a few years ago Bill and Nancy, his wife, decided to move to Maine, so we needed to find another cook.
Bill had suggested a person he had heard about, so we took his advice and interviewed Scott Sztorc. He was mainly self-trained as a cook, but he had held some cooking jobs in the area. We engaged him on a trial basis, and the brothers were impressed with his creativity. So we hired him. His meals were always superb, and the variety of dishes was remarkable. While Bill had wanted only a limited part-time job, with Scott we agreed to different terms and more hours. Bill had prepared dishes in advance, and the brothers did the final preparation and served the meals. With Scott we wanted him to prepare and serve the meals. We had finally moved totally away from the idea that meal preparation must be done by monks. Now the only monk left preparing meals was Brother John on Scott’s days off.
When Scott was brought in to cook, we also had entered into a new era of sponsoring more retreats and seminars, which included some meals. So cooking demands increased. To manage this we needed help from volunteers and other employees. On the days of these special events, the kitchen became a beehive of activity, with the numbers of outside help dwarfing the monastic component. What a sea change from the earliest days of the Monks of New Skete, when it was not unusual for one monk to cook all meals for extended periods: months and even years.
What goes around comes around, and we have now entered a new era in which the cooking arrangement has changed yet again. After reviewing our budget we realized that we really couldn’t afford to have a full-time cook, which was essentially what the position had evolved into. So we had to let Scott go, and we turned to Brother Marc to take on the full-time cooking responsibilities with the help of one part-time cook, Joshua Elliott. So now Brother Marc supervises all cooking and meal planning and is the cook for Saturday and Sunday meals. And he has delved back into our files of recipes and recovered some of Brother Elias’s favorite recipes for use again. For those who may be interested in knowing what some of these recipes are like, they are included in the New Skete Chapel Community Cookbook, which is available from the monastery gift shop or directly from the Chapel Community. So what’s cooking is good healthy food, and who’s cooking is once again a monk with some help from very able and cheerful employees. And we welcome you to our table whenever you can come as guests.