Chef with a divine touch

Tradition: For priests who live at Mount St. Mary's College and Seminary, the daily meals are as elegant as the 19th-century dining hall in which they are served.

February 12, 1999|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

EMMITSBURG -- In the classroom, they lecture on the wonder of the loaves and fishes. In the dining hall, they feast on the flavors of fresh baguettes and lobster Newburg.

For the priests at Mount St. Mary's, a Roman Catholic liberal arts college and seminary at the foot of the Catoctin Mountains, daily meals have a gourmet flair that makes them far more tempting than the usual institutional fare.

The two dozen priests who teach and live on campus have their own chef, Wilfredo "Willie" Nocon, a retired Navy cook who catered at the Bush White House. He might not be feeding the multitudes, but he's been known to work a few modest miracles.

"You don't eat like this in a rectory," said the Rev. Sam Lamendola, 42, as a waitress served buttery banana fritters at a Friday night supper.

Sitting nearby at the priests' long dinner table covered with white linen, the Rev. David Pietropaoli, 45, agreed: "This is all a lot of fun for me. I grew up eating spaghetti. We didn't have lobster for dinner at my house, that's for sure."

Mount St. Mary's tradition of providing a cook for the clerics is as old as the private 19th-century dining hall. The priests eat together three times a day, seven days a week in an elegant, narrow room with dark wood paneling and old-fashioned china cabinets.

As some are quick to point out, however, they're not just dining at the college's courtesy. Clergymen only receive half the average $35,000 to $40,000 salary of the lay faculty at the college. The rest of their pay goes for room and board.

Until Nocon arrived in 1994 with his cookbooks and hundreds of indexed recipes, the meals were predictable. The regulars, including professors, the chaplain and several retired faculty members, came for the camaraderie. But at least a few were choosing to dine elsewhere.

Nocon figured his clients' palates had not taken a vow of poverty. "There was not much variety before -- baked chicken, baked fish, steamed vegetables," he said. "I wanted to spruce up the menu."

His dinner menu for this month shows the difference.

Each night offers a different soup, made from scratch. Among them: Italian vegetable, tomato with orange and basil and New England clam chowder.

On Valentine's Day, the menu will include veal piccata -- and vegetable lasagna, accompanied by sesame corn and bread sticks. Other entrees for the month include rosemary-stuffed pork loin, beef bourguignon and turkey in champagne sauce. Meals always include a vegetable -- and a sweet finale, from ordinary rice pudding to upscale treats such as walnut bourbon pie.

For the 51-year-old Nocon, cooking for the priests -- and the college president -- gives him a chance to experiment in a way he never could in his 27 years in the Navy.

Born in the Philippines, he was recruited to work as a steward, preparing meals and polishing shoes for the officers aboard warships. He rose through the ranks to run a mess service at the Naval Air Station barracks in San Diego.

By 1986, he was working at Camp David, the presidential retreat in the mountains of Western Maryland. Then-President George Bush spent many days there, entertaining dignitaries and relaxing with his wife, Barbara. Nocon ended his Navy career catering parties at the White House. Six months into the Clinton administration, he gave up arranging fruit tarts to spend more time with his wife, Virginia, and their four sons.

At Mount St. Mary's, Nocon relishes his "free hand." He has two cooks to carry out his orders, two waitresses and three part-timers who help. He's not sure of his budget. College officials have left it fairly relaxed. They'll tell him if he spends too much.

Always before, Nocon had to follow more complicated rules of protocol. These days, he just has to please the college president, for whom he caters official dinners and receptions -- and his regular clientele, the middle-aged and elderly priests.

"The biggest thing is when I see the plate empty," he said. "Then, I know I've done my job properly."

That's easily achieved with some of the priests. But for others, not everything that Nocon makes is manna from heaven. The Rev. Dan Mindling, the seminary's academic dean, credits him with preparing more ambitious meals than his predecessors. Nevertheless, Mindling notes, he is cooking for 20 at a college -- not for one customer at a pricey restaurant.

"Willie has attempted the most exotic meals I remember," said Mindling, who has been at the seminary 11 years. "But when all is said and done, a lot of it is still chicken."

But theological instructor Pietropaoli recalls his amazement at his first meal at Mount St. Mary's, 18 months ago.

"It overwhelmed me," he said. His mother is a fine cook, he said, but he never had such fancy meals growing up in Baltimore or later as a parish priest in Westminster.

"The first thing I did," he said with a grin, "was call home. I told my mom this was one place where she really didn't have to worry about me."

Pub Date: 2/12/99

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