MasterChef is perhaps the best-known culinary competition show in the world, with dozens of editions in countries around the world.
Spain is no exception, where the show has 11 seasons under its belt — and Spain’s version of the show is popular in parts of Latin America, as well.
But in a Spain where Catholicism rarely is discussed in the media — unless because of a scandal — MasterChef seems like a strange place for a priest, even more so for a Dominican friar.
Still, Fr. Marcos García OP, a 44-year-old Venezuelan Dominican friar who has lived in Spain since 2018, signed up to audition for the show’s 11th season in Spain, after some friends insisted.
The priest made it onto the show.
In episode after episode, he showed up to challenges in his Dominican habit, brandishing his rosary and doling out blessings everywhere.
At first, his participation caused a scandal among other competitors and spectators. What does a priest do on television? Why spread so much blessing?
But while some contestants complained, and social media buzzed, Fr. Garcia mostly cooked. Very, very, well.
The priest said he wanted to show that God’s love can be reflected in good arepas. And he said on the show that if he won, he would donate part of the prize money to the Dominican sisters in his native Venezuela, a country suffering an unprecedented humanitarian crisis since 2014.
Fr. Marcos didn’t win MasterChef Spain Season 11, which will conclude in a few weeks. But he was one of the last contestants to be eliminated.
And in Spain, he has become something of a minor celebrity for his participation in MasterChef.
But was it a gimmick? What was the point? Was it actually evangelical to go on a reality cooking show?
The Pillar talked with the Fr. Marcos Garcia, to ask him about whether it’s actually possible to be a missionary on a reality television show.
The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Can God be found among pots and pans, to paraphrase Saint Teresa of Ávila?
We can find God in so many things, if we are very attentive and turn our senses towards Him.
If I tell you to define God in a smell, I think you are going to tell me that you know the Lord in the smell of your mother when she hugged you or when she cooked you a chicken stew or some mandocas.
The smell that transports me is when I'm cleaning my room and they ring to announce lunch. That combination of the smells of cleaning and lunch remind me of Saturdays at my house, when we cleaned everything and my nana made us lunch.
In that smell of family, and the smell of home, there is some sense of God.
St Teresa said that God is among the pots and the pans — that somehow there we can find God.
At my house someone always showed up unexpectedly to eat and we shared bread — there was God.
When some friends or one of the families of the boys in our youth ministry invite me to cook, I see God there, because he is a God who gives himself, and in the kitchen, the cook is really giving something of himself, not simply preparing a dish.
You give what you are.
I remember the Dominican sisters in Venezuela. In the worst part of the crisis in the country, they were resigned to eat a single chicken breast among 20 sisters, most of them elderly, and four or five employees, besides. And so they made some arroz con pollo — with just a little bit of chicken — and it was one of the best arroz con pollo I've ever eaten, because they were doing it with generosity.
They were putting God in that pot.
God is also found in a cooking show, when because of your way of being, because of your dedication — despite the contempt, the slander, or the difficulties — you keep going, you keep smiling, you keep being a witness of Jesus, so that many others can see and feel God there.
All religions seek God, but in ours, it is God who insists on seeking us. He insisted so much that he became a man. For that reason, it is not just a matter of seeking God in all circumstances, including the kitchen, but of letting yourself be found by Him.
God is never still. God is even in those pots.
Much has been said about the apostolate you exercised while on the show.
People came looking for confession, hosts talked with you about plans to marry or baptize their children, others are being formed for their confirmation, cameramen are going to be baptized.
Yeah, it became for me the vineyard of the Lord, really.
There were participants with a vision of the Church that made them reject everything that had to do with it — because they continue see the Church in the image of the Franco era, very close to Franco, and they don't want to know anything about it.
But then by talking with them, and answering their questions, their perspective changed.
Then, there are producers, editors and other crew members who come up to you to ask you questions, or to tell you things — they might tell you that their wife wants to get married in the Church but that they are not believers, or about some problem in their life.
Look, I don't know if it's because of the way we Venezuelans have, that we smile at everyone, that we make a joke of everything, that we hug people, that many times it was not necessary on that set for me to say very much of all.
Things often began with a hug, a handshake, listening to the one who wanted to speak.
Sometimes it is not necessary to speak, sometimes what God wants is for us to listen to people — and in that listening, God carves a little hole in their hearts.
At the beginning of the show I received a lot of criticism, and some of it was quite serious.
I think the Lord allowed that, so that I could remain silent, and in that silence learn to listen to souls — and then people began to come closer.
They told me that they wanted to go back to Church but they had this or that bad experience, or that they wanted to ask me something but they were embarrassed or they had something that they needed to tell someone, and that was making God work on this useless servant, as the Gospel says. .
One of the show’s judges, Jordi Cruz, is engaged, and his fiancée is 6 months pregnant.
In my last episode he asked me to baptize his unborn child and officiate at his marriage.
Sometimes I was also in the corridors praying the rosary and some other contestant or a producer would come up to me to tell me something, and I very naturally told them: "Look, so that you are calmer, and you can be sure that this is not going to leave here, why don't I hear your confession?
And so I heard their confessions — and some of them told me that they’d been afraid before that confession would be a difficult or traumatic experience.
Confession is funny — sometimes you hear things that make you want to run away, but then afterward you leave the confessional and go to work or celebrate a Mass, and you often forget everything.
There were some surprises on the show.
One of the competitors was a Brazilian guy, Frank, who is gay and has a partner. And Frank told me that he prays with his breviary every morning, and that he taught his boyfriend to pray with him. That surprised me!
And you know, some contestants were critical of me being on the show, but Frank always stood up for me.
There is also Francesc, who was my roommate during the competition, who in the show was shown to be a very womanizing guy. We became great friends — to my surprise — and he wants to marry his girlfriend in the Church. I was able to help prepare his girlfriend to be confirmed, and indeed, she was confirmed.
I gave Francesc Saint Augustine’s “Confessions,” and he liked it a lot.
He saw that I prayed at night, and when I woke up in the morning, and one day he told me “I want to go back [to the Church], I want you to teach me to pray.” And so then we started talking more.
Then there was a weekend during the shooting when I had had to go back to the priory, and when I returned to the set, I brought rosaries for everyone because they had asked me for so many.
Another guy on the show is a DJ who is into this polyamory vibe and is bisexual, but — listen — he was far from the Church, and has now started coming to Mass in my parish.
With the show I realized this: that under my habit, and under someone else’s piercings or tattoos, there are are two children of God who each deserve respect and love.
Of course, it is not easy, many are far from God and the Church or live very difficult lives, but when you trust the One who sends you, you realize that it’s not only that you are there for them, you know? You also discover your own misery, and you come to see that in many aspects, you are sometimes farther from God than that other person is.
God can be brought to these distant lands for the Church. Nothing is impossible for Him.
All of Spain and Latin America already know ‘Fr. Marcos the chef,’ but where did you come from?
I was born in Mucuchíes, a little town in Venezuela’s [mountainous] Mérida state, but I grew up south of Lake Maracaibo, in Caja Seca, which is a very fertile cattle country.
We tell the joke that if you sneeze there, a passion fruit bush starts growing.
We moved because when I was very young. I had gotten sick from whooping cough, and my mother was advised to go to a warmer area, so we moved to the south of the lake with a great-aunt, who worked almost all her life for a priest in the area. And that priest practically raised me and my siblings.
At the age of 4, I went to school the Dominican Sisters of Santa Rosa de Lima, who had been founded in Mérida and had a school in Nueva Bolivia, which is near Caja Seca.
My brothers studied there and later all my nephews, my mother started working there and has continued for 40 years as “todera,” she is the school receptionist, drives for the sisters, helps them with the kitchen, etc.
So from a very young age, my mother instilled in me the Catholic faith and since I can remember I saw the Dominican sisters and said "I would like to be like them."
There you see the importance of testimony, of being joyful witnesses of the Spirit, in order to be fishers of men.
Sometimes it is not necessary to do so much programmatic vocational promotion — setting an example and witnessing goes a long way.
Of course, when I was little I didn't understand that there were Dominicans, Carmelites, Franciscans, etc.. All I said was that I wanted to be like those Dominican sisters.
My friends made fun of me when I said that, and said “Ah, so you want to wear their habit and veil.” [Laughs].
At some point in my childhood one of the sisters gave me a book called “The Dominican Ideal” by Father Agustín Turcotte, OP. And on the cover I saw that it had some men wearing the Dominican habit. I was a little confused — I told the sister “But this is your habit” and she told me that yes, those were Dominican friars, and they were sisters, and that moved me.
But later, like all boys, in high school a girl caught my eye. [Laughs] But then when we were in our junior year of high school, she told me she was going to be a nun, so, of course,I saw what God was saying to me.
I entered the priory of Santo Domingo in San Cristóbal in Venezuela in 1995, very young, shortly before my 17th birthday.
Then the Dominicans sent me to Colombia to study and I took my first vows in 1997.
But in 2000, I totally fell in love with journalism, it was an obsession. And I saw myself working at RCTV [Venezuela’s then-largest TV channel] with my habit saying “reporting from such and such, I’m Friar Marcos García.”
Obviously when I asked my superior whether I could study journalism after I finished philosophy, he noticed that there was a certain immaturity in me.
He looked at me with a lot of tenderness, a lot of compassion, and he said, “Brother Marcos, how old are you?” and I told him 21.
So he told me: “Look, get out of the Order, live a normal life, study what you want to study, find yourself a girlfriend, have some fun, and then we'll see.”
I think he saw [in me] an immaturity, or a lack of discernment, so I left the Order.
The next day I came home crying, and I told my mom and she, as sweet as always, she asked why I left if I was just going to come home crying about it.
So the next day I started looking for a university at which to study, because, she told me, I wasn't going to go back home to just hang around.
I got a job as a religion and gym teacher at the elementary school where I had studied, and I started working at a local radio station for three years while I was studying communication in Mérida.
Then I did my internships and started working at a local television channel and I did some voice-over narrations at RCTV, which was the most important channel in Venezuela until Chávez closed it.
Of course, the friars were there waiting to see if I would return to the Order. There was no gathering to which they did not invite me and I remained faithful. It didn't matter if I partied all night, if I had promised to be in the choir on Sunday, I was there.
My dream was to work for CNN or Univisión and I ended up in a casting for Univisión, but the problem was that I had to know English and the truth is that my English is bad — I can speak for like five minutes, and then I’ve run out of things I know how to say. Also, I hadn’t finished my degree, and they were looking for a graduate.
At that same time, I was dating a girl. But one day she told me: “look, every time we come to see the nuns, your eyes shine. I know you are going to be a priest, so I have no more illusions about you.”
At the end of 2007, my great-aunt died in an accident and I began to dream that I was returning to the Order, that she was with me happily and I was wearing the habit. So, I came back.
I finished my degree in philosophy, I returned to Colombia, doing a degree in theology for three years, and when I was going to return, they suggested that I go to Medellín, [Colombia] to take a baccalaureate in theology and teach in the communication department of the Santo Tomás de Aquino University there.
I was supposed to do that for six months, but it was extended to two years. I did the Willie Mays, as we say in Venezuela, until the superior in Venezuela told me that they needed friars back home, and he appointed me director of a school.
[Editor’s note: to “hacerse el Willie Mays” is an expression in Venezuela, which conveys feigning misunderstanding about a request or expectation. The phrase dates back to a 1955 baseball tournament Mays played in Caracas, but its precise origin is debated — some say that Mays feigned misunderstanding about requests for autographs during the tournament, others suggest the name stems from his slyly stealing bases, or from his going 12 at bats without a hit, before going 10-12 with a home run immediately thereafter.]
But there in Venezuela I became very sick due to a lumbar hernia that no longer allowed me to walk. We are talking about 2017 in Venezuela, when you couldn't even get toilet paper, everything was very difficult.
I felt sorry for the community that they had to take care of me, so I asked for a year to go to Bogotá to recover a bit, and there I worked with NTN24, another media outlet.
When I recovered, they asked me to come to Spain to work in vocations ministry because there are not many young friars. Here in Spain, there are very arid lands that God is preparing little by little to plant.
I did not want to be a priest, only a friar, but I did become a priest. I ended up being ordained in the middle of the pandemic, without my mother and without the Dominican sisters of Venezuela.
But God's ways are not ours. I saw in prayer that God was saying to me “Look, I let you do things your way for many years. Now it's time to do them my way.”
What happens is that God's way is how it hurts the most. But when you do what God wants, an inexplicable peace enters you.
When my mom and family, along with the sisters, were sad they would miss my ordination, I said:"Look, let's be silent, because God knows what he asks and who he asks. If God is asking for this, it is because we can do it.”
Our Blessed Mother did not have a manual. The angel did not appear to her with a book, to tell her: "You are going to get pregnant, and on page 12 you can read that he is going to get lost in the temple, and he is going to tell you something that you will not understand, but the manual explains it. Then on page 35 you will see what you have to say to him at the wedding in Cana.”
No, it wasn't like that. I imagine that the Virgin was often feeling very little certitude, sensing only the breeze of God, even at the foot of the Cross. But she knew He was still there, even if she didn't understand everything.
MasterChef was one more little misadventure of mine. I do get the friars in trouble [laughs], but I told God that if he's going to use the show to call a young person, I'll lend myself.
A friar told me that this was a little “plot” of mine, that I wanted to feel like a protagonist, and I told him “Father, my 15 minutes of fame have passed, and, really, do you think it is easy for me to become a public Catholic figure in Spain, where people have no love for the Church?”
It's actually not nice at all.
You get on the subway and there are people who are looking at you badly, because they recognize you and know that you are a priest and they don't like it.
I would prefer to go unnoticed, but I want people to know the message, not the messenger. I want them to know Christ and know the Gospel, not me. You and I are the Lord's donkeys. That is why I have prayed a lot for the Lord to give me humility, to be his instrument, to have the simplicity to recognize that I am not the protagonist.
How did you get to the show?
I used to cook a lot at a friend's house — Venezuelans who lived in Spain. They live half an hour from Madrid, and they often had me over.
One night I made some arepas de reina pepiada and arroz con pollo in white wine, and there was one person there — a journalist — who has an 11-year-old daughter who goes to the MasterChef camps here in Spain. Well, she told me "Father, you have to go to MasterChef."
The next day I had an email from the MasterChef production asking me for the photos of three dishes that I had made, and a photo of myself. I sent the photos of the food, and a picture of me in a kind of chef’s hat, and I didn’t tell that I was a friar or a priest.
A few days later they told me that they liked the profile, so they wanted me to give them a bio of myself. I told a friend that if I would send them a photo in my habit, and tell them that I am a priest, so I could scare them away, because they would think it is boring.
I also told them that I have this lumbar hernia problem and had scheduled surgery soon.
But that was worse [laughs] — They called me, they came to visit me, and then I told them that I would go to casting, but only if the casting judges didn’t know I was a priest. If they choose me, let it be because of how I cook, not because I am a priest.
In the casting I did some chicken mollejas (gizzards) in coconut with yellow plantain arepas, and when I presented the dish, I told the judge: “Look, I'm going to make you travel to my land. I am from the south of Lake Maracaibo, the oil and cattle area of Venezuela. When you try this you will feel that the breeze from Lake Maracaibo touches your face.”
Also, I put some ají dulce (Venezuelan sweet chili peppers) on the chicken that a friend from Maracaibo gave me, and that gives the food a distinctive touch, an explosion of flavor.
The judge, who was very circumspect at first, ended up smiling and told me “You made us travel.”
And then Jordi arrived, the judge whose son I am going to baptize, and he asked me what the dish was called. I was speechless, but the Holy Spirit does not abandon us and it occurred to me: the name is, “¡qué molleja de bueno!” [good gizzards!] So freaking good!
[Editor’s note: In Fr. Marcos’ region of Venezuela, “¡qué molleja!” is an expression used to denote surprise.]
They called me for the second casting and I made a grilled sea bass with a bed of vegetables.
There I threw the house out the window, because although they gave us half an hour, and I did everything—The only thing left was making some guava juice [laughs], I made a salad, a cream of chard in sea bass broth, and I made the sea bass.
Then, another casting, in which I made a dish that I called "visiting chicken" because you know when you're a kid your mom always tells you "these dishes are for when a visitor comes," or "I have that chicken saved for when someone comes to visit.”
So, I made exactly the recipe that my mother made for visitors, which was a chicken with cream of sweet corn. Then they gave me the white apron of a contestant on the program.
I returned to the community, I packed my suitcase and I spent two months or so recording. The community has supported me a lot, my local superior gave me his blessing from the beginning.
You told me about anticlericalism in Spain. On the show, there were people who complained that you talked so much about God or that you were faithful to what the Church teaches.
On social media, there were also many comments about what a priest was doing on television, why so much blessing, that Spain was no longer under Francoism, etc.
Isn't it difficult to witness the Gospel and talk about faith in an environment that is sometimes so anti-Catholic?
It is difficult and much more difficult if you do not trust that you are a messenger. Through prayer I felt that support from the one who sent me. I never felt afraid or ashamed to wear my habit or bless or talk about God.
I always had a clear conscience, I feel that I welcomed each one of those who wanted to approach with respect. One of the contestants was Álex, a 19-year-old kid, and once — when another contestant was a little disrespectful toward the faith —, Alex came up to offer me his support, to say "Father, I'm so sorry" or "Father, I love you" or give me a hug.
A 20-year-old kid not born anywhere near Francoism, Franco died 50 years ago. And it is not a question of being right or left, but of being realistic. The Church was used by the Franco regime and members of the ecclesiastical hierarchy also committed and supported abuses during the Franco regime. That is undeniable.
But there were always people who did things well, who did not look at ideology.
So I told them “Look beyond what they told you, don't let yourself be contaminated by what they tell you. Allow yourself to live that experience of God, give yourself the opportunity.”
It is difficult, but, again, it is more difficult if you are not aware that you are a witness and bear witness to something that you live with dedication, with passion. There it becomes more bearable because you feel the support of Jesus, who sends you and tells you “Don't be afraid. I am with you, I support you." I felt that the Lord was supporting me. There were difficult moments, of frustration, doubting whether I wanted to continue in the program, or impotence and I would come to the room crying, but at once I felt the Lord supporting me, telling me "I am with you." It is not that heaven opens and you hear a voice saying “this is my beloved son” [laughter], no, no.
But God made himself present through several of my companions. A director went down to the studio one day when things had become difficult, that there were people being disrespectful, and she said: "The priest has a purpose here, I am not the most religious or the most Catholic, but I demand respect for the priest because he is doing nothing wrong. Whoever is offended by his habit and because he talks about God can go to another place.”
God was there. What happens is that many times we believe in God, but we do not ask ourselves if we believe him, believe what he says. We must believe that he does not abandon us.
In times past, the Church built churches, seminaries, schools, among other institutions and naturally people came when there was a more Catholic culture and tradition.
Now we have to go to people, to have a Church "going out" as Pope Francis says. Was that one of your goals?
Making a bit of self-criticism with the Church in Spain, I think there is a bit of timidity inherited from the post-Franco regime, that, since part of the Church was close to Franco, now we have to keep quiet. We need more ease, more development, being more with people.
The Dominicans were founded by a Spaniard in the south of France, San Domingo de Guzmán, in the 13th century and they have done much for the Church and society, founding universities, advocating for human rights, having such a wonderful intellectual and spiritual tradition, but now we are hidden or turned off in society. Then it's worth having someone make it known again. The seed is already there, now it is time to wait patiently, as farmers do, for it to sprout and bear fruit.
We priests have to leave our comfort zone and preach in other fields where God is the Great Beggar, where he is unknown. And we do not do it on our own merit, but because He asks us to. A Church that goes out is a Church that goes out to seek souls, which is what Santo Domingo de Guzmán said: the first reason why we come together to study, contemplate and preach in community is to save souls.
Jesus Christ in the Gospel is restless. He is not a CEO who orders others and delegates his work. No, no. If we read the Gospel we see Jesus Christ moving, going from town to town preaching without ceasing. And that is a mission for everyone, not just for priests. Believing God that he is sending us, and that he gives us the strength to be faithful to that mission.