Priest puts pizzazz on Mardi Gras tables
Shaun Wesley remembers the first big meal he cooked completely by himself. It was his mother's birthday, and he wanted the menu to be a surprise. But he wasn't old enough to drive, so he had his mother drive him to the grocery store, then told her to wait in the car while he shopped.
"I made home-made beef chimichangas, refried beans and rice, and home-made guacamole," he said.
Wesley, 33, is now a Catholic priest who serves St. Elizabeth of Hungary Church in Eureka Springs and St. Anne's Church in Berryville. He is also a gourmet cook who puts his culinary expertise to work for church-sponsored events, and on Feb. 12, will be cooking crawfish-corn bisque and shrimp etouffee for the St. Elizabeth's King Cake Ball, the crowning event in the Eureka Gras schedule.
Wesley also oversees the creation of the dessert, billed as the largest King Cake in Arkansas.
"It fills a six-foot round table," he said.
Wesley jokes that he learned to cook out of self-defense. An only child, he was born in Dardanelle and grew up in Morrilton, west of Conway. He lived with his mother, Sharon Wesley, who teaches science at Eureka Springs Middle School. But when Shaun was growing up, his mother worked full-time at the Atkins Pickle plant. From the time he was in sixth grade, Shaun would help get dinner started before his mother came home from work.
"At first she would leave me directions," he said. "I went from there to getting more and more involved."
By junior high, he was planning a career in hotel and restaurant management, with the goal of owning a hotel with a good restaurant. He also had his own set of professional-quality All-Clad cookware. Those career plans changed his junior year in high school when a counselor at a youth retreat asked, "Have you ever thought about becoming a priest?" The idea took hold, and after graduating from Sacred Heart Catholic School in 1997, he entered Holy Trinity Seminary in Dallas. His culinary horizons broadened when he spent spring semester of his sophomore year in Rome.
"I liked Italian food before, but I fell in love with Italian food," he said.
Italian is still his favorite -- one of his specialties is a version of Mario Batali's lasagne bolognese, using ground lamb for the filling. But Cajun cooking is second, he said, and is similar to the kind of southern cooking he grew up with. His family background on his father's side is Czech -- the family name, Vsaly, was changed to Wesley by an immigration official -- and Wesley remembers eating roasted meat and knedliky, flour dumplings.
"The roasted duck at The Bavarian Inn (in Eureka Springs) is like the perfection of the meal my grandmother used to make," he said.
Before coming to Eureka Springs, Wesley was associate pastor at St. Vincent de Paul Church in Rogers, where he donated his cooking services for school fundraising auctions. An Italian dinner for 10, cooked by him in the host's home, went for $2,500. One of his last fundraisers was a nine-course Italian meal for 30. Parishioners at St. Vincent presented Wesley with a chef's coat embroidered with his name on the sleeve, and black and white chef pants.
He was assigned as pastor of the Carroll County churches in January of 2009 -- moved in on Friday, said his first mass on Sunday and the ice storm hit Monday, he said. Later that winter he was walking downtown to watch the Mardi Gras parade and ran into parishioners Rob and Phyllis McGuire. Noting that Mardi Gras is a traditional Catholic event, he asked "Why are we not involved in it?"
"The next year, St. Elizabeth's had a float in the parade," Wesley said. "This will be our fourth King Cake Ball."
The first year, he only made the cake, sort of "making it up, as I usually do," he said. He likes to experiment with flavors and doesn't make the same thing over and over. He has a collection of cookbooks and subscribes to four cooking magazines, but doesn't usually make the recipes in them.
"I go through them cover to cover and take in the information," he said.
He also started an annual Madrigal Dinner, a seven-course meal for 150 people that St. Elizabeth's put on for three years. For the King Cake Ball, he leads a kitchen crew of 15. In addition to soup, shrimp etouffee and rice, the menu includes red beans and sausage that Fatima Treuer, owner of the Pied Piper, makes, and Natchitoches spicy meat pies.
"We'll have some form of boudin, the rice-based sausage, for the appetizer," he said.
Wesley said being a priest and a chef usually don't go together, although he has a friend from seminary who also likes to cook. In addition to having a reputation around the county and the state-wide diocese as a chef, he is known for his singing voice -- he considered a career in church music before choosing the priesthood. But he has the opportunity to express his other talents.
"It's still a part of my life," he said of cooking. "Even though being a priest is a priority, the other interests fit in."
The St. Elizabeth's King Cake Ball is Tuesday, Feb. 12, from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. at St. Elizabeth Parish Center, 232 Passion Play Rd., Eureka Springs. Music by the band Naturally Brass. Cash bar. Tickets, which always sell out, are $65 a couple, $35 for singles, and are available by calling Rod McGuire, 479-253-8864. Dressy attire/costumes and masks encouraged.