CHICAGO, ILL. (CNA) - Fans of the Food Network's competitive cooking show "Chopped" can look forward to a special appearance on Monday night's episode - Sister Alicia Torres, a Catholic religious sister from the Franciscans of the Eucharist of Chicago.
Along with three other chefs, Sister Torres will have to get through the appetizer round - by creating a confection from Thanksgiving leftovers - as well as the entrée and dessert rounds in order to be crowed the "Chopped" champion. The winner takes home $10,000 to give to the charity of their choice.
Should Sister survive all three rounds without being "chopped," her proceeds will go to Our Lady of the Angels Mission in Chicago, the soup kitchen at which the Franciscan sisters serve.
It is through working in the soup kitchen that Sister Torres has been able to hone her creative cooking skills, she told CNA, since everything is run on donations.
"We don't always know exactly what food is going to come in, so the ability to be flexible and creative has really stretched me to expand my cooking horizons and think outside the box when it comes to preparing delicious, healthy meals," she said.
"Not only is it an opportunity to be artistic, but even more importantly, to show our deep gratitude to God and our benefactors for their generosity that sustains our life and our work."
Sister Torres applied to be on "Chopped" after she heard that they had put out a call for religious sisters. She went through the interview process just like any other potential chef, and was eventually chosen to compete on the Thanksgiving episode with three other chefs who all serve the underprivileged in some way.
While she isn't able to say much about the episode, she told CNA that she loves making Mexican food, finding frugal ways to make fancier dishes, and experimenting with flavors.
"I recently made fish tacos with sweet potatoes! Sometimes when I'm cooking, those in the kitchen are a little dubious about the flavor combinations I put together...but nine times out of ten, we have culinary success!" she said.
"I've been told my outside the box pesto (moving beyond the boundaries of pine-nuts to other, more economical nuts) and my Picadillo (a Spanish beef dish) are well done."
She also loves to bake strawberry rhubarb pie - a favorite of the late Cardinal Francis George.
Even more so than a chance to showcase her cooking skills and earn money for the mission, she said she saw the show as a chance to be a witness.
"I wanted to do it for Jesus: to be a witness to how fulfilling a life surrendered to God can be. I also wanted to represent the least among us, the very poor, who are so dear to Jesus," she said.
Sister Torres is one of the founders of her order, which has a special devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and apostolates involving evangelization and service to the poor.
"Our vocation as religious is to live a life of prayer, witness and service - being on Chopped certainly gives a great opportunity to share that message with the world."
Even before her life as a sister and soup kitchen chef, Sr. Torres was baking breads and cakes in her kitchen by the time she was a teenager, and her parents always emphasized the importance of family meals together.
About two years ago, the sisters and volunteers at Our Lady of Angels realized that they needed to emphasize the community aspect of their soup kitchen just as much as the physical needs of the hungry.
"We have an emphasis on satisfying not only physical hunger, but also spiritual hunger. We begin any meal with a prayer service with a Liturgy of the Word format, as most of our neighbors are not Catholic, but Baptist," she said. "Keeping God's Word at the center helps us to stay united."
After prayer, the sisters and volunteers share a meal with their guests "around tables which we set with table cloths and real dishes."
Before they began intentionally focusing on community, guests would come and go within about 45 minutes, Sister Torres said.
"(N)ow they stay for at least one-and-a-half hours, sometimes two! It is amazing to see how the Lord draws us together as brothers and sisters in Christ to share food, faith and fun!"
Sister's stint on the reality cooking show is part of a recent uptick in appearances of religious sisters on T.V. Last year, Lifetime T.V. followed five young women discerning vocations as religious sisters, and Sister Cristina Scuccia recently won the Italian version of "The Voice."
When asked why people find sisters so fascinating, Sr. Torres said they're usually attracted to the joy that so many sisters find in their relationship with Christ.
"In our lives, we strive to share the love and the joy found in this relationship with all we meet. I think many people are attracted by the joy that sisters have and it makes them wonder if that joy is possible for them too," she said.
"I hope that by our witness we can help all men and women discover that being a disciple of Jesus Christ is the most fulfilling way to live life."
The "Thanksgiving Soup-er Stars" episode of "Chopped" with Sister Torres aired Monday night, and will be repeated several times over the next few weeks.