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Bless this food: Rev. Neal Hock cooks so his guests know what it means to eat well

Bless this food: Rev. Neal Hock cooks so his guests know what it means to eat well

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Chef Hock

Father Neal Hock, chaplain at the Newman Center at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, learned to cook as a child and perfected his skills while studying in Rome for five years.

KEARNEY — Gluttony may be a sin, but it can be forgiven when it’s offered by The Rev. Neal Hock.

Hock, chaplain at the University of Nebraska at Kearney’s Newman Center, has promised to prepare and serve a grand seven-course Italian dinner for a lucky bidder at Friday evening’s Kearney Catholic Foundation’s annual GOLD dinner. His renowned cuisine is one of 356 items that will be drawn that evening.


The Italian “fa venire l’acquolina in bocca” means “makes your mouth water.”

Four or five times a year, Hock perfects his gastric passions with gusto. He’ll dish up a tasty menu for eight to 10 people that includes apertivi, antipasto, pasta, secondo, insalata, dolce and digestivi.

In other words, small finger foods, beverages, appetizers, first pasta, second pasta, meat, vegetables, a mixed salad, dessert and after-dinner drinks. “It’s different every time,” he said.

Hock lived in Rome for five years while he studied for the priesthood. He not only learned how to cook — he took several cooking classes — but more than that, “mostly I learned how to eat well,” he said. “I learned to enjoy different flavors, combinations of sauces and noodles, meats and cheeses, sweet and savory.”

Traveling around Italy, he tasted foods in every region and expanded his culinary expertise as he ventured into France, Germany, England, Spain and Poland. “My favorite foods remained Italian, but I had some incredible dinners in those places,” he said.

‘Building’ a dinner

That cliche about eating, drinking and being merry applies to Hock. When preparing to entertain, he’ll spend half a day at what he calls leisurely “building” a pasta sauce, i.e., creating and perfecting it with the precision of an artist.


Father Hock prints festive menus when he entertains — in Italian, of course.

“My favorite is to build a vodka sauce. It has several layers that come together over the two hours of cooking time. It’s really fun to watch the layers of flavor come together and to allow the aroma to build alongside the sauce,” he said.

“The house seems to come alive during the process, building toward the big crescendo. Then comes the part I love the most — when someone takes a bite and their whole body melts as the flavors dance over their tongue.”

Cooking before chores

Hock began cooking as a small child growing up on a farm in Culbertson in southwest Nebraska. “My dad said I needed to be well-rounded. He told me that I couldn’t do the farm work until I learned everything Mom did in the house first,” he said.

Gamberi in crosta

Gamberi in crosta (encrusted and baked shrimp) is one of Father Hock’s favorite antipastos.

“I had to be able to cook, clean, sew, change oil in the car and tend to the lawn as well as drive the tractor and feed the cows. I learned all the basics of cooking from Mom’s favorite dishes she made for us. I enjoyed baking more than anything,” he said.

Now, his responsibilities at the Newman Center and as vocations director for the Diocese of Grand Island limit his entertaining opportunities to just four or five times a year.

“It takes about 35 hours to prepare everything, with about eight of those hours spent cooking the day of the meal. It is a commitment, but so worth it,” he said.

His favorite part of the meal? “Desserts, absolutely!” he said. He makes several kinds of gelato. His favorite is a café latte gelato with a small piece of chocolate torte and a vanilla bean roasted pear.

He bakes desserts, too, including his own original artistic strawberry short cake, an angel food cake with butter cream frosting, strawberry gelato and a chocolate glaze.

Dinner party

Superb food, wine and friends make for a perfect summer evening.

Nudged to the priesthood

When Hock was young, his father, Bernard, told a friend that Hock was going to become a Catholic priest, but Hock dismissed his early nudges toward that calling. He didn’t think he had the talent it required.

After graduating from McCook High School in 1996 and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2000, he became an accountant for a grain company that specialized in premium grain. He enjoyed the challenges of rising and falling prices, the diversity of the work and more.

Sample entree rosa di parma

A sample entree is rosa di parma, or beef tenderloin roll with bacon and parmegiano cheese in a gravy sauce, with a mixed salad.

But after 9/11, he was shaken. He pondered life and its abrupt changes, “and how quickly, and without notice, death can descend upon us,” he said. He began to realize that “only prayer offered relief and hope from fear of the reality that we all die.” That led him to the priesthood.

Shortly before he left for seminary in 2005, his father died in an accident in Colorado, but Hock forged ahead. He began studies at Conception Seminary College in Conception, Mo., and received a certificate of pre-theology in May 2007. He then went to Rome for further study.

In June 2010, he received a bachelor’s degree in sacred theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, followed by a sacred theological licentiate from the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas, also in Rome. On Oct. 7, 2010, he was ordained a deacon in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

The following June, he was ordained a priest at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Grand Island. He came to Kearney to be chaplain of UNK’s Newman Center in 2014.

Wine and desserts

After dinner, guest indulge in sweet desserts. Included in this photo are café latte gelato, chocolate cake with buttercream frosting and an oven-roasted and vanilla bean-infused pear cafe.

Cooking crush

Occasionally, Hock prepares food for UNK students, but he draws such a crowd that “I have to keep it simple.” Simple, to Hock, means penne alla norcina with bruschetta bianca, salad and three types of gelato — café latte, biscotti and strawberry.

“I also cook for the students who live at the Newman Center. I usually make a simple meal: an appetizer, a pasta, a meat dish and a dessert. The last dessert I made for them was a white chocolate cake with peppermint butter cream and peppermint gelato that I decorated to look like a Christmas tree,” he said.

“The trade-off,” he added, “is that they decorate my house for Christmas.”

Hock fervently believes cooking and entertaining are about far more than food.

“It is truly about being a conduit for people to something greater than ourselves. To me, it is an extension of my life as a priest,” he said. “I see it as an extension of the altar of the Lord. It is a self-gift, an act of love.”

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