The following story appeared in the Jan. 29 issue of the Idaho Catholic Register.
Deacon Lou Aaron, known to some as Chef Lou, was recently profiled in the National Catholic Register and then interviewed by Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York for Cardinal Dolan’s show on The Catholic Channel. He was also interviewed on EWTN’s “Son Rise Morning Show,” on Jan. 19. (ICR photo/Vero Gutiérrez)
BOISE -Two of the highest prelates of the Catholic Church were joined by an Idaho deacon on a national radio show on Jan. 19, the day before a presidential inauguration.
It was the deacon who stole the show.
"Deacon Lou Aaron, you are an inspiration!" gushed His Eminence Timothy Cardinal Dolan, archbishop of New York, after a lengthy interview with Deacon Aaron, also the administrator at Our Lady of the Rosary Parish in Boise.
Deacon Aaron’s interview followed an interview by Archbishop Dolan of His Eminence Wilton Cardinal Gregory, archbishop of Washington, D.C. about the upcoming inaugural events in the Capitol City. Cardinal Gregory, the first African-American to be appointed to the College of Cardinals, was to give the opening prayer at that night’s first-ever national memorial to those who have died from the corona virus.
It was slightly intimidating to follow Cardinal Gregory, Deacon Aaron said. If he was intimidated, it didn't show as the Boise deacon recounted his reversion story, his call to the diaconate and answered questions from Cardinal Dolan about his bacon cheeseburger and trademarked "Idaho Ice Cream Potato."
Deacon Aaron, known in Idaho as “Chef Lou,” is no stranger to national attention. The owner of the iconic Westside Drive-In, he’s been a regular on the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” and has also been on NBC’s “Today Show” and recently profiled in the national “Catholic Rural Life” magazine.
This most recent spate of publicity comes as a result of a Jan. 11 National Catholic Register article by Alexandra Greeley, a food writer, restaurant critic and cookbook author.
That article (reprinted on this page below) prompted the invitation to Deacon Aaron to appear on Cardinal Dolan's program, "Conversations With Cardinal Dolan," which airs weekdays on Sirius XM's "The Catholic Channel." On the same day, Deacon Aaron was also a guest on EWTN's "Son Rise Morning Show."
Cardinal Cardinal Timothy Dolan Dolan asked Deacon Aaron if the “spirit of service, hospitality and welcome,” required in the demanding restaurant business was a preparation for Deacon Aaron’s call to the diaconate. “Those are precisely the attributes that Holy Mother Church looks for in diaconal candidates,” Cardinal Dolan noted.
While not discounting that possibility, Deacon Aaron noted that he had for several years ignored the promptings to become a deacon. “I had two restaurants (the Westside Drive-In now has an east Boise location on Parkcenter Boulevard in addition to the original west State street restaurant) and a novelty ice cream company, so I didn’t have time,” Deacon Aaron said.
In 2012, he heard another deacon preaching from the 21st chapter in the Gospel of John where Jesus tells Simon Peter three times to “feed my sheep,” and then says, “Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.”
“I knew then that He was going to start dressing me,” Deacon Aaron said.
Three years into the four-year formation period, Deacon Aaron told Cardinal Dolan, he was diagnosed with what doctors told him was an “incurable lymphoma” and thought he would have to give up the diaconate. But, at a Christmas Eve Mass, “God told me, ‘I will be with you.’ ”
“On Christmas Day, I was a new man. I called the (deacon formation) director and told him I was in this for the long haul.” Deacon Aaron was ordained in 2016.
Deacon Aaron also told Cardinal Dolan about his current assignment at Our Lady of the Rosary. Not long after Deacon Aaron was ordained, his parish temporarily lost its priest. Deacon Aaron got a telephone call from Bishop Peter Christensen inviting him to lunch. “When the Bishop calls for lunch, just say no,” Deacon Aaron joked. The Bishop surmised that since Deacon Aaron could run three businesses, why couldn’t he run a parish?
Initially, the job as administrator at Our Lady of the Rosary took only one to two days a week, but quickly morphed into a full-time job. Deacon Aaron turned the restaurants over to his son and daughter. "It's amazing where God puts you when you say yes," the deacon told the Cardinal.
Cardinal Dolan also asked Deacon Aaron about his ministry to the incarcerated and the homeless. “Knowing that I was close to that myself in the 1980s, I always felt a calling to reach out to those in prison as well as the homeless,” Deacon Aaron said.
Understanding how difficult it is for those just released from prison to get jobs, Deacon Aaron set out to do exactly that at his restaurants. About 75 percent of his employees are either "convicts, the homeless or refugees," he told the Cardinal. "We have fantastic success stories of many who are now married and have kids and own their own homes."
Deacon Aaron shared his faith journey with Cardinal Dolan's listeners, including his struggles with alcoholism and the loss of their home in a fire.
After all that, Cardinal Dolan said, “Let’s get to more substantive matters: Tell me about your bacon cheese-burger.”
The Cardinal also wanted to know about the Idaho Potato Ice Cream. When Deacon Aaron told him how the dessert is made, the Cardinal said to his co-host, Father Dave Dwyer, "Father, call the travel agent and get two tickets to Boise, Idaho."
To listen to the Cardinal Dolan interview, go to www.siriusxm.com/channels/the-catholic-channel. Type in "Deacon Lou Aaron" on the search menu. Click on "Free Trial" if you are not a Sirius XM subscriber. To hear Deacon Aaron's interview on the Son Rise Morning Show, go to www.ewtn. com/radio/audio-archive and type in Deacon Lou Aaron.
Below is the story that appeared in the Jan. 11 National Catholic Register:
Diners, drive-ins and the diaconate
Deacon (chef) Lou Aaron (Photo courtesy KTVB - Channel 7)
By Alexendra Greeley
National Catholic Register
A resident of Boise, Idaho, Chef Lou Aaron may be familiar to folks who watch Guy Fieri’s Food Network shows, “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” or “Guy’s Grocery Games.” Or, if you live near Boise, you can watch his cooking spots on NBC affiliate KTVB-TV. You can also browse the internet and see him on Pinterest.
No wonder he has created a following -- he is the creative chef who owns the “Famous Westside Drive-In” that features an Idaho favorite, the Idaho Finger Steaks.
Chef Aaron was raised in a Catholic family, attended 12 years of Catholic school, and as a youth, served as an altar boy.
But, as so many youths do, after high school, he left the faith. As he said, “I became a man of the earth, and went through my early 20s living the life of the devil.”
His life continued on a downward path. He started heavily drinking and became an alcoholic. “The problem escalated,” he said, “because I was a really good cook, so I could hide my
drinking. I started cooking at 14, and it was easy to drink in the restaurant kitchen. You can work and drink at the same time. … I wanted to be a partier and I did not know my faith like so many cradle Catholics … but I prayed every night during those dark ages and asked the Lord to get me to stop drinking.”
Chef Lou admitted that even after he married in the late 1980s and had children, he continued drinking, always having a stash of beer in the garage.
Then, one day in 1993, God finally answered his prayer in a way only God could answer. He came home from work, to find out that his wife had found the stash of hundreds of empty beer cans that were in a cubby hole behind the refrigerator and confronted him. He admitted that he was an alcoholic and made a resolution to stop drinking – a resolution he has held for the last 28 years.
(Editor’s note: In his interview with Cardinal Dolan, Deacon Aaron said he prayed every night, “Lord please help me stop drinking, but by the next morning I was drinking again.” But on April 26, 1993, after the confrontation with his wife, “God took me by the hand and said you are done.” He never went to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and never had withdrawals, he told Cardinal Dolan.)
Their marriage went through a rough transition – his wife had married a drunk who was now sober, and it took some adjusting.
During this time, they started discussing going back to church because of their children. But, even then, after three years, the couple never attended a service.
Then God decided to intervene rather dramatically.
“In 1996, the Holy Spirit burned our house down,” he said, remembering how a bag of ashes near the garage door ignited the house fire. “We lost almost everything,” he said. “It was
really tragic, and my kids had night-mares for months. But when you lose everything but still have family, that is a blessing.” He added that he was “100 percent convinced that it was God answering prayers.”
He and his family started going to several different churches and finally ended up at Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Boise.
In 1998, they had their marriage blessed, and his wife and kids were confirmed. It changed their lives forever. “I finally learned my faith and became a defender of it,” he said, “and I realized that God wants us to live the faith, not just go through the motions.” Over the next few years, he felt a calling to the diaconate and was ordained in 2016.
God also guided Chef Aaron to embrace all his culinary training and experiences, including his appearance on “Great Chefs of the West” on PBS, in 1986. He was a traveling corporate chef for a large restaurant chain in 1994 when he stumbled onto the “For Sale” sign that was posted on the Westside Drive-In. He always dreamed of owning a “French bistro” for fine dining,
but this burger joint was the furthest thing from that. He actually used to go to the Westside when he was a kid. He saw something in the ’50s feel of the place and developed a vision for it, so he bought it.
Chef Aaron said, “I changed the menu, and all dishes are made from scratch. We became a destination spot in Boise and really, nationally, through the exposure of the national media.” His huge menu is All-American, with such dishes as his homemade meat-balls, pork ribs and his novelty dessert, the “Idaho Ice Cream Potato.” The most popular item? Of course, the cheeseburger, but close seconds are his roast prime rib (featured on Triple D), and the ever-popular and unique “Finger Steaks.”
Sometimes, God sends signals he wants you to follow through on.
In 2003, when he was trying to hire skilled staff for his restaurant, he had trouble finding the right people. He thought, “If I call myself a Catholic, I need to live like a Catholic.”
He began hiring convicts, the homeless, refugees and people who were on their last leg of hope.
For the last 17 years, it has blossomed into a huge ministry. At one point last year, 18 of his 24 staff had either been previously incarcerated, or were currently (or formerly) homeless or refugees. He feels it is a payback to the community he lives in.
He said, “The staff are family, so we help them out as a family helps out, with all we can give. We give them second, third and sometimes even fourth chances. We go into the game knowing they will take extra effort. … It is part of our mission statement to commit to the human factor. We try to give them hope that they have a future.”
As of now, Chef Aaron works at both restaurants only a few days of the week, handing the operations over to his son and daughter while he works as the administrator at the parish he started attending 23 years ago, Our Lady of the Rosary in Boise.
About the writer: A convert to Catholicism, Alexandra Greeley is a food writer, restaurant critic, and cookbook author. She wrote “Cooking with the Saints”
Alexandra Greenly: © 2021 EWTN News, Inc. Reprinted with permission from the National Catholic Register - www.ncregister.com.
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