In father’s memory, St. Ambrose chef weekly feeds homeless, first responders

Vonzell Whaley, 33, who works as the head chef at the ARK, St. Ambrose Parish’s 7,000-square-foot banquet facility in Grosse Pointe Park, each weekend prepares meals for homeless guests at the nearby St. John Community Center and first responders at the Grosse Pointe Park Public Safety Building. The meal supplies are donated by St. Ambrose parishioners as a way both to keep Whaley working during the pandemic and to help the community. (Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

Every week since the pandemic began, Vonzell Whaley has prepared, delivered meals to Grosse Pointe and Detroit community members in need 

GROSSE POINTE PARK — When COVID-19 abruptly ended the weekly fish fries at St. Ambrose Parish in Grosse Pointe Park this past Lent, it gave pastor Fr. Timothy Pelc an idea. 

Parishioners, staff and volunteers had poured a lot of time, talent and treasure into making the events a success; why not instead direct that energy into helping others during the pandemic?

The treasure would come in the form of donations from many generous parishioners. The time and talent would come in the form of Vonzell Whaley, the chef who works for St. Ambrose in the catering kitchen at the ARK, a 7,000-square-foot banquet facility owned and operated by the parish.  

Whaley, 33, also oversees the parish’s Oysterfest each September. This would have been the 30th year for the event, which was instead held virtually because of social distancing concerns. 

So Fr. Pelc reached out to the nearby St. John Community Center on Kercheval in Detroit, a homeless shelter that serves meals to up to 100 people daily, to ask what St. Ambrose could do to help. 

Vonzell Whaley washes his hands as he prepares to cook a meal at the ARK’s kitchen in Grosse Pointe Park. In addition to delivering food for 75-100 people at a nearby homeless shelter, Whaley also cooks for about 50 police officers, firefighters and first responders at the Grosse Pointe Public Safety Department. 

The end result was an agreement — with Whaley’s input — to provide a meal every Saturday, which the parish has continued to do since the pandemic began. The meals, prepped at the St. Ambrose kitchen, are delivered each week to the St. John Center.

In addition to delivering food for 75-100 people at the homeless shelter each week, Whaley also makes meals for 50 police officers, firefighters and EMT first responders at the Grosse Pointe Park Public Safety Department across the street. 

“I wanted to do something to keep Vonzell working and to help the community at the same time,” Fr. Pelc told Detroit Catholic. “St. Ambrose is both a Detroit and a Grosse Pointe parish. Helping the homeless and the first responders seems like a natural extension of who we are as a parish and a community.”

Whaley, who has culinary arts in his blood, was on board from the beginning. His father, Fred Whaley, was the head chef at the Roostertail in Detroit before being hired as the chef at the ARK. Fred Whaley died suddenly in 2017, and his son now keeps his father’s picture with him in the kitchen when he prepares meals. 

“Everywhere he went, I was his shadow,” said Whaley, who remembers helping his dad in the kitchen since he was a teenager. “I think because of him, I don’t just look at cooking as a job; it’s a part of me.”

Whaley keeps a picture of his father, Fred Whaley, in the kitchen with him while he cooks. The elder Whaley, who died suddenly in 2017, also was a chef at the Roostertail and at the ARK, and inspired his son’s lifelong love of cooking. 

Whaley graduated with a degree in culinary arts from Dorsey Culinary Academy in Roseville in 2016. He has been the chef at the ARK catering hall since 2018, carrying on his father’s tradition of creativity and excellence in the kitchen, as well as his famous pulled pork sandwiches during Oysterfest. 

Whaley spends time preparing food on Fridays, and then cooks most of the day Saturday. He also works part time as a chef at the Roostertail, just like his father.  

Whaley says it’s a delight to deliver the food he prepares. Some of the guests stand outside the St. John Center when he arrives, waving enthusiastically when they recognize his vehicle and scrambling to open the doors for him. And on one occasion at the Grosse Pointe Park Public Safety building, after a rare previous week when Whaley did not bring a meal because of a family emergency, a police officer looked happy and relieved to see him, saying they were worried Whaley might not be cooking for them anymore. 

“I walk in with a smile on my face every time. Even though I’m wearing a mask and they can’t see it, the smile is there,” Whaley said. “Once I started cooking for the police and the homeless, I wasn’t just cooking anymore — I was bringing joy to people.”

Whaley says the recipients sometimes make requests, such as meatloaf, ribs or macaroni and cheese. He enjoys making food that will make their day, knowing each person he serves is going through a stressful time. 

Vonzell Whaley delivers a meal to grateful police and firefighters at the Grosse Pointe Park Public Safety Building. The first responders say Whaley’s and St. Ambrose’s generosity has boosted morale during a difficult year. (Courtesy photo)

Grosse Pointe Park Police Sgt. Dan Kolar said the police, fire, and emergency personnel working long weekends appreciate the warm meals provided by Chef Whaley and St. Ambrose.

“The meals boost the morale here,” Sgt. Kolar said. “With the current environment and the rhetoric against the police, it’s nice to know we’re supported.”

To fund the Saturday meals, St. Ambrose parishioners donate cash and food, and sometimes even supplies for the guests at the St. John Center. Whaley often arrives at the kitchen on Friday or Saturday to find money, food, socks or toothpaste on the counter with a note that says something like, “Hope this helps.” Whaley looks forward to seeing what he might find each week for his friends at the shelter, sort of like Christmas morning.  

For Fr. Pelc, the experience has been analogous to the miracle of the loaves and fishes.

“There was never a budget for this, but somehow we’ve never been at a loss for funds either,” Fr. Pelc said. “On certain weekends, a family will step up and underwrite the meal as a way of celebrating a party they would have thrown.”

Vonzell Whaley is seen preparing a meal in the kitchen of the ARK. Fr. Timothy Pelc, pastor of St. Ambrose, compares the project to Jesus’ miracle of the loaves and fish: the meals keep coming, and the Lord provides the resources. 

If not for COVID-19, parishioners would assist in the kitchen, but in order to keep everyone safe, volunteers aren’t allowed to help with meal preparation or clean-up. Whaley often brings a few helpers of his own, however: his 12-year-old brother and his 7-year-old son, Vonzell Jr. Whaley says Vonzell Jr. mostly likes to be the “manager” at this point. He hopes cooking will follow in a few years.  

“I call my mother after the meals, and she always says she’s so proud of me, and she knows my father would be, too. She says I remind her of him, that I look just like him,” Whaley said. “I tell her how good it feels to help people and brighten their day.”

Serving the poor, as well as those who serve and protect the community, is a duty and a privilege, Fr. Pelc said. He’s fond of quoting the parish’s patron, St. Ambrose of Milan in the 4th century: 

“It is not from your own possessions that you are bestowing alms on the poor; you are but restoring to them what is theirs by right. For what was given to everyone for the use of all, you have taken for your exclusive use. The earth belongs not to the rich, but to everyone. Thus, far from giving lavishly, you are but paying part of your debt.”

Fr. Pelc believes the Saturday meals just might offer a foretaste of heaven.

“It’s a marvelous image of those meals that Jesus talks about where the guest list is just about as varied as it comes, including guests picked up at the last minute from the highways and byways,” Fr. Pelc said. “We are told that is what heaven will be like — we will be blown-away at who made it to that dinner party … most assuredly in seats much better than ours.”