Written by Kelly Zemnickis
Photography by Jenna Hum
Wychwood Open Door first opened its doors to the mid-town Toronto community of St. Clair West in 1986. A daytime drop-in centre, the organization has served an average of 39,000 meals every year, offering up breakfast and lunch three days a week to those who are homeless or socially isolated.
I recently met with Sue Ellen Metcalfe, Wychwood’s Chef and Kitchen Manager, and Kiera Toffelmire, Senior Manager of Programs and Community Relations at Second Harvest, for breakfast at Emma’s Country Kitchen to talk food waste, community, and the magical powers of a good meal.
FF: How did you find your way to Wychwood Open Door?
Sue Ellen: I was working in a Drug and Alcohol Rehab Centre, and the food budget I had per person was 55 dollars a day. And I thought, these people are struggling to get better—what about those on the street? So when the opportunity came up to be at Wychwood, I applied. But I had no idea it was going to be as tough as it was. When I walked into the kitchen, we had 50 pounds of potatoes and some canned goods. So I started from there, no spices, and built the kitchen! It took a good six months to get everything sorted out and stocked so we could feed people properly.
Keira: I live in the neighbourhood, so I knew about Wychwood just from being in the community. And then when I joined Second Harvest and started doing some site visits, I met Sue Ellen and fell in love with Sue Ellen! Fell in love with the work they were doing. I was visiting so many drop-ins at the time, and I had never seen the quality of meals served at a drop-in as I did there. I told Sue Ellen this is way better than anything I ever make myself!
FF: Sue Ellen, you really have incredible meals that you prepare for the guests at WOD. The first day I volunteered, you were celebrating Family Day and that was an amazing turkey dinner you made up! A feast! Where else have you cooked?
SE: Well, I have over 35 years’ experience, cooking in kitchens all over the world. I’ve cooked in Paris, Milan, Venice… I’ve cooked for Jamie Oliver, I’ve cooked for Pavarotti! And I cooked for Pavarotti in Canada, when I had my restaurant in Port Hope.
K: Sue Ellen has—I mean, we have supportive volunteers, but Sue Ellen has singlehandedly transformed [WOD] and the program. The quality of meals that are served [has improved], and we’ve seen lasting health implications.
SE: We have a guest who cannot be sheltered because she can get so violent. She does self-medicate and she’s a diabetic. She’s fine with me, absolutely fine. When I first started there, the cops came in on a regular basis!
FF: It just shows the power of nutrition, of a good meal. Also how you treat people and interact with them. You’re treating them as a guest, not like “Person One.”
SE: We have respect for each other, in the kitchen as well. If you have a problem, you take it up with the person first and you have one crack. Then I deal with them! We are a family, we’re very supportive of each other. By and large, I have the same volunteers I started with. Our dishwasher, Jim, started when I did and I couldn’t live without him.
K: And you’re very careful about the nutrition! X amount of calories, all the nutrient boxes that you need to tick are there. And that thoughtfulness when you’re working off a shoestring budget to serve as many people as you can? I am inspired by it.
SE: You come bake with us at Christmas! I have pictures! (Laughs) But you know, you don’t always make lasagne with noodles. You can make it with zucchini or eggplant, little things like that. I can plan a little bit now, but before [I] was always [cooking] on the fly. I started to invent dishes, because I didn’t have enough. But we usually try to offer two choices, and we have a variety of meals each week. I don’t repeat myself. [Leading up to] Christmas, we’d put five or ten dollars aside each week and I bought filet minion. So we did that with gravy, Yorkshire pudding, fresh pies. The whole nine yards. It was exciting to see how happy they were!
FF: Tell us about how WOD helps other agencies with food assistance.
SE: We help two other agencies to survive. We help a spot that’s open on a Tuesday, because there’s no kitchen open on a Tuesday in this neighbourhood. If I’ve got cabbage and carrots coming out of my ears, I give them five to ten pounds so they can make the basics. Soup, et cetera. When we had no money and Food Rescue wasn’t around, I shared bread. Or when we got 215 live fish in and we didn’t expect it to be live and had nowhere to process it, I contacted a place that could help us, and a partnership [began]. We swap back and forth with places like the Good Shepherd. Some places will just call me directly. I’ll travel up to 100 kilometers.
K: You used to be a lawyer, right? What made you shift into becoming a chef?
SE: I always loved cooking. When I went to university, I supported myself by becoming a housekeeper and a cook. Then when I got very ill [working as a lawyer] and realized this was no way to live, my brother asked me, “What do you really want to be doing?” And I said cooking. I continued doing some legal work and one of the people I worked for, we partnered and opened my first restaurant. I never looked back. [The] contribution to society is huge.
FF: What is Food Rescue? Who can access it?
K: It’s a platform that Second Harvest built in the last year. It puts our model online. Emma’s could register for it and make a profile, and then any non-profit or charitable organization that has a food program can register for it, too. So it’s kind of like an e-Harmony for surplus food! They’re then matched up, based on how far they’re willing to travel to pick up the surplus foods. Sue Ellen’s been an early user of this program, and has forged a relationship with No Frills in Mississauga where she picks up food.
SE: I pick up at six AM every Thursday morning. And they’re the only agency I know that gives meat on a regular basis. Like today, I picked up 200 pounds of meat.
FF: Otherwise, it would all get thrown out?
SE: For the particular No Frills I go to, when they have an advertised sale, they will not reduce below the sale price. So rather than reduce the price, they’ll throw a product away.
K: Fifty-eight percent of all food produced in Canada goes to waste, and of that, there’s 32 percent that is still edible. There are various reasons that food is thrown away, like [the one] Sue Ellen mentioned. Food also comes to us because of misspelled labels or misspelled packaging where they can’t release it or market it!
SE: For people who have allergies, the liability is just so horrific. They can’t sell it.
K: And one that makes me so sad, we started receiving over 50,000 pounds of potatoes from PEI that were rejected on the retail level because they were half an inch smaller than the retail specs require. But they were perfect. It’s just [unbelievable]!
FF: What surprises you most about the people who come to Wychwood for a meal?
SE: It shouldn’t surprise me, but the sense of entitlement. And if they get mad at you, they walk away hungry. But you have to feed everybody the same, and it’s not your fault if somebody hasn’t eaten for three or four days. It’s hard to say no sometimes, because literally, we don’t have scraps.
K: We have started a user-experience survey of folks who access the program there, and so far over half of our guests are homeless or in a shelter semi-permanently. So you’re struggling, you don’t know where your next meal is coming from necessarily. And you’re going to be “hangry” and it does trigger some anger, violence. But through the meals you serve, you do feel that sense of community.
SE: It is a community! And there is a sense of gratitude.
FF: Do some volunteers find the experience overwhelming? I know the first day I was there, I felt very heavy in a way. I cried when I went home.
SE: I’ve had people break down and cry, it’s so emotional for them. It’s a shock. When you’re serving food to them, you take in a lot of their pain. But you have to absorb it and bounce it back.
K: There’s a calm that I haven’t seen at most other drop-ins. And I have to say, Wychwood is a smaller organization and it struggles for funding year after year. Yet, Sue Ellen, you’ve managed to reduce the food budget! It was at 50,000 dollars and now it’s, like, 20,000 dollars? And the quality of the meals has increased dramatically! And the partnerships!
SE: I’ve had to struggle. So if people didn’t turn me down, why should I turn them down?
K: You do want to be able to serve everyone. Everyone deserves a good, healthy meal.
For more information on Wychwood Open Door, visit:
To learn more about how we can make changes to food waste in Canada, visit: