Acclaimed chef and Jamaica Plain resident Didi Emmons got her start at Centre Street Café here 20 years ago, and she has gone on to use her talents to share what she knows nationally and locally in books and through teaching.
Emmons is the co-founder of the popular Veggie Planet restaurant in Harvard Square, which is connected to Club Passim and famous for its vegetarian pizzas. The restaurant is named for Emmon’s two best-selling cookbooks, “Vegetarian Planet” and the award-winning “Entertaining for a Veggie Planet.” She has a degree in food service management from New York University and a Grand Diplome from La Varenne Ecole de Cuisine in Paris.
Roxbury has also called to Emmons. She started volunteering at Haley House Bakery Café in Dudley Square eight years ago and has been on staff of the nonprofit for the last four years.
The Haley House–describing itself on its web site as a “lean, feisty nonprofit”—is a multi-service agency that manages low-income housing, soup kitchens and an organic farm, in addition to running a bakery and café during the day.
Until this year, Emmons was the head chef at the Haley House’s storefront bakery. Now she teaches cooking classes for youths there in the evening.
She said the entire café project has roots in JP. In the 1990s, “I baked muffins out of my house for City Feed and Supply,” she said. “When I had to go open a restaurant in Harvard Square [City Feed owner David Warner] was upset because [the muffins] had started to have a following.”
Warner told the Gazette he asked Emmons if she would pass her recipes on to the Haley House. “We loved [the muffins],” he said.
He said he had, “no idea what would happen,” when he introduced Emmons to the Haley House. “It’s remarkable,” he said.
The nonprofit’s bakery training program “is designed to promote self-sufficiency for underemployed people with barriers to employment, such as CORI [Criminal Offender Record Information] constraints,” the web site says. CORI checks are a required part of applicant screening for many jobs.
The training program led to a now-discontinued wholesale business selling pastries and pizza dough to Greater Boston eateries— including Veggie Planet—and then to the establishment of a catering business and the bakery, Emmons said.
Those operations are run by trainees in the program as well as employees. “The staff is a healthy mix” of people from the community and training program graduates, Emmons said. “Both supply the muscle to get the food out.”
One training program alum, Ramona Bermudez, recently took over as head of the catering operation, Emmons said.
Emmons herself stepped down as head chef at the café eight months ago and has been focusing her energy on youth training classes at the café. She started that work as a volunteer gig three years ago, she said, when she was approached by a parole officer about teaching classes in public schools.
The idea was to “breakdown prejudices through food,” by exposing youths to cook well-prepared dishes that include ingredients they might not think they like, “like onions or whatever,” Emmons said.
The program was “so popular and so successful that it became clear I could be doing it five days a week,” she said.
So now that is what she is doing. Youths from different schools and organizations, like the Boys & Girls Club and a local fitness center, show up at the restaurant at 4 p.m. and get a lesson in cooking and nutrition.
“There is nothing like putting food in front of kids. They are not that big on listening. They are more focused on action. We get 8-year-olds in here chopping. Thirteen-year-olds come in and say, ‘What are we cooking today? Give me an onion,’” Emmons said. “We don’t even have to work that hard at getting them engaged.”
Emmons said she is working on a new cookbook with her students that will focus on recipes youths can cook easily with ingredients around their house, she said.
In a Gazette interview, 17-year-old Iyesha Alston—who was with a group of students from the Boston Day and Evening Charter School—said her favorite dishes prepared at the program include chicken and fried turkey burgers.
Alston, who said she has not had the chance to try any of the recipes she has learned on her own time, is taking photos for the cookbook, she said.
“I’ve got photos of people cutting up vegetables, flipping, mixing—crazy photos,” she said.
Brittany Rivera, 18, also a student at the Day and Evening school, said she is taking advantage of her newfound skills to cook meals at home for half the price of a restaurant meal.
Some of her favorites have been Greek salad, veggie burgers and pumpkin brownies, she said.
The program serves youths between the ages of 6 and 18. In addition to trying to get them to start cooking at home, Emmons is trying to help a few students find jobs at area restaurants.
And, she said, the Haley House’s own restaurant is worth the trip for JP residents. “I spent 20 years in JP never stepping foot in Dudley Square,” she said. “I was dumbfounded by what a warm community Roxbury and Dudley is.”
Haley House Bakery Café is located at 12 Dade St. For more information, call 445-0900. It is open Mon.-Fri. 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., Thurs. 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. and Sat. 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.