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Veg out
Veggie Planet owner Didi Emmons enters a new orbit at the nonprofit Haley House

SHEíS A SUCCESSFUL restaurant owner, award-winning cookbook author, and all-around mainstay on the local culinary scene. So whatís Veggie Planetís Didi Emmons doing packing up her spatulas and heading for a Roxbury nonprofit?

Taking on a new cooking challenge, actually. For the past several years, Emmons ó the author of Entertaining for a Veggie Planet (Houghton Mifflin, 2003) and Vegetarian Planet (Harvard Common Press, 1997) ó has focused her energy on her Veggie Planet vegetarian restaurant at Harvard Squareís Club Passim. Soon, however, she will become the executive chef at the new bakery and café at Dudley Squareís Haley House, a decades-old nonprofit that also includes a soup kitchen and low-income apartments. The organizationís wholesale bakery has been selling a limited number of products to a limited number of clients ó Emmons considers Haley Houseís pizza dough to be a foundation of Veggie Planetís business ó for years; in her new role, Emmons will open a café with an evolving menu and a staff of culinary trainees.

Q: Tell me about your new role at Haley House.

A: The Haley House is opening up this large, 3200-square-foot warehouse space in Dudley Square, and thereís going to be a café and a wholesale bakery all in the same space. My job is to oversee everything. Iím going to first be creating the café and making that happen, and then once Iíve got that under my belt, then Iím going to start spending time in the wholesale part of the business, trying to expand that side of the business, because thereís a lot of room for growth there. Theyíre very small right now; they only have, like, 12 clients, and they only make, like, eight products. Then thereís the whole training aspect of the business. These people are facing job barriers; theyíre people that have been homeless or have had drug problems. Thereís only five positions every six months, and theyíre under our tutelage.

Q: It sounds like a really big departure for you.

A: Yeah. Itís so much fun. Yesterday I was in Dudley Square for five hours, and Iím like, oh my God, I feel like Iím in the Caribbean. I feel like Iím in a different part of the world. Itís so different, and yet itís 200 yards from the South End. Unfortunately, the way Boston is, people are really clustered. People are very tight in Dudley Square, and theyíre all really excited about it. Thereís no better way to try to appeal to the black community than to try and open a restaurant in Dudley Square, because they need it. They want it. Itís not that weíre going to be enlightening the neighborhood; itís [that] the neighborhood can support this, wants this, hasnít had it. I was talking to a bunch of people yesterday, and they were like, "I really want salads with low-fat dressings, but made with yogurt and tofu." I was talking to a man who was like 60 years old, and he [said], "Yeah, I like tofu. Itís okay with me." Theyíre very savvy, and they just donít have access to it; they have to drive to get good food.

Q: So this is going to be a pretty crucial resource for this community.

A: Itís going to be a breath of fresh air. Itís what it needs, itís what itís ready for. Itís a very poor neighborhood ó the statistics are really bad, like $12,500 is the average median income ó but the people who work in Dudley Square are a slightly different population. They earn more. So we hope to appeal to both. Itís not a wealthy clientele, so the restaurant needs to be affordable. Also whatís new for me is to make a menu that doesnít have to appeal to me. Obviously on some level itís got to, and itís got to meet certain criteria, like not using canned goods, and maybe not using meat that we donít know where it comes from ó

Q: But you will be using meat?

A: Weíll be using meat. Yup.

Q: Does that worry you?

A: My friend over at the Food Project, he says that he has a lot of good sources for beef that are sustainable. So we are going to be using sources that have been practicing sustainable agriculture. But I canít say for sure that Iím going to do that. I mean, I might not be able to find a ham that can do that, and then Iíll go ahead and get the ham anyway. Iím going to have to let my politics go a little for the greater good. I really feel like whatís important is to raise their level of awareness of that whole local, sustainable thing, but I donít have to go 100 percent all the way.

Q: So the six-month training program will be for people with no restaurant experience?

A: Right. They jump in, and we start them at the bakery, which is the easier place for them to start, and they start doing things like forming cookies and maybe making a muffin batter here and there. But really theyíre a liability to us at that point. After they finish three months there, then they move to the café. Thatís more rigorous, and thereís a lot more change; the menu is not stagnant. Itís going to be changing. Weíre really going to try to work with the community and make foods that people want, and experiment here and there. So thereís going to be a lot of learning for them. Theyíve been doing this in the South End on a very, very disorganized, lackluster scale. They havenít had somebody really good that can place them into new jobs. That is all going to change. Weíre really going to try and make a difference [for] these 10 people a year, in their lives.

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Issue Date: March 11 - 17, 2005
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