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Interview with Haley House Founding Chef Didi Emmons

An Interview with Founding Chef Didi Emmons

Haley House is almost 50 years old and was originally started to provide basic necessities to the homeless. It soon expanded into a soup kitchen in the South End run by live-in volunteers. In 2005, the Haley House Bakery Cafe was created a mile south from the soup kitchen, in a low-income neighborhood - Dudley Square, Roxbury, MA.

‘What is your role at Haley House?  I was the Executive Chef at Haley House and a year into the job, a police officer named Donut strolled in and asked me if she'd like to teach teens to cook once the cafe closed. For the next seven years he brought 7th graders into the cafe once a week.  Donut and I taught the kids about prejudice through food. We'd ask them, “Are you informed when you say you hate onions (or kale or spinach, etc)?  Have you tried all the ways to eat it? Have you ever tasted caramelized onions?” What about onion rings?  Did you know you've been eating onions in ketchup, tomato sauce and salsa?”  And they begin to realize that their thinking is a bit flimsy since they have not taken in all the information. And that this is exactly how prejudice works, we make judgments based on too little information and we explain this to them. 

Eventually, as classes began to increase Kelly Lake, Diana Limbach and I founded “Take Back the Kitchen” at Haley House, an official arm of Haley House that educates kids and adults on healthy eating and the food system. TBK teaches over 300 kids and adults a year. It is still growing, with 5 chefs and a program director.

What brought you to Haley House?
I was baking healthy muffins every morning in my apartment for a neat store called City Feed and Supply in Jamaica Plain. I had to stop baking to open Veggie Planet, a pizzeria in Harvard Square.  The shop owner asked if I would teach the muffin recipe to Haley House, a soup kitchen that trains those who face job barriers.  I found the operation earnest and inspiring. The head baker was professionally trained so I asked him if they could not only make the muffins but also the pizza dough for our new pizzeria. And 12 years later Haley House is still making the muffins for City Feed and pizza dough for Veggie Planet’s week in and week out.  After 3 years of running the pizzeria, a friend at Haley House told me they were opening a café in Roxbury with a similar mission, and would I consider being the chef.  And I said “yes”.

What is your favorite downtime activity? 

Walking in interesting neighborhoods, swimming, watching the Celtics win with my boyfriend and cuddling with my cats. 

Any Guilty Pleasures?

Yes, lots.  Right now it is dark chocolate Klondike with freshly roasted hazelnuts


Haley House Bakery Café (changed) (change photo w/ 9haleyhouse)

I am the founding chef of Haley House Bakery Café, a nonprofit café and catering operation, which opened in September 2005 in Dudley Square, Roxbury.  The cafe offers the Roxbury community a place to enjoy healthy affordable baked goods, breakfast and lunch, as well as catering for Boston area businesses.

In the words of the our website, “infused with the rich diversity of the area, Haley House Bakery Café does more than fill the neighborhood with the aroma of healthy, delicious food. It breathes life into Dudley Square by providing a space where all are truly welcome.  Its also a place where one can also learn about community happenings. The Bakery is a workplace for men and women that face significant barriers to employment. Visitors can feel good about eating flavorful food while supporting their community and enjoying the work of local artists.”

More about the Café: