Quincy’s Dianna MacPhee, 60, became executive chef of Community Servings in January. The Jamaica Plain-based organization provides medically tailored meals to critically ill people who can’t easily get out to grocery shop. They prepare more than 1 million meals every year. It’s a busy job, but MacPhee is used to it. As a child growing up in South Boston, she visited her mom at work at Anthony’s Pier 4. She went on to work under James Beard award-winners Lydia Shire, as a sous chef at Biba, and Vitaly Paley in Portland, Ore., before becoming chef at Quincy House at Harvard University and Café Bon Appétit at MIT.
What led you to this job, and what’s your mission?
I took it because I felt like I was honestly a little lost as to where I belonged for last couple of years. Nothing seemed to be a really good fit, and then I saw that this was available. I thought: ‘This is perfect. I can actually feel good when I leave work at the end of the day.’ It’s everything it’s cracked up to be. We do medically tailored meals for people who are living with critical and chronic illnesses. We do about 5,000 meals a day. This year alone, we’ve provided almost just over a million meals, I think. So it’s pretty spectacular.
That’s awesome. Why do you think this is so important now? Is there anything to be said about what’s going on in the world or locally, in Boston, that makes your job so necessary in 2023?
I think people are starting to understand the relationship between food and health better than they ever did. They’re realizing that food is medicine, and it can actually make you feel better. We always had chicken soup as kids when we didn’t feel so great. We’re just taking that to the nth degree.
How does being executive chef for an organization like Community Servings differ from being a restaurant chef?
We have about 15 different medical diets that we cater to, for people who have kidney failure, heart disease, cancer, diabetes. Each individual meal is catered to that person’s specific needs. It just allows them to not worry about it. Most of the folks whom we serve can’t just run to the grocery store and figure out what has the lowest potassium and sodium and stuff like that. So we take the guesswork out of it, which I think is why it’s so successful.
Let’s talk about your backstory. How did you first know that you wanted to get involved in the food business? What sparked your love of cooking?
My mom was a server, or waitress, if you will, back at Anthony’s Pier 4, and I would go to work with her every once in a while.
What was that like back in the day? It was such a legendary place.
I just remember, as a kid, they threw the best Christmas parties. I just remember it being a fun place to hang out. We moved to Connecticut, and my mom started working in a tea room that employed developmentally disabled adults and taught a trade. So I would volunteer there, and that got me into cooking and teaching.
Growing up, was there a restaurant that you ate at or a dish that you had that still sticks out in your mind as being transformative for you?
I don’t think I would say a dish per se. I was very picky eater as a child. Obviously, going out to eat was a big deal when I was a kid. We went to Hilltop for big occasions — and Amrhein’s, because I grew up in South Boston.
That was going to be my next question. What local restaurants do you really miss that don’t exist anymore?
I’m still mourning Ashmont Grill. That’s super recent. And Biba, because I worked there.
What was it like to work at Biba?
It was amazing. Because it was back in the day, people just were like, ‘I’m going to work for that chef, because I need to know what they know.’ It was such a great time to be a cook or a chef, because the energy and the vibrancy of the whole time was, you know: more women chefs. It was just it was so cool. [Lydia] is so knowledgeable. And Lydia and Susan [Regis] were just amazing to work for. I learned so much. And it was a fun environment.
If you had to describe her and what you learned from Lydia Shire: What would you say?
She was full of energy, and she had so much knowledge. She was just fun to be around. I got to see what a real truffle looked like. For the first time in my life, a white truffle! I had never seen one before. The job opened the food world for me as to what was out there.
I know you worked in Oregon for a while, too. How would you describe the vibe in Boston versus the Pacific Northwest?
Boston’s got so much energy. It’s fast-paced. Oregon’s much slower. I think that they were ahead of it with farm-to-table and things like that, just because it’s such a farm community. Farmers’ markets were huge there.
You came back to Boston and worked at Harvard and MIT. That must be a very different framework from working at a place like Biba under Lydia Shire.
I think a chef is a chef is a chef. You’re always dealing with food. You’re always dealing with employees; you’re always dealing with the same kind of pressures. It’s just in a different style. So you get to know the students. At Harvard, I was at Quincy House, and it was just about 280 students. It was really more of a community; it really was a house. And we did special events, and ‘meet the chef’ kind of things every Thursday. I got to meet and know a lot of people and still keep contact with some of them. It was a real community, and I really loved that.
Who’s the most notable person you’ve ever cooked for?
Julia Child. I think it was probably a few years before she passed. She just was so lovely and coherent. She heard something and just stopped talking. It was either bells ringing or gun salute, and she stopped to count them.
How would you describe the Boston restaurant scene now?
Overall, people are just struggling to try to get people to work and keep people working. It’s a tougher scene than it used to be, for sure. People aren’t falling all over the place to try to get in to work for you anymore.
Does Community Servings maybe feel like a nice change of pace for you?
It’s great. I work with some amazing people. Everybody is so supportive. It’s just: We know how unkind the world can be, and kindness just seeps through the walls here.
When you’re not working, what are your favorite restaurant hangouts?
I try to stay local because we know parking in Boston is always a little difficult. I live on the Milton side of Quincy, so I go to Steel & Rye. I’ll go to Darcy’s Pub, which is literally walking distance from my house. Brick and Beam is another one. Mostly local hangouts, like The China Restaurant & Sports Bar.
What is your food vice? Maybe hard for someone who’s job is to make nutritious meals.
Well, Phillips Chocolates is my downfall. I don’t know about a guilty pleasure: probably something really gooey, like Fat Cat’s macaroni and cheese.
Any secrets for sneaking healthiness into a meal?
It’s honestly just being creative with it. Instead of flour, we’ll use ground-up oatmeal. Instead of a lot of salt, you can use Parmesan cheese, which adds that nice flavor. It’s not as hard as it seems. But we’re creatures of habit. It’s easier for people to do it for us, and that’s what we’re here for.
Last but not least: What’s your favorite binge-watch?
My favorite binge-watch right now is called “The Outlaws” on Prime video. It’s a British comedy.