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Emma’s Torch Is Helping Refugees Succeed in the Food World

By Billie Cohen

Nov 12, 2021

From the November/December 2021 issue

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At Emma’s Torch, diners enjoy such dishes as black-eyed pea hummus and asparagus topped with a soft poached egg.

Photograph by Michael George

At Emma’s Torch, diners enjoy such dishes as black-eyed pea hummus and asparagus topped with a soft poached egg.

On a quiet corner in Brooklyn, a restaurant empowers refugees by teaching them culinary skills and the value of their own voice.

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Food can cross boundaries and cultures. It can bridge gaps in understanding, forge bonds, spark friendships. It’s magic. Even if it’s just your standard morning glory muffin. 

That’s what changed everything for Kerry Brodie—a muffin. In 2015, she was living in Washington, D.C., working as a press secretary at the Human Rights Campaign and volunteering at a homeless shelter. She would often talk to the residents about food, chatting about things they ate growing up and that still resonated with them. 

She remembers one conversation about the muffins the shelter would hand out. “I never really knew what a morning glory muffin was,” she recalls with a laugh. “We’d have these conversations about like, what do we think is in this muffin? And what do we think is the optimal food to put in a muffin form, which was just such a fun way to connect with someone.” Though jokey, the conversations stuck with Brodie. Cooking was in her blood: One of her grandmothers had published a cookbook, the other had run a catering business. While she had no formal training, she’d loved being in the kitchen with them and her mother. 

Right around the same time, another issue was tugging at her attention. The Syrian refugee crisis was all over the news, and a shocking photo had surfaced of three-year-old Alan Kurdi’s body washed up on the shores of Turkey. A child of immigrants herself—her family moved to the United States from South Africa in the 1980s before she was born—Brodie was pained as more and more refugees were turned away from the U.S. “That felt like such an affront to the values that we have,” she says. She told her husband that someone should do something. So when life took the couple to New York City, she did. And those earlier conversations at the homeless shelter helped her decide how to do it.

Nafisseta Kinda prepares food in the Emma’s Torch kitchen.

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After arriving in the city, Brodie started at the Institute of Culinary Education and in 2016 launched Emma’s Torch, a cooking school and restaurant with the mission to empower refugees, asylees, and survivors of human trafficking. “There’s something about food that becomes an expression of cultural identity in a way that very few other things do,” says Brodie, who was also inspired by the idea that new Americans can add something special to the kitchens they join. “What our students have to offer has so much value beyond simply their skills—[the] value of accessing all of these different cultural identities and experiences.”

Named after the 19th-century writer Emma Lazarus, whose poem on the Statue of Liberty, “The New Colossus,” traditionally welcomed immigrants, Emma’s Torch is based in the Carroll Gardens neighborhood of Brooklyn. It offers a 10-week apprenticeship program that covers everything from knife skills to people skills to résumé writing, so that graduates can find meaningful jobs in the culinary world. Students take classes while working different roles at the restaurant—and they get paid for all of their time, $15 an hour whether they’re at a desk or at the kitchen counter.

So far, more than 120 students from 40-plus countries have cycled through the program, which is open to people ages 18 to 65 who have arrived in the United States within the past five years. With the help they get from Emma’s Torch, paired with their own skill and talent, more than 95 percent of recent students have landed jobs after graduation. But even with that high success rate to encourage them, the first day at the cooking school can be daunting.

Aicha Combia moved to the U.S. from Burkina Faso in 2017 after winning the visa lottery. She recalls her first day: “I was skeptical, because I loved cooking but I never went to any culinary school, so I was afraid, wondering what kind of chef I’d have to deal with—I didn’t want to be yelled at!” She lets out a warm, infectious laugh. “But I took my courage and I went. As soon as I stepped in, Chef Alex was amazing. He made me love cooking even more. He has this kind of energy all the time. I felt comfortable, I felt welcome, I felt loved.”

Chef Alex is Alexander Harris, who served as chef de cuisine at Blue Smoke Flatiron (restaurateur Danny Meyer’s now-shuttered Manhattan barbecue spot) before joining the Emma’s Torch team, first as a volunteer and then as culinary director. Under his training and through observation, he says, “the students learn how to be effective line-level employees and gain higher-level knowledge of working in and running kitchens.” The organization also has a catering service, virtual cooking classes, and a smaller outpost in the main Brooklyn Public Library that serves coffee and snacks (it closed for the pandemic but is expected to reopen in November).

Left: Student Zohreh Mohagheghfar works on a dish in the kitchen. Right: Emma's Torch is partnered with some of the largest refugee resettlement and advocacy organizations in the world.

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As Harris likes to say, the restaurant and café’s seasonal menus are “American food cooked by new Americans.” He looks for ways to infuse classic American cuisine with ingredients, techniques, or even names that will help his students feel more comfortable with what they’re cooking. For example, he designed a black-eyed pea hummus that would be familiar to his Middle Eastern students but would also feel very American. Over the years, he’s continued to incorporate the cultures his students bring to the table into teaching demos and menu items, such as hand pies with berbere spice and peanut sauce (East and West Africa) and potato salad with Svanetian salt (Georgia).

Harris wants his students to feel empowered to share those influences—with him, their teammates, and future employers: “We are providing them the understanding that they have the power, the ability, the obligation to add to this conversation of food in the city,” he says. “They bring not just the education that they’ve received, but all their experience with them—and it’s an important addition.”

“The experience was amazing,” says recent graduate Jonathan Escobar, who emigrated to the U.S. from Guatemala three years ago, before he spoke any English. “It helped me learn how to get jobs and helped me to be more confident in myself.”

One way for the public to see that confidence in action is to experience a class’s graduation dinner. (Check emmastorch.org for dates and tickets.) For his graduation dinner, Escobar prepared Guatemalan fiambre, a bright rainbow of a salad with vegetables, meats, and cheeses that meant a lot to him in his childhood. “I wanted to show my culture,” he says, “and how important it is for us that we don’t forget where we come from.”

Once they’re out in the field, Emma’s Torch students continue to influence New York City’s culinary scene. Graduate Thu Pham created a Vietnamese pizza for James Beard–recognized Brooklyn restaurant Olmsted while she worked there. And Naseema Bachsi, who fled Afghanistan, is the head chef at Sahadi’s, the city’s legendary Middle Eastern grocery and prepared-food purveyor. 

“Our students have done such a phenomenal job in the workforce that it’s created a reputation,” Brodie says. “In every kitchen they enter, they’re entering equipped with skills of self advocacy, [and] with confidence that they can share their knowledge and their expertise. I think that changes the dynamics of kitchens—that diversity is a value that impacts everyone.”

Chef Alex agrees: Food really can break down walls and allow people to see each other and treat each other differently, he says. “Cooking can change the world and change people’s hearts. Hopefully, that’s what’s going on, one student at a time.” 

>>Next: How to Google Your Way to a Greener Trip

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