In a Brooklyn kitchen, a Statue of Liberty spirit offers a fresh start

Ann Hermes/Staff
Emma’s Torch culinary director, chef Alexander Harris, leads a class on Nov. 20, 2020, in Brooklyn, New York. The nonprofit trains refugees, asylum-seekers, and human trafficking survivors for the culinary industry. Students and guest chefs also prepare meals in its cafe.

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“Give me your tired, your poor” is just one line of the famous poem that Kerry Brodie took to heart to create her nonprofit – a program that readies refugees for jobs in the food industry.

Ms. Brodie had worked for a civil rights group, volunteered at a homeless shelter, and had her immigrant great-grandparents in mind when she founded Emma’s Torch. A reference to both the poet, Emma Lazarus, and the Statue of Liberty, its culinary classes are complemented with lessons in job readiness and personal development. Emma’s Torch also aids graduates with job placement.

Why We Wrote This

In the training kitchen at Emma’s Torch, refugees earn more than culinary skills. They begin to carve their own path to the American dream.

The organization has made adjustments during the pandemic, holding smaller classes but still serving a takeout menu featuring fare infused with flavors from its students’ varied backgrounds.

Fanta Sylla’s December graduation had her prepare a fresh salad and coconut flan for the incoming class. Ms. Sylla had worked as a humanitarian in Ivory Coast, and in 2017 the asylum-seeker arrived in the U.S. alone. She found family at Emma’s Torch, she says. “I’m happy to be here. I started a new life, and I’m proud of that.”

One fall morning in a white-walled Brooklyn bistro, a chef folds his arms into wings and flaps.

“Chicken, duck, turkey – these are all examples of poultry!” says chef Alexander Harris, drawing out the last word.

The culinary director is used to patiently pantomiming vocabulary and other kitchen terms for students learning English. In today’s lesson on moist-heat cooking methods, his red marker fills a whiteboard with words like “simmer” and “sous vide.” A student snaps a photo on his phone before the canvas is cleared.

Why We Wrote This

In the training kitchen at Emma’s Torch, refugees earn more than culinary skills. They begin to carve their own path to the American dream.

Mr. Harris’ three aproned pupils sit attentively, binders open, spaced apart at steel-top tables. They hail from the countries of Georgia, Dominican Republic, and Ivory Coast, but are all carving out fresh starts in New York. United by their kitchen uniform, they nod in understanding beneath black baseball caps and masks.

They become the new batch of graduates from Emma’s Torch today.

Doubling as an eatery, the nonprofit trains asylum-seekers, refugees, and human trafficking survivors for culinary careers – and pays them to learn.

In a city where most restaurant workers are immigrants, entering the industry can mean a first step toward financial security for newcomers with limited English.

Moreover, the Biden administration’s pledge to increase U.S. refugee admissions – from the current 15,000 annual cap to 125,000 – highlights the need for social enterprises like Emma’s Torch. The nonprofit has helped launch the new lives of over 100 students with an ethos as warm as the bistro’s butter-thick air.

“My work is not charity,” says founder Kerry Brodie. “It’s really about trying to give other people the access to those opportunities, and make sure that they feel supported in pursuing them.”

She named her nonprofit for the Jewish poet Emma Lazarus, whose 1883 lines “Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses / yearning to breathe free” grace the Statue of Liberty pedestal. The sentiment echoes in Ms. Brodie’s family history. Her great-grandparents emigrated from Lithuania to South Africa during World War II – the only members of their immediate families to survive the Holocaust.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Kerry Brodie named her nonprofit Emma’s Torch after the poet who wrote a sonnet for the Statue of Liberty in 1883. In the first part of the poem, the statue is called "a mighty woman with a torch."

“Nuts idea”

Working at the LGBTQ civil rights organization Human Rights Campaign in Washington until 2016, Ms. Brodie watched as the global population of displaced persons swelled to over 65 million – surpassing World War II numbers. Underscoring the implications of this global trend for her was the now-iconic image of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian boy who drowned along with two other family members in the Mediterranean.

Meanwhile, Ms. Brodie was spending a couple of mornings a week volunteering at a homeless shelter. As she handed out muffins, she recalls bonding with the women she served over food memories; Ms. Brodie learned to cook from women in her own family.

These experiences helped marinate her idea for Emma’s Torch. Over a dinner in 2015, Ms. Brodie’s husband brought up her “nuts idea,” she says: “He offhand said to me ... ‘Someone should do it – why not you?’ And I think that that was the very scary aha moment.”  

She started culinary school in New York City in 2016, then launched the nonprofit’s first apprenticeship after graduation a year later. Emma’s Torch added a restaurant in the Carroll Gardens neighborhood in 2018, followed by cafe space at a local library. 

From over 40 countries, participants range widely in life experience and age. Culinary classes are complemented with lessons in job readiness and personal development, like interview prep, résumé help, and life-coping skills. Emma’s Torch also aids graduates with job placement to ensure good matches.

“We’re really looking for people who are ready and willing to start to make that change in their life,” says Mr. Harris.

Students graduate ready to impress.

“The one thing that always blew me away was the work ethic,” says Jennifer Nelson, managing partner at Buttermilk Channel, which has hired a couple of alumni.

Diligent job-placement efforts appear to pay off. The nonprofit reports that 97% of its 100-plus alumni have landed jobs within three months of graduation.

“Emma’s Torch is like the foundation to help us [become] confident,” says Thu Pham, who started as a line cook after graduation in 2018 and now works as a private chef.

When Ms. Pham arrived in the United States from Vietnam in 2016, she left behind a nonprofit career helping disadvantaged children. Starting life from scratch in a new country, she had difficulty landing a job.   

Ms. Pham learned about Emma’s Torch through a refugee organization. She always loved cooking for family and friends, she says, and was “overwhelmed” when her application was accepted. The most challenging part was learning English along with the vocabulary of cuisine – with the help of Google Translate. She laughs when trying to explain which pan is a “hotel pan.”

Ms. Pham had hoped to sell her hot-sauce-drizzled, rice crust Vietnamese pizza at a food market, but the pandemic botched her plans. All the more, she says she valued the virtual classes Emma’s Torch extended to alumni during life under lockdown – especially on starting a business.

“That’s very useful information, especially for me,” says Ms. Pham, who still aspires to a venture of her own.

The organization is piloting an entrepreneurial track to equip recent graduates for leadership roles.

Pandemic pivot

In-person operations shut down in March. Without diners, the nonprofit that had operated on 55% earned revenue from the restaurant took a financial hit.

Donations from community members and past funders were a bright spot.

“Every time a gift-card order came through, it was a reminder that people know we’re going to get through this,” says Ms. Brodie. A federal Paycheck Protection Program loan has also offered reprieve.

The shutdown intensified the nonprofit’s focus on helping its network. Every morsel of leftover food was distributed to students and alumni “so they wouldn’t go hungry,” Ms. Brodie says.

With the apprenticeship on pause, trainees no longer received $15-an-hour wages. Emma’s Torch reports helping 77 students and alumni file for unemployment.

After careful planning, Emma’s Torch reopened its cafe for takeout in November. The menu still features American fare infused with students’ backgrounds, like black-eyed pea hummus and shakshuka sandwiches. The school also rebooted with smaller cohorts to respect social distancing. Heightened attention to safety is routine, with hourly cleaning of high-touch surfaces and regular hand-washing.

“We talk to our students constantly about the idea that each of us are ambassadors of public health,” says Ms. Brodie.  

Graduation is typically a lively event involving guest chefs. Scaled back due to COVID-19, Fanta Sylla’s December graduation had her prepare a fresh salad and coconut flan for the incoming class.

Ms. Sylla had worked as a humanitarian in Ivory Coast. The asylum-seeker came to the U.S. in 2017 alone, but says she found family at Emma’s Torch. On a break from baking buttermilk biscuits, she says, “I’m happy to be here. I started a new life, and I’m proud of that.”

Ms. Sylla particularly liked learning the art of customer service, and says she hopes to divide her time between food and psychology careers. She’ll miss the kitchen’s people, with whom she shared “family meals” in the afternoon.

“It’s a beautiful school – it’s a family,” she says.

Learn more about Emma’s Torch at www.emmastorch.org.

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