Emma’s Torch ‘Classroom Café’ Empowers Refugees, Prepares Them For Culinary Careers
Tiny Red Hook café Emma’s Torch was bustling on Father’s Day, serving up avocado toast with poached eggs, Belgian waffles, Frittatas, house-made pastries, and mimosas to hungry brunch parties. The dishes were prepared meticulously, plated beautifully, and tasted fresh and delicious.
Opened just two weeks ago at 293 Van Brunt Street (in the Home/Made space), the cozy café seats approximately 18 and offers a handful of tables in the back garden. During the week, the café serves sandwiches, paninis, and coffee to lunch patrons. What sets Emma’s Torch apart from other cafés is the eatery provides culinary training, ESL classes, and interview preparation courses to refugees, asylees, and survivors of human trafficking, preparing them for a career in the food industry.
“I wanted to open a café to prove the point that we could create a restaurant that employs refugees and empowers them,” says Kerry Brodie, the Founder and Executive Director of Emma’s Torch.
The café’s name is a shout-out to a hero of Brodie’s. “Emma Lazarus wrote the poem that’s on the Statue of Liberty, ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,’” Brodie explains. “She was this incredible woman who doesn’t always get the credit she deserves. She was one of the first people to advocate for refugees coming in the 1880s and she believed that the way to help people is through vocational training, supporting them, and giving them access to the American Dream. It’s 150 years later and those words are still true and her vision is still true,” Brodie says before excitedly displaying her newly printed “Emma Is My Homegirl” tee which is for sale at the café.
Brodie studied Middle Eastern Studies at Princeton and received her master’s degree in Government and Political Communication from John Hopkins University which led to a job with the Human Rights Campaign. Having grown up cooking with her family and possessing a “huge passion for food,” Brodie moved to New York City to attend the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) where she not only learned about cooking, but about food education—how to teach others to be a better chef.
Brodie left her job at the Human Rights Campaign in May 2016 and teamed up with Chef Mandy Maxwell, who’s previously worked in the kitchens of per se and Eleven Madison Park. Maxwell serves as the Head Chef at Emma’s Torch while instructing the two student cooks.
“I’ve worked in a lot of high-end restaurants and I started questioning what I was doing,” Maxwell says. “I ended up going to graduate school—NYU for Food Systems and Policy, and it really opened my eyes to all the ways that you can help people with food.”
“It’s totally changed how I think about food because it’s an amazing opportunity to teach people and give them the ability to make their own living instead of just making really fancy food for a small population,” she adds.
“The first thing I did was sit down with refugee resettlement leaders,” Brodie says. She asked them, “Is this actually a service that would be helpful for your clients? Is this something that would be beneficial?”
Her next step was to talk to chefs and restaurant owners. “I met with restaurant people [and asked] ‘What are you looking for when you’re hiring?’ or ‘Why aren’t you hiring more refugees? What do you need?’”
Brodie and Maxwell initially tested the concept in December, with a pilot program that consisted of 18 hours of training for three students. Brodie taught the culinary classes at Brooklyn Food Works, a shared collaborative kitchen in Williamsburg where cooks can develop and launch new food concepts. When the training was complete, they hosted a launch event for 80 guests.
“I was really happy with how that turned out. Initially our plan was to run a similar program again where we just did classes and job placement,” Brodie says, but then the café space became available and she couldn’t pass it up.
After receiving the key to the space, the team made minimal cosmetic fixes before diving in headfirst. “We always wanted to be a social enterprise that was generating revenue because I think that being a sustainable non-profit is really important,” Brodie explains.
“I also think that the training we give our students is way better,” she continues. “In culinary school, you chop potatoes for hours and hours but you throw away those potatoes. You don’t get a sense of the urgency and that’s what chefs are looking for. Every chef has told me what they need is [a sense of] urgency and people [who] are going to show up and be able to do the hard work.” Brodie adds that having the students gain experience by working in an actual kitchen and being able to put that experience on their resumes is “really powerful.”
The selected students receive 100 hours of culinary and coffee training (the coffee instruction is through a partnership with Toby’s Estate); attend twelve weeks of ESL classes; gain work experience at the “classroom café”; and receive job placement assistance through the organization’s network of chefs or other food businesses, like Eataly. They also receive a stipend for attending the ESL classes and are paid $15 an hour for their time in the kitchen.
“We pay everybody above market-rate. We want to be sure that they can continue to be involved without needing to go do something else,” Brodie explains of the cash incentives.
The culinary students also receive a donated pair of new, high-quality kitchen shoes as well as a set of knives. “We want our students to walk in [to an interview] and feel as confident as any person who went to CIA (The Culinary Institute of America) or ICE.”
Nineteen-year-old Addwa Alsubaie came to the United States from Saudi Arabia with her older sister a year-and-a-half ago. “We are asylum seekers. It’s hard to live as a woman [in Saudi Arabia],” she explains.
The amiable and bubbly chef-in-training learned English by working as a cashier at a 99-cent store and decided to apply to the Emma’s Torch culinary program after meeting Brodie at RiF. “I always cook,” she insists, “My sister washes the dishes. I cook.”
Addwa enjoys making the avocado toast in the kitchen and describes her experience with the culinary program straightforwardly—“I like the café. I like Red Hook. I also love cooking. I am so happy.”
Working with organizations such as CWS (Church World Service), International Rescue Committee, Catholic Charities, HIAS, RiF, and Sanctuary for Families, Brodie received approximately 50 applications for her current programs, however, due to the small size of the classes, they are only able to accept two students at a time for the culinary program and eight to ten students for the ESL program.
“We can’t take them all, unfortunately. That’s my least favorite part,” Brodie says, noting she will revisit the original list of applicants once the current students have graduated.
Along with having legal work authorization, the other requirements for applicants are to possess “a passion for cooking and have an interest in it as a career,” she advises.
“Eventually I would love to bring [Emma’s Torch] to other cities. I would love to also bring it to a larger space,” Brodie says of her future plans for the organization. “I’d love to do a program for refugees who are single mothers and victims of human trafficking. Line cook jobs aren’t great for them, but figuring out how we could help them start artisanal food businesses in a way that makes sense and is financially feasible,” is another goal of hers.
“The theory of Emma’s Torch is that people can interact over food and it can build bridges between people who have never met,” Brodie says. “We all have these memories of cooking with our mothers, our grandmothers, our fathers—that’s the same type of memory, whether you’re from Syria or from Poland or from the U.S.”
Emma’s Torch, 293 Van Brunt Street (between Pioneer & King Streets), Red Hook
Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday: 8am to 5pm
Thursday: 12pm to 5pm
Saturday – Sunday: 9am to 2pm
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