Emma’s Torch, a Brooklyn, New York-based restaurant that doubles as a culinary program, continues to welcome refugees since Kerry Brodie opened it in 2016. Apart from serving new-American cuisine, the restaurant offers a free three-month program that prepares refugees for employment in the culinary industry.
Brodie felt inspired to start Emma’s Torch after her experiences at the Human Rights Campaign and the Director of Communications at the Israeli Embassy. “I used to work in public policy….I volunteered at homeless shelters when I had this crazy idea that food could do more than nourish people,” Brodie tells Food Tank.
“Food is an amazing thing. It’s an artform and sustenance: [it provides] a fundamental experience and seems like a good way to bring people together.”
At the free program, students receive a US$15 wage, a chef’s knife, and a uniform. During the first month, students learn the basic principles of the American kitchen, develop culinary and communication skills, and study the menu of the restaurant. In their second month, students work different stations in the kitchen. By the third month, students operate as cashiers at Emma’s Torch’s café and cater events. In order to graduate from the program, students design their own menu to present at a celebratory graduation dinner.
In addition to culinary training, the program supplies students with weekly English classes, mock interviews, and job readiness workshops. “We set them up for successful employment in an industry in which their cultural heritage and cuisine can be celebrated. What’s more, we provide a community in which they can build supportive relationships,” states their website.
Graduates from the classes of 2017 and 2018 secured culinary positions at restaurants like Buttermilk Channel, Houseman, and Empellon. Students in homeless shelters moved out of them after the program. Some students aim to bring their families into the United States. “I came with nothing, but now I have everything,” says Naseema, a student from the class of 2017.
The students even affect the atmosphere in the restaurant. “The program creates a fundamentally beautiful dining experience and reminds diners who make the food,” notes Brodie.
During their transitions to the U.S., refugees face many barriers in obtaining jobs, securing a residence, or attaining asylum: including xenophobia and the political climate. Several policies include reducing the number of refugees admitted into the U.S. from 110,000 to 50,000, suspending the U.S. refugee program, and banning Syrian refugees. Brodie tells Food Tank that Emma’s Torch has “not [been] directly impacted yet. We are seeing as things politically become precarious, people are coming to us.”
According to the National Immigration Forum, refugees could improve the economies they work in, particularly in New York City. In 2015 the Office of the State Comptroller conducted a study that measured immigrants’ contribution to the city’s economy. The study found that neighborhoods experiencing the highest business growth had an immigrant population larger than 48 percent. Four of these neighborhoods were situated in Brooklyn—the same borough where Emma’s Torch is located.
“Welcoming in people is better for us as a whole,” says Brodie. “There are many steps, big and small, everything from the level of advocacy to the choices we make when we spend money” that gives rise to the promotion of an environment that is more accepting of refugees.