Emma’s Torch, located on a sundrenched corner in the Carroll Gardens neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, is more than just a restaurant.
With its intimate seating, open views into the kitchen area, and decor of hanging wooden spoons — each one representing a supporter in the community — Emma's Torch exudes a familial vibe and makes the spirit of inclusion feel as tangible as the entrees on the menu, which is inspired by an array of cultural cuisines that changes with each chef-in-residence.
It’s also a place where students enroll to undertake a 400-hour culinary apprenticeship that teaches essential professional and food industry skills.
The apprenticeship is open to people who have recently arrived to the US as refugees, asylum seekers, or survivors of trafficking. In the five years since the program's inception, Emma’s Torch has trained more than 150 students, many of whom come from West Africa or Central America and, more recently, from Afghanistan and Ukraine.
Each student has their own story and unique circumstances that brought them to the US. While some may have never worked outside the home before, or others worked in entirely different industries, each student is committed to building lives, for themselves and their families, that are independent, dignified, and fulfilling.
“The refugee experience is not one single moment,” Kerry Brodie, founder and executive director of Emma’s Torch, told Global Citizen. “It’s not just the crisis you’re fleeing, not just the intermediary steps, not just arrival here.”
Through the Emma’s Torch Culinary Training Program, students are taught food industry core competencies, like knife skills, and develop broader professional skills, such as resume writing and tech literacy. There’s cooking, too, of course, and the meals on the teaching menu are curated by the culinary director, Chef Alexander Harris, to exercise students’ curiosity and build a repertoire of cooking skills to master.
The menu is a jumping-off point for conversations around sustainable sourcing of ingredients and supporting local producers.
“We balance skills and fundamentals so that when our students walk out our doors, we know they can get a job, but we also want to foster confidence and creativity so they realize that the knowledge they bring with them matters,” said Brodie.
That creativity is unleashed at the students’ graduation dinner, a kind of capstone evening where the menu is entirely designed and prepared by the soon-to-be alumni. If the evening’s dinner is an exam, then its only instructions are “cook what you know, cook what you love, cook what feeds your soul.”
When asked if students use that graduation dinner to showcase a classic meal from their home country, Brodie explained that students more often choose something more surprising, like giving a familiar American dish a culturally inspired twist or fusing two spice blends into something entirely new.
The result is an arrangement of flavors that perfectly harmonizes with the choreography of a busy kitchen — one of Brodie’s favorite sights at Emma’s Torch.
Cooking Up Solutions
The Culinary Training Program positions its students for success not just by fostering professional skills, but also in targeting such a critical industry in New York.
In New York State, the restaurant industry accounts for about 20% of the state’s total job growth, making the industry a promising one for refugees seeking employment.
While the culinary industry itself has been undergoing a reckoning around what steps need to be taken to safeguard equity, fairness, and inclusion, Emma’s Torch aims to partner specifically with restaurants and industry leaders who provide mentorship and promote positive workspaces.
If the proof of the pudding is in the eating, then one can enjoy the impact of Emma’s Torch’s recipe to the taste of 96% of job-seeking graduates gaining employment, and plans to expand the program well underway.
There is an accumulation of challenges and traumas each refugee faces that can make the journey to leave their country of origin just as difficult and dangerous as living in it. These challenges can't be solved by a single, isolated solution, but the compensation the students receive through the apprenticeship, at $15 per hour, is one targeted and essential measure, as it establishes an earning background and entitles participants to benefits like unemployment.
Yet for many refugee families, additional challenges remain, such as supporting family members back home or finding affordable child care. Empowering people to build new lives takes a network of support. Fortunately, Emma’s Torch can draw on the experience of about 70 referral partners, which include social workers and dedicated refugee organizations like HAIS, that can weigh in on best practices.
Anyone who has shared a meal has likely experienced the power food plays in building community. Brodie credits an outpouring of community support as an essential ingredient to the restaurant’s earliest success, suggesting that it comes from the shared feeling that “we are at our absolute best when we are able to welcome newcomers.”
At Emma’s Torch, the spirit of community development is whisked into a virtuous cycle where giving back is a key element to the program, too. Brodie said that one of the most exciting community connections is the apprenticeship program’s partnership with Rethink, a nonprofit committed to reducing food insecurity.
Through this partnership, Emma’s Torch’s students have cooked more than 21,000 meals to combat food insecurity in the New York Metropolitan area. It's an example of the myriad ways refugees strengthen their communities.
"A lot of times our students are on the receiving end of support, and the act of realizing that what you do can contribute to others is incredibly empowering," Brodie said.
A Year of Humanitarian Crises
World Refugee Day, celebrated each year on June 20, was designated by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, to highlight not only the challenges or dangers that come with fleeing home, but also to celebrate resilience and honor families’ plights.
“There’s so much pain and suffering that goes into becoming a refugee, and so what Emma’s Torch tries to highlight is not just the circumstances that have applied this label to individuals, but rather the resilience and the optimism and the hope that people can have,” said Brodie, reflecting on what the day meant to her this year.
The refugee experience is not monolithic, and there are a wide range of challenges that make it difficult to resettle somewhere new. Initiatives like Emma’s Torch seek to find a way to humanize the refugee experience — through the experience of food.
Food transcends all borders and boundaries; you don’t need to be able to share a language in order to share a meal, and creativity in the kitchen offers the opportunity to bring together spices and scents as unique as the chefs behind them.
Perhaps that point is best made through Emma’s Torch's current "Ice Cream Flavor of the Month": Emma’s Torchili Mango, a creamy mango sorbet with tamarind and Urfa chili swirled throughout, created and named by the students at Emma’s Torch as a nod to their homelands.
Since World Refugee Day 2021, the world has seen more major humanitarian crises erupt across the world, notably in Ukraine and Afghanistan. Today, UNHCR estimates that more than 100 million people are displaced across the globe, up from 89.3 million in 2021 — and this number is only growing.
Consider taking time to learn about the array of refugee crises that desperately need your attention and support:
5.8 million Palestinian refugees, who remain unjustly displaced across Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, depend on the support of UNRWA, a UN Agency currently facing a serious budget crisis.
Following the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, more than 130,000 Afghans were relocated. A total of 2.6 million Afghans have been displaced from their homes after Kabul’s fall to the Taliban. The country’s already desperate humanitarian situation further deteriorated on June 22, following Afghanistan’s deadliest earthquake in the last 20 years, with the current death toll standing at more than 1,000 people.
More than 13 million people have fled their homes since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Of these, more than 5.1 million have been recorded across Europe, while 8 million people are internally displaced.
In the United Kingdom, the Nationality and Borders Act aims to deport an uncapped number of single asylum seekers to Rwanda, despite the UK's own record of human rights violations, including abuses against LGBTQ+ people. Despite the first flight being stopped by the hard work of activists and an injunction issued by the European Court of Human Rights, the UK Parliament is now considering legislation to double down, through an amendment to the Bill of Rights that would allow the UK to ignore rulings by the ECHR.
Take action with Global Citizen right now and tell world leaders why you're standing up for refugees everywhere.