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Emma's Torch builds community with refugee culinary training program

"Food creates conversations and builds bridges between people," founder Kerry Brodie says.

The menu at Emma's Torch is New American

The menu at Emma's Torch is New American with global influences. Photo Credit: Giada Randaccio Skouras Sweeny

From the front, Emma’s Torch looks pretty much like any other Brooklyn restaurant: whitewashed brick walls, wide windows, metal cafe chairs, long and narrow communal tables. But behind the scenes, everything is different.

Staffed by refugees learning professional kitchen skills in an accelerated in-restaurant program, the nonprofit restaurant is unlike any other in America.

Started last year with a brunch-only pop-up in Red Hook, Emma’s Torch relocated to a permanent home in Carroll Gardens in May, where it's open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday and weekend brunch.

In the kitchen, a cohort of five students hailing from across the globe (Haiti, Vietnam, Syria, Afghanistan, Honduras and beyond) learns restaurant and culinary skills that, in eight weeks, will prepare them to cook in New York City kitchens.

Founder Kerry Brodie had the idea for the concept while working in public policy in Washington D.C.

“I kept thinking about how someone should do this, and my husband finally said that someone should be me,” Brodie recalls.

So she quit her job in May 2016, enrolled in the Institute of Culinary Education and started building a community of supporters, including Rachael Ray and Roland Foods, to get her nonprofit off the ground.

“Food creates conversations and builds bridges between people,” Brodie says of her motivation to pursue Emma’s Torch, named after New York writer — and the Statue of Liberty’s inscription poet — Emma Lazarus.

Hands-on training

Emma’s Torch brings on a new group of five students each month. Culinary director Alexander Harris’ primary goal is to “teach independence” and familiarize students with the vocabulary and movements of a working kitchen, like an apprenticeship.

“Working in the culinary industry is all about repetition and muscle memory,” he says.

He’s not hovering over students to make sure they execute perfect knife skills, but rather encouraging them to make mistakes and repeat, repeat, repeat until the language and motion of restaurant cooking is truly internalized.

After a one-week orientation followed by two weeks of vigorous culinary lessons, students are ready to start working brunch or dinner service one day a week. Like any restaurant kitchen, Emma’s Torch works to minimize food waste, so intro-choppers may be cutting ingredients to be used in a sauce, while those with “more prescient knife skills will chop for a composed salad,” Kerry explains. By the second month, students work restaurant service full-time, and a new class comes in to start the program.

“It can be overwhelming,” Harris says of the accelerated program.

The seasonally changing menu is all based on learning techniques necessary for a professional kitchen job. A fall chicken confit teaches students how to cure and confit, and shaved and charred beets tucked into a swoop of hummus is all about using a vegetable in three different ways.

Menu's influence

The menu is New American — which Harris, a Union Square Hospitality Group alum, is very familiar with — but the dishes are influenced by the students from around the globe. Ras el hanout, a North African spice, Aleppo chili from Syria and tahini from the Middle East “make the menu and environment a little more familiar,” Harris says.

Brodie says the restaurant’s success, of course, is based on the job placement of graduates, and the program has seen alums go on to work at The Dutch, SoHo House, Houseman and other renowned New York kitchens.

And like any restaurant, it’s also dependent on customers, many of whom have become regulars in the months since the Carroll Gardens opening and are selling out Emma Torch's monthly graduation dinners.

“Our guests keep coming back and our students are doing phenomenally well,” she says.

IF YOU GO

  • Kerry Brodie and Alexander Harris are in conversation with Francine Segan about Emma's Torch on Monday at 7 p.m. at the 92nd Street Y | 1395 Lexington Ave. | tickets $29 at 92y.org
  • The next Emma's Torch graduation dinners are Nov. 13 and Dec. 13 | 345 Smith St., Carroll Gardens | reservations at resy.com | for more info, visit emmastorch.org

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