Brooklyn restaurant teaches refugees culinary skills

CARROLL GARDENS, Brooklyn — In the spirit of the Statue of Liberty and poet Emma Lazarus, Emma's Torch in Carroll Gardens welcomes all.

The non-profit restaurant and workforce development program educates refugees through culinary education. Creator Kerry Brodie started the restaurant as a pop-up in Red Hook after a career in public policy and volunteering at a homeless shelter.

"We're just really hopeful that we can help them see a better side of humanity," Brodie said. "A side that believes in them and wants them to succeed."

Brodie's conversations with women staying at the homeless shelter she volunteered at inspired her to start Emma's Torch.

"I would talk to the women there about their memories of cooking and of eating and what foods they enjoyed," she said. "It just made me think about the fact that these memories that these women had aren't that dissimilar to the memories I have with my mother."

So after some encouragement from her husband, Brodie went to culinary school, focused on creating a restaurant where members of the community could share their food and learn.

"I had so much to learn," she said.

Students at Emma's Torch take part in the two month training and education program. They're paid whether they're in the classroom or the kitchen. They learn everything from knife skills to interview prep.

"It's like a combination of what you would learn in culinary school and also what you need to access the job market in the US," Brodie said.

Culinary Director Alexander Harris of Union Square Hospitality Group leads the training in the kitchen. Harris said he jumped at the chance to be a part of the program.

"I thought that it was a great way to give back to the industry that made me the person that I am today," he said.

Each of the refugees starts their own culinary career, with a little help from the restaurant, after they finish their education at Emma's Torch.

"Whether it's as a culinary assistant instructor for a student who really wants to be a teacher or working in a high-end French restaurant for a student who really wants to work in fine dining, we have a wide network of supportive chefs that we send our students to," Brodie said,

The program lights a fire under each of the students, Harris said. He's able to watch them move from finding their way around the kitchen to running around the restaurant in just eight weeks.

"That's the best part of being here and teaching in this program is to see that transformation each day," he said.