It’s 6 p.m. on a Tuesday and the two-tops at Emma’s Torch, an airy white-walled restaurant on a leafy corner in brownstone Brooklyn, have been rearranged to form a single long table that’s dotted with vases of Peruvian lilies from the bodega down the street. A menu has been specially prepared for the night’s event—Graduation Dinner No. 3—and cooks Nagela Moise, Caroline Mbanga, and Kesnel Joseph have traded their aprons for their favorite civilian clothes. Founder Kerry Brodie has already turned away several prospective customers, who may have been enticed by the New American menu of black-eyed pea hummus and herb-roasted chicken with harissa—or by the prominent lettering on the side window: Empowering Refugees Through Culinary Education.
Emma’s Torch—named for Emma Lazarus, whose famous words are inscribed on the Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”)—is a nonprofit social enterprise. Part restaurant and part culinary-training program, it hires new New Yorkers—refugees, asylum seekers, or survivors of human trafficking—for a two-month paid apprenticeship before helping them find meaningful careers in the restaurant industry. For the first four weeks, trainees learn critical food-prep skills: how to read a recipe and measure ingredients, dice onions, debone a chicken. For the next four weeks, they work the line, juggling the demands of the dinner rush while absorbing lessons in communication and leadership.
“We have a lot of women who have never worked outside the home and are generally shy,” says Brodie. “I’ll stand on the other side of the restaurant and make them call out the dishes to me. They think I’m kidding. I’m like, ‘No, I really want you to yell!’”
After nearly 400 hours of training, Caroline, Nagela, and Kesnel are walking out of this boot camp with professional kitchen shoes, a chef’s knife, and jobs—all three will start entry-level cooking gigs at a buzzy new rooftop restaurant in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. Previous grads have landed at prestigious New York City eateries Marc Forgione and the Dutch. “Employers are not hiring our students as charity,” says Brodie, who remains a resource for alumni after they enter the working world. “Our students have already worked in a restaurant. They are trained and ready.”
Alexander Harris, a chef and the restaurant’s culinary director, explains that for many students, the life skills they pick up at Emma’s Torch are just as crucial to their success as the top-notch knife skills. “It’s not just culinary,” Harris says. “Our intention is to get them to independence, so they step out these doors and spread their wings and fly.”
For tonight’s party, friends and family join the grads to enjoy traditional dishes from their home countries: Haitian-style chicken with black rice; fumbwa, a Congolese stew, made here with collard greens; and pain patate, a sweet potato bread. Also in attendance are counselors from the YMCA New Americans Initiative, one of a number of organizations—including the International Rescue Committee, Catholic Charities, and Refugee and Immigrant Fund—that Emma’s Torch partners with to find candidates for its program.
It’s an emotional evening for everyone, but for the students in particular. Fighting back tears as she holds up her graduation certificate for her young daughter to see, Nagela repeats the affirmation that she’s learned in the last eight weeks, one she hopes will propel her toward her goal of becoming a famous chef: “You can.”