The newest restaurant in Brooklyn has a mission beyond serving seasonal fare — it doubles as a training program for refugees.
Emma’s Torch, formerly a pop-up, opens this week in the former Wilma Jean space in Carroll Gardens, at 345 Smith St. near Carroll Street, offering a menu with dishes like herb-roasted chicken with harissa and grilled branzino with pepper stew.
But founder Kerry Brodie’s idea started long before this opening. She founded Emma’s Torch as a pop-up after volunteering at a homeless shelter, where her favorite part of the day was serving breakfast. “The women in the shelter would talk about cooking and the food from home,” she says. “I became intrigued by the idea of using food to do more than just feed people. Maybe we could use food to nourish and empower them.”
She eventually quit her communications job at the Human Rights Campaign and went to culinary school, graduating in May 2017. One month later, Brodie opened a pop-up cafe in Red Hook, with chef Alexander Harris (Union Square Hospitality Group, The Pierre Hotel) as culinary director.
They devised a professional development program for refugees, asylees and survivors of human trafficking: a two-month paid apprenticeship providing culinary training, English lessons, and upon graduation, a job in the restaurant industry. Partner organizations like refugee resettlement services and advocacy groups refer people to the program, and then Emma’s Torch connects its students to a network of NYC restaurants for jobs.
It worked. Over six months, they trained eight students, who are now working the line in kitchens across the city including at the Dutch, Little Park, and Chelsea Market’s Dizengoff.
But perhaps even more importantly, people seemed to like the food that the cafe was putting out, she says. “About 70 percent of the guests didn’t know what Emma’s Torch was; they were walking in because they read a great Yelp review and wanted to have a really nice brunch,” says Brodie. They decided to expand to a larger, permanent space in Carroll Gardens and add dinner service. On May 16, the new Emma’s Torch opens on Smith Street in a glass-walled corner space.
The bright, cheerful interiors were done by Rachael Ray’s home designer Michael Murray, who also supplied the furnishings. Names of partner organizations and donors are engraved on wooden spoons hanging from the walls, alongside a collage of vintage labels from Roland Foods, which supplies much of the product being prepared in the open kitchen.
The cuisine is seasonal American and designed to familiarize the students with the flavors and ingredients of their adopted home. Still, there are nods to some of their places of origin in the form of shawarma spice on the lamb shank or a sticky tamarind glaze on the barbecue wings. And then there’s the signature black eyed pea hummus, which infuses a classic American ingredient into a Middle Eastern recipe. Take a look at a full menu below.
It’s an apt metaphor for students like Mazen Khoury, who moved here from Syria five years ago and is currently halfway through the two-month training program. Although Khoury owned a restaurant in Syria, he could only find jobs at Arabic and Turkish restaurants in Brooklyn despite a goal of working in fine dining. It was only after his sister heard about the Emma’s Torch program and applied on his behalf for his birthday that he started receiving formal culinary training.
The first lesson he learned at Emma’s Torch? Punctuality. “The first two days I didn’t come on time and they sent me home. Now I try to show up half an hour early,” he says.
Front-of-house staff here are regular paid staff, separate from the culinary training program. But even there, where possible, the restaurant hires people from disenfranchised communities, such as refugees or from the Exodus Project, a program that assists young people affected by the justice/correctional system.
But the kitchen staff is nearly all students in the two-month culinary program, with the exception of chef Harris. When Khoury graduates, he wants to work in a fine dining French or Italian restaurant, and since Emma’s Torch works with partners like Andrew Carmellini’s Noho Hospitality Group, that goal is very much within his reach. For now, he’ll concentrate on perfecting the beer-braised brisket and blueberry buttermilk pancakes at Emma’s Torch.