NEW YORK – The opening of a new restaurant here is hardly a headline-making event, but the launch of Emma’s Torch earlier this month had an unusual flavor. That’s because the kitchen staff at this Brooklyn eatery are refugees, asylum seekers and human-trafficking survivors who are training to work in the American food industry.
Creating a community around food is at the heart of Emma’s Torch. The restaurant, which was initially a pop-up kitchen, teaches professional cooking skills to those who have fled persecution, and then helps them find a job. No prior experience is necessary and the students are all authorized to work.
Founder Kerry Brodie, 27, was working as a communications director in the Israeli Embassy in Washington, and later at the Human Rights Campaign, when she realized she wanted to do something to benefit society. “I felt that by working in public policy – though it was really rewarding – I wasn’t really working with people,” she tells Haaretz.
After volunteering in a homeless-shelter kitchen, she realized that fond memories of cooking with her family weren’t that different from those around her. So she thought, why can’t we use that kind of universal movement experience to create long and lasting change?
Brodie quit her job, entered culinary school and opened a tiny pop-up kitchen in Brooklyn, with two refugee students at a time, learning the basics of the American brunch. But as the demand from both customers and applicants grew, Brodie and her team realized they needed to expand to a permanent space and expose the students to additional types of meals.
Now, eight participants are trained at any given moment and the program aims to graduate 50 to 70 trainees by the end of 2019. During the two-month paid internship, the students learn the secrets of working in a professional kitchen – from how to medium dice a potato to what the main mother sauces are.
Among the organizations that partner with and underwrite Emma’s Torch are the veteran HIAS refugee organization, the International Rescue Committee, Sanctuary for Families and various church-based groups.
But the Emma’s Torch program doesn’t stop there. It also joins forces with local chefs and kitchen managers to integrate the graduates into the New York restaurant scene and helps them find work.
Passionate about diversity
Naseema Bakhshi is a recent graduate who now works at Chelsea Market’s Dizengoff restaurant – one of a number of eateries opened by Israeli-born chef Michael Solomonov – preparing hummus and Israeli salads. A refugee from Afghanistan, she arrived in the United States in 2017 with her six children, and says her co-trainees and new colleagues have become her new extended family.
Her face framed in a colorful hijab, the 42-year-old Afghani is a true hugger, warmly embracing everyone she meets. She says she is grateful for the second chance she got in life.
“I lived in Afghanistan and then Pakistan, where I wasn’t happy. It wasn’t safe, my children couldn’t go to school,” she says while warming chickpeas in a large pot in the Dizengoff kitchen. “I come to New York, I have a job, a home, every person is my friend. I have insurance and Medicaid. I came with nothing, but now I have everything.”
Bakhshi’s new “family members” are truly international. Indeed, applicants come from countries ranging from Syria to Guinea to Venezuela. It is only natural, then, that those leading the Emma’s Torch program find themselves at times on the pupils’ bench.
“We learnt our shakshuka from our students,” Brodie chuckles, referring to the Israeli egg-and-tomato dish. “Naseema taught me about dissolving saffron using ice and how to make chutney kebab.”
Dima Pasiakin, 31, is midway through his training. He fled Russia last year with his husband Michael, after they were prosecuted under the country’s anti-gay legislation, and applied for asylum in the United States. Inspiringly cheerful, he did not let his circumstances halt his aspirations to someday become a chef with his own restaurant. After studying to improve his English, he joined Emma’s Torch.
“The most important part is that we are working there, actually making the food for people,” he says. “In our very first day there we discussed our country’s cuisines, our favorites, and from time to time we cook something that we like, something to share with the others.”
Diversity at Emma’s Torch isn’t just about the places where people come from, but also what they’re passionate about. “For me, it was humbling to realize that actually every student has different tastes and experiences,” Brodie recounts. She adds that she learned her Saudi student actually prefers to prepare Italian dishes and the Syrian refugee’s favorite cuisine is Korean.
Together with Alex Harris, the chef/culinary director, the team has developed a menu that takes into account the basic skills students must acquire to succeed, what’s seasonal and delicious, and what flavor profiles will spark a sense of familiarity that will make them feel at home in a professional setting – and also be appealing to the customer’s palate.
‘Nice Jewish lady with chutzpah’
The “New-American” menu on offer at the restaurant embodies a blend of cultures and includes items as simple as avocado toast and as unique as black-eyed pea hummus. Another popular dish is the pistachio bread pudding, a baklava-inspired dessert (see recipe below).
The idea of kitchen training as a social vehicle for change has been around for a while. Liliyot restaurant in Tel Aviv, where members of staff include at-risk youth, and the socially engaged Sunflower Bakery in Gaithersburg, Maryland, were among Brodie’s inspirations – both of them initiatives that help people help themselves and strengthen the community through food.
“I don’t think of this as a charity, it actually benefits me,” Brodie smiles. “I get to eat delicious food and live in a city that has amazing diverse cuisine – and that’s because we welcome the stranger.”
Brodie considers herself a proud American Jew and Zionist who was raised to fight for a just society. “I think what has strengthened us as a country historically has always been fighting and advocating for refugees,” she says.
It’s no surprise that Brodie named her initiative after Emma Lazarus, the poet whose 1883 sonnet “The New Colossus” is engraved on the Statue of Liberty – or, as Brodie calls her, “a nice Jewish lady with chutzpah.”
The Emma’s Torch team sees its work as a way of securing Lazarus’ legacy. “What makes us a great and a strong nation is welcoming people,” says Brodie, herself a child of South African immigrants and great-granddaughter of Lithuanian refugees.
“This is an important reminder that people share a common humanity,” she concludes. “My memories of cooking with my mother aren’t that different from the memories of the student from Saudi Arabia cooking with her mother. And if people can remember that, then I hope they can remember we should be building bridges and not walls.”