Emma’s Torch Empowers Refugees With Culinary Training at Home/Made in Red Hook

By Sari Kamin

Walking into the Home/Made café in Red Hook, Brooklyn, I’m greeted with the pungent scents of toasted cumin and coriander. “We’re testing Nepalese fried rice pretzels,” Kerry Brodie tells me, “and for family meal we had falafel burgers.” Brodie is the founder and executive director of Emma’s Torch, a nonprofit social enterprise that provides culinary training for refugees in New York City. At Home/Made, she holds cooking and English classes for refugees and also runs a pop-up brunch each Saturday and Sunday prepared by the students enrolled in the 8-week program.

The cozy, light-soaked restaurant space is filled with interns hunched over laptops and refugees from Nepal, Saudi Arabia, and Guinea working in the kitchen. Students learn English on Thursdays and on Fridays they practice culinary skills. Over the course of the training program, students will acquire the necessary skills to work in a restaurant kitchen, and Brodie and her team help place students in paid cooking jobs after graduation. On the day I visited, students were testing recipes for their upcoming graduation dinner (the eight week program is nearly over) while prepping for the coming weekend’s brunch service.

Brodie, a 26-year-old brunette with quiet confidence, moved to DC after graduating from Princeton University. Her work in public policy left her wondering why there wasn’t someone combining food service with English language classes for refugees. After posing the question several times aloud, her husband turned to her and said, “Why not you?”

“That was 18 months ago,” Brodie told me. She quit her job, moved to New York, and enrolled in culinary school. After running a pilot program in December 2016, Emma’s Torch officially launched in June of this year.

The brunch pop-up café opened the day after students arrived. “By all accounts, we should not have done that,” Brodie said. “I wrote out a 5-year plan of what we wanted this to be, and the truth is in the last year, we’ve really eclipsed all those markers. That was due to the fact that there is so much energy around the refugee crisis right now and so many incredible people who helped us get to this point along the way. And a little bit of just not taking no for an answer.”

I was introduced to a student named Adwa, an energetic 19-year-old from Saudi Arabia who came to the United States in January 2016 with her sister. Adwa said that in Saudi Arabia, she was forced to cover up from head to toe and had to be accompanied by a male guardian if she wanted to leave her house. She is passionate about technology, but despite studying IT in school, she was told she would never be able to work in the industry because there were no jobs available for women.

Adwa loves cooking too, and through Emma’s Torch, she has gained the confidence to work in a restaurant while she figures out which college-level technology courses to apply for. “I want to be a business woman,” she told me. “I want to open a restaurant with traditional Saudi food but I also love Italian food so maybe two restaurants—I don’t know. I love technology and I want to own my own business.”

While family meal at Home/Made is a celebration of the students’ native recipes and flavors, the café’s brunch menu is more standard “American” fare. Popular items include a stellar avocado toast served with a poached egg, smashed fingerling potatoes, and house-baked goods like a chocolate-tahini-banana muffin. Brodie told me that Emma’s Torch students feel empowered by their culinary training and gain confidence when customers finish their plates at the café. This reinforces the feeling they have created something that people genuinely enjoy. “I tell them, ‘I’m not doing you a favor. You are helping to contribute to this really beautiful food community we have created here.’”

At Emma’s Torch, where cooking is a means to communicate across languages, establish community, and train practical skills, food becomes a powerful way for recent immigrants to both assert identity and build the foundations of a new home.

Emma’s Torch at HOME/MADE 
293 Van Brunt Street Brooklyn, NY 11231

Photos: Chia Messina