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A Brooklyn organization is turning refugees in NYC into chefs

Written by
Richard Morgan

In our farm-to-bougie age when seemingly every menu and foodie gushes over the life story of every meal—the sourcing, the farm conditions, the prep—there is still an ironic pool of culinary ignorance: knowledge about the cooks themselves. Barely seen, and heard even less, we can often apply our empathy least to the most human components of the kitchen. Emma’s Torch, a nonprofit organization founded in June and named after the poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty (by Emma Lazarus, it reads, in part, “give us your tired, your poor”), has come a long way to bridging that gap—and made a splash with some high-profile restaurants along the way. 

In eight-week batches of two graduates in each class, they’ve taught culinary skills to eight asylum seekers, refugees, and survivors of human trafficking, as well as hosting a 12-week English-as-a-second-language program to classes of six. Students have gone on to score interviews and offers from such prestigious venues as Del Posto and Union Square Hospitality Group. Some graduates have a job at The Dutch or White Mustache. Graduates end up with about 200 hours of training, including an apprenticeship at Emma’s Torch Cafe, in the Red Hook space owned by Home/Made, which pays $15 an hour during the training period. 

“I see the best and the worst of humanity,” says Kerry Brodie, executive director of Emma’s Torch, who quit her job as the global press secretary of the Human Rights Campaign, went to culinary school and launched Emma’s. “I realized food can be a conduit for social justice,” she said. “We’re here for our students. We’re the first people asking them what their dreams are and what they want. We offer a sense of dignity and accountability, but also a sense of just being welcome to come as you are.” More than money, though: the training puts a fire in their bellies.

Nadia—a graduate of the program who, for security reasons, can only be identified by her first name—is still acclimatizing to acts as simple as baking. “In my country of Pakistan, most women are not doing the baking jobs. It’s weird in my country for a woman to bake,” she said (she had been a journalist reporting on the Taliban on the Afghan border). “I was always scared to bake. I had an oven and a microwave, but every cook I saw on TV was a man. I thought, no, these baked items cannot come from my oven. I had a—what’s the word? inferiority complex—because I didn’t have a professional oven like you see on TV. These cooking shows could not have come out of my kitchen.” She exhaled deeply and adjusted her headscarf before continuing: “Now I am a cook. Cooking is my passion. I made a lavash. It’s a salty, crispy Arabic snack. I made it. And it made me a cook. It’s not weird anymore. I’m not weird anymore. I’m proud of who I have become in Emma’s Torch.” 

For Boubacar Diallo, a political refugee from Guinea, it was a simple granola of pumpkin seeds and almonds that helped him shape his identity as a chef. Now he works at Little Park, cooking up hyperlocal shakshukas. He wore a pressed velvet jacket to a recent graduation dinner where he served squash and raisin chirchi, among other dishes.

“I am a chef,” he said, before pausing, seemingly stuck on his words, and continuing: “This is the first time I’ve introduced myself as a chef,” he smiled. “Do you mind if I do it again? I am a chef.”

At that dinner, where Nadia graduated as well, Lior Sev Sercarz, a chef at La Boîte on the Upper West Side, and Txitkito’s Alex Raij handled the kitchen while Nadia and Diallo made the rounds, hugging and handshaking through the crowd. Dope Olympoe, a dishwasher and refugee from Togo, eyed them studiously. She is planning on starting culinary classes during its next batch. “Today I cook for my children,” she said. “But one day I will cook for a room full of strangers. To give your best to strangers is how this city works.”

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