It’s been a busy couple of weeks for Kerry Brodie. She met Jeff Bezos, won the Princeton Entrepreneurship Network Competition (prize: $10,000), opened a café (that was packed to the gills on its opening weekend) and became registered as a nonprofit on Amazon Smile. Oh, and she celebrated her birthday. But what’s all of that after a year of 5 am (or earlier) wake-up calls to spend the mornings at culinary school and the afternoons working at restaurant internships and simultaneously creating and building a nonprofit?
Brodie, who, full disclosure, is a friend of mine, is the founder and executive director of Emma’s Torch, a New York-based organization that trains refugees to be culinary professionals and arms them with the tools to find work at restaurants and food businesses, where skilled line cooks are always in demand. The organization is named for Emma Lazarus, whose words “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” are inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty.
Brodie grew up in a food-loving family in Potomac. Her parents and grandparents came to the DC area from South Africa, and her grandmother, previously a caterer, taught her the essentials of cooking and hosting. “I come from a family that’s always in the kitchen, always thinking about how to accommodate everyone and make them feel welcome,” she says.
She attended Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School and then Princeton. After graduating, she worked in media at the Embassy of Israel and the Human Rights Campaign, while also getting a master’s in government from Johns Hopkins University.
“I was working in public policy, but in my free time I was volunteering at a homeless shelter and preparing meals for women with HIV. I kept thinking, ‘How we can use food to build bridges and create communities?’ and I kept asking why there wasn’t an organization creating culinary workforce opportunities for refugees. One day my husband turned that question on me and asked, ‘What would it take for you to create an organization like that?’” A year ago, she enrolled at the Institute of Culinary Education and began laying the foundation for Emma’s Torch.
Emma’s Torch works with four organizations—HIAS, Catholic Charities Community Services, Church World Service and International Rescue Committee—to identify and interview refugees for its two programs. In both, students are paid because “I really want students to be able to focus on and take advantage of the program.”
The first program is a five-week apprenticeship that trains two students at a time, giving them 150 to 200 hours of culinary training and licensing, as well as ESL classes and interview prep. The second is a once-a-week, 12-week ESL training for eight to 12 students that focuses on kitchen English and aims to build vocabulary and confidence in students so that they can go on to work in a kitchen.
On June 10, Emma’s Torch opened its Classroom Café, a six-month pop-up at Home/Made Brooklyn in Red Hook. Open for coffee and pastries during the week and brunch on weekends, the café, as its name hints, gives Emma’s Torch students valuable on-the-job training and a chance to practice their English. The weekly menu changes based on what the students are learning. Opening-week diners, for example, enjoyed hash browns that used the students’ dicing skills.
Besides the great feedback on the food, Brodie is thrilled that just six months after launching the first Emma’s Torch program, she has a café and a great training space.
“I had a theory that you could fill a restaurant with refugees. People who come to the Classroom Café don’t know that our kitchen is staffed by refugees until they look at the back of the menu. We’re proving that we can have a room full of people from different walks of life sharing a meal in a respectful way,” says Brodie.
Emma’s Torch Classroom Café at Home/Made Brooklyn, 293 Van Brunt Street, Brooklyn, NY, Monday–Friday 9 am–5 pm, Saturday and Sunday 10 am–3 pm. Not kosher.
Top photo: Kerry Brodie (second from right) works with students in her program. All photos courtesy of Emma’s Torch.