Best Brunch in Brooklyn - Brooklyn Based

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The best brunch in Brooklyn serves more than just avocado toast
— Lizz Schumer, Brooklyn Based

The best brunch in Brooklyn serves more than just avocado toast

BY LIZZ SCHUMER

Home/Made has always been a “living room away from home,” as Monica Byrne, owner and chef, describes it. She opened the Van Brunt street cafe and wine bar in 2006, as a way to serve the Red Hook community. This summer, the restaurant embraced an even wider community by opening its doors to Emma’s Torch, a not-for-profit that empowers refugees through culinary training. Students prepare brunch on weekends and take classes at Home/Made during the week.

The second Emma’s Torch cohort graduated the last week in August, with two culinary students and eight ESL students. Graduate Adwa Alsubaie, from Saudi Arabia, said the program helped her jump right into a career in the culinary industry.

“I learned a lot, like how to sharpen the knife, and the tools in English, recipes, and how you work in a restaurant kitchen,” Alsubaie explained. She added that from her first day as a line cook at The Dutch, where she now works, she was able to excel and feel confident because of her Emma’s Torch training.

“Our mission is to empower refugees through culinary education,” Kerry Brodie, founder of Emma’s Torch said. “Our aim is to ensure that the newest members of our community can access the culinary industry, and build meaningful careers. It is not about simply training, but also about showing our students that what they contribute matters, and that they can play a vital role in our culinary landscape.”

The program is named for poet, activist, and advocate Emma Lazarus, whose poem is inscribed on the Statue of Liberty.

Long before Brodie launched the program, she nurtured twin passions for helping refugees and the culinary world. She graduated from the Institute of Culinary Education and earned a master’s in government from Johns Hopkins University and a bachelor’s in near Eastern studies from Princeton, and has worked as the global press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign and the director of communications at the Israeli Embassy. For Brodie, Emma’s Torch answers Anne Frank’s quiet call to action, “How wonderful is it that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world?”

The eight-week, paid apprenticeship program provides refugees with work experience and accelerated English language courses tailored toward the food industry. Each culinary cohort is made up of two students and one instructor, so there’s a great deal of individual attention. The curriculum was designed in collaboration with a Chef’s Council of chefs and culinary organizations. Those include James Briscione of the Institute of Culinary Education, Jennifer Claire of Home Cooking New York, Mary Cleaver of The Cleaver Co., Jenny Dorsey of Jenny Dorsey Culinary Consulting, Dini Klein of Dini Delivers, Kimberly Lerner of Culinary Agents, as well as Eataly and The Chef Agency. Expert training ensures that the students learn all of the skills they need to transition into a professional kitchen.

Emma’s Torch also runs a separate, 12-week ESL classes through ESL Works, a professional ESL training company that caters specifically to food industry professionals. While the ESL and culinary program do not overlap directly, the language skills students gain also help them transition into the restaurant industry by helping break down language barriers that make it more difficult to succeed in the workplace.

Applicants to Emma’s Torch come from referrals from one of the program’s partner refugee resettlement agencies, followed by interviews to select applicants.

“[The interviews are] my least favorite part, since I wish we could take on more students,” said Brodie. “Hopefully over time, we will be able to.”

There is no English proficiency test to participate, but students must have a baseline understanding of the language, since courses are taught in English. Participants must have authorization to work in the United States, but no prior kitchen experience is required.

“Our students and applicants come from all over the world,” said Brodie. “Our first graduates were from Saudi Arabia and Nepal and our [recent graduates] are from Mexico and Afghanistan. Our ESL students are from many different countries, including West Africa, South America, and the Middle East. Some arrived just a few months ago, others have been here for a few years. What bonds them is their passion for the cooking and bringing people together through food.”

Emma’s Torch’s brunch is served Saturdays and Sundays, 9am to 2pm, and the menu is devised to reflect the skills the students are learning and to highlight unique flavors from their own experiences. A recent menu featured the requisite avocado toast and Greek yogurt parfait, along with a mouthwatering selection of baked goods. The shakshuka, a Middle Eastern specialty with heirloom tomatoes, mixed peppers, feta cheese, garlic confit, onion rings, and saffron-spiced toast is a standout that marries the cafe’s commitment to local produce and the regional flavors the refugees cooks bring from home.

“The food is wonderful. It’s a combination of fresh brunch classics, and specials influenced by the participants, foods from their countries of origin,” explained Byrne. The menu evolves and changes as new students go through the program, allowing all participants to learn from one another.

Like the community itself, Home/Made’s story is one of resurrection. After Hurricane Sandy, Home/Made had to rebuild. In the course of that project, the restaurant’s focus changed to catering, but Byrne wanted to preserve to space as a place to foster community and local ambitions.

“I knew that there was someone out there like me, 15 years ago who would love to have the opportunity, but maybe couldn’t afford to build out a space, just like I couldn’t when I first dreamed of opening,,” Byrne explained.

To learn more about Emma’s Torch, make reservations, or see the newest menu, visit www.emmastorch.org.

We're in Fast Company!

Ben Paynter of Fast Company told our story in the "Future of Philanthropy" section of the magazine. Check it out here, or below!

Combining skill training with a menu filled with recipes from its cooks home countries, Emma’s Torch wants to offer refugees a chance in America’s kitchens.
— Ben Paynter, Fast Company
  • 09.05.17

This Pop-Up Restaurant Trains Refugee Chefs While It Serves Their Delicious Food

Combining skill training with a menu filled with recipes from its cooks home countries, Emma’s Torch wants to offer refugees a chance in America’s kitchens.

BY BEN PAYNTER

The menu at the Emma’s Torch Classroom Cafe, a pop-up brunch spot in Brooklyn, features hip staples like poached eggs with avocado toast and a more exotic variation called shakshuka, which has heirloom tomatoes, garlic confit, and mixed peppers alongside saffron toast.

Shakshuka is a classic North African and Middle Eastern dish that pays homage to some of the people cooking at the cafe: refugees, people seeking asylum, and human trafficking survivors, who are working there as part of a culinary program that launched this June. The school and eatery are partnered to give students a free chance to learn cooking skills and practice them in a real restaurant, boosting their work experience so they can go on to get jobs in the restaurant industry.

All told, students at Emma’s Torch spend 200 hours over eight weeks–mostly on eight-hour shifts on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. On the first day, they practice cooking skills and perfect the recipes on that week’s rotating menu. For the next two, they’re cooking under pressure: The pop-up seats 40 people total, but the classes are small. The school trains only two people at a time.

The group is named after the poet and activist Emma Lazarus, whose famous words, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” are inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. “Something that is so fundamental to who we are as a country is this idea that we are founded to be a haven, a refuge, and a place for people of every background to come together,” says founder and executive director Kerry Brodie. “And so we wanted to carry on that same ethos . . . into our work today.”

To do that, the group coordinates with refugee resettlement agencies, including Church World Service, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, and International Rescue Committee, to find candidates who are interested in culinary careers. “What we’re looking for when we bring on students is a passion for food but not necessarily a food background,” says Brodie.

Lessons cover things like knife skills, kitchen movement, how to follow and scale recipes, dish plating techniques, and how to improvise when necessary in ways that maintain consistent and quality food. At the end of its program, Emma’s Torch ensures all workers are licensed for food handling. It also offers a separate ESL program focused on cooking terminology to make kitchen life easier.

Career wise, those skills are adaptable to many jobs in the food service industry. To make connections to those jobs easier to find, Emma’s Torch has also recruited a “Chefs Council” of prominent instructors, chefs, recruiters, and business owners across the industry, which also shape and audit their curriculum, offer job leads, and help the nonprofit grow. The roster includes James Briscione, the director of culinary development at the Institute of Culinary Education, and Michael Vigna, the head of restaurant staffing firm The Chef Agency.

The pop up is currently slated to run through December 2017, at which point, the group will go looking for a larger space to expand its class size and how many people the concept can serve. Brodie considers the apprentice aspect essential.

The idea sprang from a much shorter pilot that Brodie ran in December 2016, which was just 18 hours and focused primarily on technique at the expense job readiness and the placement component. Since then, two of those candidates have had either medical or family issues that have kept them from working. The third was hired, but she foresaw and uphill battle for taking the program mainstream.

By December, Emma’s Torch will have run five separate training sessions. Of the first two graduates, who finished in July, one has earned a job at upscale eatery, The Dutch, while another is working in a small Japanese restaurant. The graduates of the latest class, which graduated September 3, have both already received job offers.

Eventually, Brodie would like to reach about 50 students per year. By the end of 2017, she projects that revenue from meal checks will cover only 15% to 20% the group’s overall costs–its operating budget is about $200,000–with the rest coming from grants, individual donors, and corporations.

In a bigger space with more cooks, and as they refine their processes, she hopes to see that percentage increase substantially, which would make the nonprofit more self-sustaining. (The group also lowers ingredient costs by accepting food donations.) For diners, she hopes each dish serves as a humanitarian message. “You know that person who made the most delicious avocado toast you’ve ever tasted? They’re a refugee and they’re a human being,” she adds. “We should treat our refugees like human beings.”

Emma's Torch Featured in Business Insider and Economics 21!

Check out this great story about Emma's Torch and how refugees fill important roles in the food industry in New York. It started on Economics 21, part of the Manhattan Institute for Public Policy, and got picked up by a number of publications including Business Insider