BY MAGGIE MALLON
FEBRUARY 15, 2017 8:30 AM
On a snowy December Sunday, in a sleek, expansive training kitchen in midtown Manhattan, Kerry Brodie, 26, is leading her second-ever cooking class. As she prepares the lesson plan, the novelty of the situation isn't lost on her: Brodie is not actually an instructor, nor has she yet received her culinary degree. Instead, she’s currently a student at the Institute of Culinary Education, a major life change for her after nearly five years in politics and policy.
Aside from her studies, she has one other major project on her plate. She’s the founder and executive director of Emma’s Torch, a New York–based nonprofit dedicated to providing refugees with culinary skills, ESL tutoring, and interview training to prepare them for jobs in the food industry. And on this Sunday she’s managing the second six-hour class in an 18-hour pilot program meant to serve as a guide for the launch of the Emma’s Torch full instructional program, scheduled to take off in the late spring or early summer of 2017.
For the second class, Brodie was slated to receive some additional instructional help from chef Mandy Maxwell, a woman whose résumé boasts stints at prestigious New York restaurants like Per Se and Eleven Madison Park, as well as projects with Food and Wine magazine and the Food Network. But in an unexpected turn of events, Maxwell is out sick, and today it is up to Brodie to lead the way.
At the counter stand Brodie's students, a trio of refugees and asylum seekers who have connected with Brodie through the International Rescue Committee and have each overcome their own unimaginable challenges to find sanctuary in the United States.
One of them is Vallerie Fall, 32, who came to the United States from Senegal as a refugee in 2015. After her mother came to America when she was young, Fall spent most of her life in the West African country with her two sisters and brother. Describing her life in Senegal as “very good,” she attended university and even owned her own restaurant back home. She always longed to be reunited with her mother, but just eight months after Fall and her family began building a life together in the United States, her mother passed away. Now married and the mother of a year-old son, Fall was able to find work making strainers at a housewares factory in the Bronx, but merging her own culinary experience from her life in Senegal with the restaurant world of New York City has long been her dream—one that she’s hoping to realize through Emma’s Torch.
Next to her is Cisse Tiguira, an asylee from Côte d’Ivoire who traveled to the United States when she was just a teenager. Like Fall, she was separated from her parents at a young age. After her mother and father left their war-torn home country for a better life in the United States, Tiguira was able to join them three years later. Cooking was always an important part of her family life; Tiguira spent hours preparing meals with her grandmother and has carried this tradition into her her own family life. Now 23, married, and the mother to two young children, Tiguira has found work as a dishwasher for the Landmarc restaurant and doing food delivery for Eat Offbeat since she first arrived in the United States in 2008. Her true hope, however, is to be a chef and find full-time work in a kitchen.
Rounding out the triumvirate is Elio Torres, an asylee from Venezuela. At 52, he’s significantly older than his classmates. He first came to the United States in 1996. Torres was able to apply for asylum in 2004, and received permanent residency on the same day he was accepted to the Emma's Torch program. As a young man, Torres was a professional ballet dancer, but faced persecution from the Venezuelan government because of his sexual orientation. After an injury ended his dance career, he came to the United States to, as he says, “survive, improve [his] life, and be free.” Though he has no prior culinary experience, Torres has gone above and beyond in terms of enthusiasm and dedication to learning—according to Brodie, he came to his Emma's Torch interview an hour and a half early and sat in the lobby watching YouTube videos on knife skills. Like Fall and Tiguira, he hopes to find steady employment in the culinary field.
But for now the students are focusing on mastering the basics so they can enter the fast-paced world of New York restaurants. Though everyone in the kitchen is from different corners of the globe, they're currently united in one common goal: chopping enough onions, carrots, and celery into quarter-inch pieces to prepare mirepoix. This vegetable mixture is the staple of any kitchen—it’s the base for sauces, stews, and soups across myriad cuisines—and on this Sunday afternoon the group is working together to prepare the dish.
Drawing a colossal hotel pan from a shelf, Brodie and the students fill the nearly two-foot-wide container with the diced veggies and begin to sauté and season as the mixture melts into the olive oil. It’s their own micro melting pot in the most literal sense of the term—and the significance of this activity is not lost on the organization that the students are a part of. After all, Emma’s Torch derives its name from the very poet whose words are engraved on a plaque within the base of the Statue of Liberty: Emma Lazarus. And it was her sonnet “The New Colossus” that contains those storied words, “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”
Though today is all about the essentials, in a week's time, Fall, Tiguira, and Torres will be taking on a new role in the kitchen. No longer students, they'll be the chefs catering the Emma's Torch launch party at Brooklyn Foodworks. Amid the preholiday revery, Fall, Tiguira, and Torres are all awarded their official training certificates for successful completion of the instruction program. By all accounts, the event is a tremendous success and a promising kickoff to the forthcoming launch of Emma's Torch full program—one that is intended to help dozens, if not hundreds, of refugees and asylum seekers become acclimated to their new home. As December draws to a close and the new year begins, 2017 seems like a year of opportunity not only for Brodie but for the first cohort of students and the future participants to come.
But just weeks later, mere days after being inaugurated as President, Donald Trump would temporarily suspend the entire U.S. refugee program and defer the hopes of thousands of people trying to attain their own American dream.
Putting down roots
For Brodie, joining culinary training with refugee resettlement seemed like a natural combination. To her, if there is one thing that can unite people from all walks of life, it's a shared love of food.
"I grew up cooking with my family—it’s one of my favorite things in the world—and I come from a family of immigrants," Brodie says. "I began thinking and realized that someone should find a way to help refugees through food. I discussed this with my husband, and he said, 'What would it look like for that somebody to be you?' I began researching what it would take to bridge the food world and refugee resettlement, and that led me to this journey that I'm on today."
But despite this culinary commonality, the United States has a long, tepid history with refugees—one that shows little sign of resolution despite a worldwide increase in the number of men, women, and children looking for a safe haven. According to the U.N. Refugee Agency, 65.3 million people were forcibly displaced from their homes in 2015 alone. Among them, 21.3 million were refugees.
How the United States becomes part of the international humanitarian relief, and how many refugees are accepted into the country, varies from year to year. Data from the nonpartisan Pew Research Center reveals that between 1990 and 1995, approximately 112,000 refugees were welcomed into the United States annually, with many of them traveling to the country from the former Soviet Union. Following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, however, that number dropped to below 27,000. In recent years, it has been increasing—by September 2016, just under 85,000 refugees entered the United States, and the former Obama administration had planned to accept 110,000 refugees in 2017—but the total still has yet to reach the peak numbers of the mid 1990s.
Though 12,600 men, women, and children who had been displaced by the ongoing Syrian Civil War entered the country in 2016, the acceptance of these people into the United States was met with mixed feelings. A majority of Americans did not feel that the country had a responsibility to offer aid and opposed accepting them. According to Pew, 54 percent of registered voters said the United States was under no obligation to help displaced Syrians.
Reluctance to accept refugees into the country, however, is nothing new. In the 1950s a majority of Americans disapproved of permitting Hungarian refugees into the United States, many of whom were fleeing a communist regime. In the 1970s similar disapproval was extended to refugees from Southeast Asia. In the 1980s it was Cubans.
Public opinion, however, has not deterred members of the global community from seeking solace in the United States—and becoming a member of American society comes with its own set of challenges. Aside from facing a vigorous vetting process to enter the country, refugees encounter numerous challenges once they do arrive on U.S. soil. Oftentimes, skills and work experience that built a career in their home country do not translate to a corresponding job in the United States. As refugees and immigrants struggle to find work, it is not uncommon for employers to exploit workers with long hours, compensation well below the minimum wage, and placement in dangerous, undesirable conditions.
"I think it's very convenient for so many people to forget that at one point somany of us were refugees," Brodie says. "I'm Jewish, and the only reason I’m here today is because my grandparents were able to flee the Nazis in Lithuania. So many people have stories that rely on the fact that we’re a country of immigrants, of refugees, of asylees. Being American and the thing that makes us who we are is our ability to absorb those people."
“We fail ourselves and we fail our ideals when we don’t do that,” she continues. “I get actively angry when I hear the rhetoric that implies that we’re letting in people we don’t even know. We’re letting in people who have gone through the most intensive and rigorous vetting process that the world has ever seen. Even when they get here, we’re not necessarily giving them the tools that they need to thrive. If we’re proud to be American, we should be proud to absorb people."
Brodie, however, is looking to change this narrative and provide refugees and asylees with the skills and training they need to successfully be part of the culinary field. As an increasing number of culinary school students lean toward less conventional postgrad opportunities—like starting food trucks or launching artisanal pop-up shops—more traditional restaurants have a greater need for kitchen support. This is where Emma's Torch comes in. Building on the success of the 18-hour pilot program, the organization is preparing a full curriculum to be offered later this year. In each course, 10 students will complete 100 hours of culinary instruction and a month of on-the-job training. Professional instructors and volunteer chefs will provide students with the education they need to succeed in a New York City restaurant kitchen, and ESL training will be offered to help students overcome any possible language barrier. They'll be given training to obtain their food handlers' license and assistance with developing their résumés. The entire program is free, and students will receive a $15-per-hour financial incentive to be part of it.
"There’s a void in the culinary industry right now that these refugees are filling," says Francesca Furchtgott, marketing director of Emma's Torch. "Some restaurants pay people under the table, but [many] are not willing to do that and need legal workers. They need people who are reliable, dependable, and have legal work authorization. They need a pipeline to people who are able to fill these jobs."
Though the organization only officially launched in December, Emma's Torch has already attracted support from some major organizations, including financial support from the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation (yes, the Ben & Jerry's, as in the ice cream giant). Brodie has also partnered with some of the largest resettlement groups in the world—namely, Church World Service, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, Catholic Charities Community Services, and the International Rescue Committee—to identify and welcome refugees and asylees into the training program. And as the launch of the full course draws closer, Brodie is looking to secure additional partnerships with some of the biggest names in the New York restaurant world.
What comes next
Though President Trump's executive order called for a temporary suspension of the United States’ entire refugee program—with the ultimate intention to cut the number of people accepted in the country in half and give preference to Christian refugees—a federal appeals court decision delivered on February 9, 2017, blocked this measure, as well as a motion that barred travel from seven Muslim-majority nations. While this was a temporary bright spot, the legal battle is not over. Several days after the ruling, one of the President's senior advisers cited it as evidence that the judiciary branch has "taken far too much power" and become a "supreme branch of government." Though the administration does not have plans to immediately appeal the decision to the Supreme Court, there is talk of a new executive order that will address the President's immigration concerns and circumvent the current block.
Despite the current uncertainty, Brodie has not been deterred in her mission. In early Feburary 2017 she completed her training at the Institute of Culinary Education and was given the Wüsthof Award for Leadership. As she continues planning the first full instruction program, Brodie is also working to help her first cohort of students find jobs. Tiguira now has a part-time position with Saffron Fix, a meal-preparation company similar to Blue Apron that specializes in Indian food. A caseworker helped Torres get a job as a porter in an Indian restaurant, but he is eager to find a kitchen role, and Brodie and Emma's Torch are looking to provide him with additional on-the-job training. In late December 2016, Fall had an interview with a prestigious New York City restaurant and was even welcomed to do a "trail," which, in the food industry, is essentially an employment trial that gives a candidate the opportunity to showcase their culinary skills—and is something that is typically reserved for only the most promising job candidates.
Fall, unfortunately, was not offered a full-time position with the restaurant, but she and Brodie are actively pursuing other opportunities. Though they may face struggles, this first cohort of students, as well as the entire Emma's Torch team, will not be deterred in their pursuit of the American dream by any far-reaching executive orders that seek to trample the very values that so many across the United States hold dear.
"Cooking is one of the universal characteristics of being human. So many of us have memories of cooking with our mothers and grandmothers, be they in small towns across the United States, New York City, Baghdad, or Aleppo," Brodie said shortly after President Trump signed his executive order. "Our hope is that Emma's Torch can help serve as a reminder of our common humanity. We believe that the experience of cooking and sharing meals can help build bridges between cultures. Our mission is to empower refugees but also to use food to demonstrate the incredible value that refugees bring to their new communities. American food has always been comprised of a mix of flavors and culinary traditions. In every generation, waves of immigrants and refugees have helped add another layer to the American palate. We look forward to continuing that tradition."