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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.”