New Yorker food critic Hannah Goldstein gives the insider's peek at Emma's Torch, writing about everything from our delicious shakshuka to our six-course graduation dinner. You have a seat at our table, too!
After mastering flavors from the Middle East, North Africa, and the American South, the restaurant and nonprofit’s paid trainees get help finding jobs in the industry.
“This way for life changing food,” a sandwich board parked outside Emma’s Torch announces, but it’s not your average sidewalk bait. The establishment—named for the poet Emma Lazarus, of Statue of Liberty fame (“Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”)—is not only a dine-in restaurant, with rosé on tap, but also a 501(c)(3) and a school of sorts, where refugees from all over the world receive culinary training (for which they are paid a salary) and help finding jobs. Kerry Brodie, the twenty-eight-year-old founder, was getting a master’s degree in government when the idea occurred to her; after a stint in culinary school, she launched a pop-up in Red Hook last year.
A few months ago, Brodie signed a lease in Carroll Gardens. The seasonal menu, presided over by Alexander Harris, who last cooked at Danny Meyer’s Blue Smoke, is described on the Web site as “New American cuisine—prepared by our new American students,” and has in recent weeks featured flavors from the American South, the Middle East, and North Africa. One Sunday morning, I had a perfect shakshuka—the tomato sauce fragrant with warming spices, the eggs barely poached, a hidden layer of crispy rice dyed yellow with turmeric—and an intensely flavorful pot of tea made with nothing but sun-dried cinnamon bark, sustainably sourced from Zanzibar.
The most thrilling way to eat at Emma’s Torch, though, is at one of its monthly graduation dinners, for which each trainee (there are four per class) makes a dish or two from her home country. At a recent dinner, Vietnamese goi cuon, or summer rolls, their stretchy rice paper encasing meaty oyster mushrooms and delicate matchsticks of green banana, were followed by family-style platters of grilled whole fish and attiéké (grated, fermented cassava). Before dessert, there was kitta fer-fer, a supremely comforting, savory-sweet Ethiopian breakfast food made from shredded flatbread seasoned with berbere spice and moistened with clarified butter and honey until it’s fluffy and porridge-like.
Midway through the meal, Brodie introduced Terricka Hall, from Jamaica. Her coconut-curry shrimp with red beans and rice, Hall said, were “made with love,” and also with her newfound knife skills. “I didn’t know how to dice, or medium dice,” she said, laughing. Hall is a survivor of human trafficking. Brodie noted that many of the students, particularly the women, seem surprised by the question “What do you want to do?” “They’ve never been asked that before,” she said. Hall, who was interviewing for a job at a catering company, said that one day she wants to open her own restaurant, Noah’s Ark, “to feed the people who cannot afford food and the people who can afford it. They’re gonna have the same chance to eat fancy stuff.” (345 Smith St., Brooklyn. 718-243-1222. Large plates $14-$25. Graduation dinners $75-$250.) ♦
This article will be published in its print form in the August 6 & 13, 2018, issue.