Amtrak The National: Food Incubators and Refugee Chefs

We’ve been included in a fantastic feature in Amtrak’s The National. The piece, titled “How Food Incubators Are Training America’s Next Great Immigrant and Refugee Chefs.” showcases terrific food ventures around the country that are working with refugees and immigrants. We’re so proud to be counted among them. Read the full article here, or see an excerpt about Emma’s Torch below.

Chef Alex Harris...encourages students to cook the food of their homeland as a way to help them feel comfortable in the kitchen.

How Food Incubators Are Training America’s Next Great Immigrant and Refugee Chefs

This growing business model is helping new Americans turn their recipes into restaurants—and enriching our palates along the way

From the Neapolitans who opened some of the country’s first pizza parlors in turn-of-the-century Manhattan to the Havana-born cigar-makers who brought Tampa the Cuban sandwich, immigrants have always defined American cuisine. What’s more, their labor has long underpinned the foundation of the country’s restaurant industry; accounting for 10 percent of the entire American workforce, it’s one of the largest employers of immigrants nationwide. Yet most of the jobs they hold don’t offer wages and benefits that allow for upward mobility. A 2015 study of California’s restaurant industry (the nation’s largest) by the Restaurant Opportunities Center, a workers’ advocacy organization, found that restaurant workers of color earn 56 percent less than their white counterparts while 81 percent of management positions are occupied by white workers. Women of color suffer from the largest pay gap, earning $4 less per hour than white men.

But in recent years, a model borrowed from the tech world has begun to address these issues of equity: food incubators, offering culinary entrepreneurs business training, financial support, and free (or heavily subsidized) access to professional-grade kitchens and equipment. At last official count, in 2016, the number of food incubators had increased by 50 percent since 2013, with more than 200 across 39 states, and more are opening all the time—from a food hall in Memphis to a 56-kitchen complex in Chicago. Such training programs—from full-service restaurants developing future chefs to commercial kitchen spaces where entrepreneurs can prepare their products—are particularly beneficial for new immigrants and refugees, who might arrive with cooking skills but lack English fluency and business or social networks.

Here, we visit four such programs, all with slightly different models and methods but each providing new arrivals and underserved populations with the tools to build better businesses and share a taste of their cultures. On top of that, as they spur the creation of food halls, market stalls, and nationally acclaimed restaurants, they’re making their home cities more delicious. What’s more American than that? –Lauren Vespoli

Emma's Torch


Story by Priya Krishna • Photography by Michael George

Kerry Brodie’s great-grandparents fled from Nazi-occupied Lithuania to South Africa during the Holocaust, and her parents later landed in Washington, D.C. “We’ve lived through what happened when we don’t welcome the stranger, and that always weighed heavily on my outlook,” says Brodie, the founder of culinary training program Emma’s Torch. Brodie was working at the Human Rights Campaign and earning her master’s in government when, she says, “I had this crazy idea”: to open a restaurant that would teach professional culinary skills and job readiness to refugees and victims of human trafficking. She left her job to enroll at New York’s Institute of Culinary Education. One year later, in June 2017, Emma’s Torch, named after poet and refugee advocate Emma Lazarus, opened as a six-month pop-up in Red Hook, Brooklyn.

That initiative was so successful that last May, Brodie was able to raise enough money—including backing from celebrity chef Rachael Ray—to launch a brick-and-mortar location in nearby Carroll Gardens. There, in an airy corner café decorated by Rachael Ray Home designer Michael Murray, 18 students—primarily recruited through homeless shelters and refugee resettlement programs—undergo a three-month boot camp, earning $15 an hour. The first month is devoted to basic kitchen skills, like knife work and recipe implementation, and the second is spent working on the line. In their final month, trainees develop their customer service skills working the concession stand at the Brooklyn Public Library’s main branch, which Emma’s Torch took over in February, selling bialys and silan butter cake.“There’s a high focus on independence,” Brodie says. “We ensure our students come out with the skills, confidence, and outlook to pursue careers.”

The food at Emma’s Torch draws from a variety of cuisines—recent dishes include shawarma-spiced lamb loin and harissa-roasted chicken—often reflecting the backgrounds of trainees, which include refugees from Pakistan, Venezuela, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Culinary director Alexander Harris, who previously cooked for Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group, encourages students to cook the food of their homeland as a way to help them feel comfortable in the kitchen. “I always ask, ‘How would you cook this at home?’” Harris says.

“Every country has its own food. It’s important to know the differences.”

Brodie has already developed a network of chef supporters, who help place graduates as line cooks in leading New York restaurants like the Michelin-recommended Houseman and Buttermilk Channel. For Nafisseta Kinda, a trainee from Burkina Faso, Emma’s Torch helped her develop not only technical skills, like how to cook different meats, but also a vision for her future. Long-term, she’d like to “go back to Burkina Faso and open a place that’s similar to Emma’s Torch,” though she also has dreams of opening her own West African restaurant in the States. “People here don’t really understand the nuances in the cuisines of Africa,” she says. “Every country has its own food, its own culture; it’s important to know the differences.”

Through sharing these differences, Brodie says, “we hope we’re changing the conversation. We hope refugees are seen in restaurants not as this amorphous other but as an amazing solution to the labor gap with a wealth of knowledge and expertise. They’re people you want on your team.”