Kerry talks to her alma mater in the Princeton Alumni Weekly!

“It’s not just about getting in the door,” Brodie explains. “It’s about getting into a career that works with their goals.”

Kerry Brodie ’12: Emma’s Torch Lights a New Path for Refugees

by Nina Bahadur

At the Washington, D.C., homeless shelter where Kerry Brodie ’12 once regularly volunteered, she met many refugees in search of work. When she read about a shortage of line cooks in New York City’s restaurants, Brodie wondered: What if a program could train and connect these job seekers to understaffed restaurants? 

Two years ago, she moved to the Big Apple and created that program herself.

In the first year, Brodie, who had no restaurant experience, enrolled in the Institute of Culinary Education and attended a food-business boot camp. Next, she partnered with resettlement agencies and asked experts to weigh in on programming. Now, Emma’s Torch — named for the poet Emma Lazarus, whose words are inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty — provides culinary training, experience, and job placement for refugees who have often fled countries beset by conflict, religious persecution, and human trafficking.

Once an application has been accepted, Brodie helps connect that student with hiring restaurants and hospitality groups during their training. 

“Early on in our program, we start talking about career goals,” she says. “Often our students have been looked at as victims for so long that no one is asking them what they want. We ask where they want to be in five years and work out a career plan.” 

The first Emma’s Torch Classroom Café was a pop-up brunch restaurant in Red Hook, Brooklyn, which opened in 2017. Seven students completed an eight-week paid apprenticeship, taking cooking lessons during the week and serving brunch on the weekends. Along with knife skills and food-safety guidelines, participants received English-language instruction and interview tips. 

The curriculum also preps students to expect a respectful work environment, fair wages, and opportunities for promotion or advancing their skills. 

“It’s not just about getting in the door,” Brodie explains. “It’s about getting into a career that works with their goals.”

Nineteen students have graduated from the program, and all have found full-time employment. One, from Saudi Arabia, works as a line cook at The Dutch in SoHo. A student from Guinea is a prep cook at SoHo House. The pop-up closed in autumn 2017 but a larger, permanent space in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, opened its doors in May 2018. 

Brodie works full time for the nonprofit, thanks to several grants, the restaurant’s revenue, and support from fellow alumni and the Princeton community. Board members include Francesca Furchtgott ’12 and Julia Bumke ’13, and Emma’s Torch bested 23 other startups at the 2017 Princeton Entrepreneurs’ Network Startup Competition for a $10,000 prize. This past summer, two interns from the Princeton Start-Up Immersion Program helped with program operations and development, and a Project 55 fellow just came on board.

Brodie believes people are drawn to the program because their families, like hers, immigrated in the past.

“I’m very fortunate to be alive today because there are countries that let in my relatives during World War II,” she says. “And I think that storyline is one that many people can relate to.”