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For Refugees in New York, a Graduation Dinner Is a Final Test

Brooklyn restaurant Emma’s Torch doubles as a culinary training program for refugees, asylees, and survivors of human trafficking

Susan Lezama preps a meal at Emma’s Torch
Susan Lezama preps a meal at Emma’s Torch
Photos courtesy Emma’s Torch; Photo-illustration: Eater
Monica Burton is the deputy editor of

Welcome to Doing It Right, a column where Eater meets chefs, restaurateurs, and entrepreneurs who recognize challenges in their communities — and are actually doing something about it. In this installment, we head to New York City to focus on the work of nonprofit Emma’s Torch.

The challenge:

Refugees transitioning to life in America need jobs to support themselves and to integrate into their new communities.

What Emma’s Torch is doing about it:

Emma’s Torch trains refugees, asylees, and survivors of human trafficking for careers in the restaurant industry and helps place them in restaurant jobs in New York City.

Every three months, Emma’s Torch, a restaurant in Brooklyn’s Carroll Gardens neighborhood, is the setting for a final exam of sorts. The test takers spend the day preparing, organizing their supplies, and reviewing course materials. Finally, at 6:30 p.m., it begins.

Emma’s Torch is the name of both the restaurant and a culinary training nonprofit. The test is a dinner. And the test takers are refugees who, after three months spent learning how to julienne carrots, dice onions, and otherwise operate in a professional kitchen, are ready to demonstrate their cooking abilities to a group of receptive diners who purchased tickets costing upwards of $100 to be there. The graduation dinner is also an opportunity for the students to cook dishes from their home countries, giving their assembled guests a glimpse into the students’ lives before they came to the United States.

At the Emma’s Torch graduation dinner in April, guests were served chicken yassa, momo, and bake and shark among the nine courses — the bulk of which were designed by Susan Lezama, who is from Trinidad and Tobago. The three other students in the cohort originally hailed from Tibet, the Ivory Coast, and Haiti. Previous graduating cohorts have included representatives from countries elsewhere around the world: Syria, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Guinea, Russia, and more.

Kerry Brodie founded Emma’s Torch in 2016 when she was just 25 years old. She was initially inspired by her time volunteering at a Washington, D.C., homeless shelter. “I became intrigued by the idea of using food to do more than just feed people. Maybe we could use food to nourish and empower them,” she told Eater NY. She went to culinary school and began Emma’s Torch as a pop-up, but it’s really taken off over the past year with the opening of its brick-and-mortar restaurant. There, students work in the kitchen under the guidance of culinary director Alexander Harris to put out an a la carte dinner service six days a week and brunch on the weekends.

Trainees — selected in cohorts of six — get individualized attention, including English instruction, as part of the program. By the second month, they’re working every station on the line, preparing Harris’s eclectic menu of items like black-eyed pea hummus, salt cod croquettes, and wine-marinated short rib, and catering events. By the third month, the students know how to work all the positions at an Emma’s Torch-run cafe at the Brooklyn Public Library: pastry cook, barista, and cashier. It’s a lot of work for the trainees, who are paid $15 per hour and are simultaneously learning to acclimate to New York City and, more broadly, the United States. As one Emma’s Torch graduate says, “it’s not easy.”

Naw Da came to New York from Malaysia after fleeing Myanmar. She came without family, and knowing no one. Da worked as a cleaner, babysitter, and dishwasher before the International Rescue Committee connected her with Emma’s Torch, which provided the pathway to steady work in the restaurant industry. Now, as a prep cook at Lafayette, she knows the vocabulary of the kitchen and has the confidence to do her job, which can involve prepping the food for events serving hundreds of people. “I don’t need to ask people [for help],” she says.

In 2018, Emma’s Torch enrolled 35 students, and by the end of the year 20 had graduated. Nearly all of them have found work in restaurants: Brodie proudly told one of the evening’s guests that Lezama was scheduled to trail at Union Square Hospitality Group cafe Daily Provisions the next day. She rattled off some of the other New York City restaurants where Emma’s Torch graduates have ended up: Manhatta, Olmsted, Loring Place, Misi. ”I can’t get reservations to visit our students anymore,” she joked.

Da says she’ll “never forget” Emma’s Torch and its staff for providing help when she did need it, including Harris and program associate Edric Huang, who describes his role as “being the best friend to our students.” Huang is there to ensure that the students have the necessary tools outside of the culinary realm to succeed in New York City, from making doctor’s appointments to figuring out where to live.

According to Brodie, the program is still growing. “Eventually the goal is to replicate this model in other cities,” she says. “I can’t really say, but there have been a number of communities that have reached out to us.” Emma’s Torch may find particular relevance in communities just outside the city. New York state is especially welcoming to refugees — as President Donald Trump cuts the number of refugees allowed into the U.S., officials in some New York cities have introduced strategies to attract refugees living in other states.

In Brooklyn, Emma’s Torch has simply become another restaurant in the neighborhood, albeit one that guests can feel particularly good about visiting. “We have guests that come back because it’s their favorite food,” says Brodie. “The food is resonating with people and they’re using their consumer power to execute their values.”

At the most recent graduation dinner there were several repeat diners, including a young couple new to New York City who had discovered the restaurant during a walk around the neighborhood, as well as friends of the organization who had traveled from farther outside Carroll Gardens for the evening. Cookbook author and Equity at the Table founder Julia Turshen was there, too, as the night’s special guest. As she praised the four Emma’s Torch students for a job well done, as guests applauded, and as volunteers cleared empty plates, it was clear that they had all passed their final exam, and were well on their way to feeling more settled in their new community.

Emma’s Torch [Official]