At the Emma’s Torch restaurant, aromas of “New American” dishes waft in the kitchen, cooked and served up by literal new Americans. From tamarind barbeque wings to black-eyed pea hummus, the cuisine is as diverse as its chefs, all of whom are refugees, asylum seekers and survivors of human trafficking from around the world.
The nonprofit social enterprise located in New York offers immigrants a taste of the food and restaurant industry through hands-on training led by culinary professionals and experts in the field. But the company’s founder Kerry Brodie said the impact extends far beyond cooking dishes that are pleasing to the palate — it provides students with the ingredients they need to begin a prosperous life in the U.S.
Pasang Norbu, a Tibetan who immigrated to the U.S. from India in 2017, is one such student who has benefitted from the Emma’s Torch initiative. Referencing a lack of job opportunities in India, Norbu said he came to the U.S. in search of a better life and more financial opportunities for himself and his family.
Norbu isn’t alone in this sentiment. In fact, the number of Tibetan refugees who have since fled India has drastically increased in recent years due to discrimination and growing economic concerns within the country. According to data from the Indian government, the country’s Tibetan refugee population has dropped by nearly half over the last seven years.
The opportunity to work for Emma’s Torch has provided Norbu with direction toward a future career and has allowed him to explore his work interests, something he otherwise would not have been able experience in India.
“I learned knife skills, cooking techniques, kitchen vocabulary, teamwork and many more, which will help me to succeed in my culinary journey and to get a job in the restaurant industry,” he said.
That type of experience is reflective of the program’s mission: to welcome students into the country and offer them the resources they need to succeed. Over the course of the organization’s three-month apprenticeship, students, like Norbu, are equipped with culinary expertise and sent to work, where they gain experience on every station in the line at the Emma’s Torch restaurant. The program’s teachers include professionals in the industry, as well as award-winning guest chefs like Vishwesh Bhatt and cookbook author Anna Gass. In their last month, the students independently operate the organization’s second location, a café in the Brooklyn Public Library.
Located less than two hours away from the restaurant and café, the inspiration for Brodie’s enterprise stands prominently over the city of New York. The name ‘Emma’s Torch’ pays homage to Emma Lazarus, a refugee-rights advocate whose poem, “The New Colossus,” is featured on the Statue of Liberty. Launched in 2016, Brodie said the organization was created to foster shared moments of humanity between immigrants and U.S. citizens through food.
Much like the symbol of the Statue of Liberty, Emma’s Torch is a welcoming and encouraging beacon of light to the community. When students aren’t working, they participate in weekly English language classes and career-readiness workshops to help ease the transition in migrating to a new country. Norbu further highlighted the benefits of this programming, saying that it has allowed him to “learn, explore and work at the same time.”
Some students are also exposed to the catering industry, where they’ve worked in large-scale events featuring former Georgia gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams and intimate gatherings for organizations like the United Nations.
According to Brodie, opportunities like these are especially impactful for Emma’s Torch students, considering the difficulties immigrants face in finding jobs upon coming to the U.S. To alleviate some of the common financial obstacles they often experience, she said the organization is committed to paying nearly $15 an hour for students’ participation, which allows them to take on the apprenticeship as a full-time job.
“We pay students, whether they’re sitting in an English class or working in our restaurant,” Brodie said. “Often most of our students are really focused on building better lives for themselves and for their children or families.”
The organization works with some of New York’s top restaurants — making up 47 employment partners and 10 curricular culinary partners — all of whom serve as mentors in the participants’ job search upon graduating from the program. Emma’s Torch also has an advisory culinary council of industry professionals who help determine the program’s curriculum and connect students with other potential employers. Many of the restaurants even hire the students once they complete their training. Among all of the 2019 apprentices, 97% secured a job after graduation.
That impact is wide-reaching as Emma’s Torch continues to expand its services. In its first year, eight students graduated from the culinary program — and that number has since grown over the past three years. In 2018, the organization enrolled 35 students and, in 2019, an additional cohort of 57 students graduated from the apprenticeship. Three-quarters of this year’s students are also women.
According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, nearly 23,000 people who were forced to flee from persecution, war or violence resettled to the U.S. in 2018. Immigrants and refugees also play an especially essential role to New York’s diverse communities, where they make up one-fifth of the state’s population and account for a quarter of its labor force.
Despite the hardships these refugees have faced in leaving their homes, Brodie said the students are not defined by the obstacles they must overcome.
“They are some of the most incredible and resilient people,” she said. “They’re really focused on the future and what they want out of life.”
With the help of a network of 41 referral partners, including some of the largest refugee resettlement and advocacy organizations in the world, Emma’s Torch continues to add to their melting pot of students, enrolling a new cohort each month. Students are often connected to the apprenticeship by being referred from these partners, which vary from local homeless shelters and resettlement agencies to churches and community centers. Though the participants must apply to be part of the apprenticeship, there are very few requirements to be considered for the job.
Over the last four years, immigrants from more than 40 countries have been represented in the program. This diversity makes the learning experience truly cross-cultural, according to Norbu, where people from all over the world are brought together. In doing so, they learn from one another’s differences as they dive into a wide range of languages, cultures and cuisines within the kitchen.
But the students aren’t the only ones who are learning from this multicultural melting pot. Brodie said the relationship within the kitchen and classroom is symbiotic: the students learn from the teachers, and the staff of Emma’s Torch learns just as much from the students. Because of this, she said the curriculum teaches far more than culinary practices — it’s a lesson of love and empathy, all made possible through the concept of cooking.
“Food is one of the most universal languages,” Brodie said. “You can express love without knowing a language, you can transcend borders… because we all have memories that are tied together by food.”
When participants of the program thrive, she said the impact is not one-sided — it has the ability to strengthen an entire community. That’s “what truly makes America great,” Brodie said.
For their celebratory graduation dinner, students design dishes infused with flavors from their home countries, leaving guests with a uniquely global taste of the world. From kebab masala crafted by a student from Pakistan to honey-ginger bread baked fresh by a student from Russia, no two dishes are alike, yet all encapsulate the diversity of Emma’s Torch students into one special meal.
The customers are all part of the experience, too. Speaking of the impact of social-good organizations like Emma’s Torch, Brodie said these types of businesses allow people to use their buying power in a way that aligns with their values. Those types of purchases have a ripple effect, she said, supporting the business, its employees and the communities in which they’re all a part of.
Support for Emma’s Torch also makes dreams become reality and changes the lives of its students, effectively integrating them into a society that was once foreign to them. Though nearly all of the students earn positions at popular restaurants upon completing the apprenticeship, Brodie hopes they ultimately walk away with the reassurance that they can succeed — no matter where they are.
“Our biggest hope is that they’ll feel truly empowered and confident that they can walk into any place of employment and go anywhere,” she said. “We hope they realize that they’re a valued member of the community… that we want them to be here and that we’re grateful to them.”