Since opening its doors in 2016, Emma’s Torch has made a name for itself not only as a beloved neighborhood spot in Brooklyn’s Carroll Gardens, but as a powerful local force for social good.
Named for the poet Emma Lazarus, whose words adorn the Statue of Liberty, this restaurant is also a nonprofit providing culinary training and job placement services to refugees, asylees, and survivors of human trafficking.
(As they like to say, the menu features “New American prepared by newly American students.”)
Seated spoke with Emma’s Torch founder and executive director Kerry Brodie about the restaurant’s mission, navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, and what’s next for the training program.
Tell us a little about your mission at Emma’s Torch.
Emma’s Torch is a nonprofit social enterprise. We operate a restaurant, cafe, and catering business in Brooklyn, New York that serves as the training ground for our students.
Our mission is to empower our students to begin new careers with financial independence. With every meal they create, we’re one step closer to that goal.
How have the restaurant and training program evolved since launching in 2016?
While our mission has remained the same since we started, we have worked closely with community members to ensure that our program is meeting the needs of those we serve. We have a culinary council, as well as a network of social service providers that inform our work.
We have also been fortunate to expand and grow from a small pop-up brunch restaurant to a full-service restaurant in Carroll Gardens, the cafe at the Brooklyn Public Library, and our catering business. Our students have more training opportunities now because of this growth and expansion.
How many people have completed your training program in that time?
We’re proud that 95% of our job-seeking graduates have begun careers! While this is the clearest and most tangible metric for success, we are also proud of the many qualitative successes, whether it is a promotion, buying a home, or moving out of the shelter system. Our students have achieved so much and we are continuously inspired by them!
Any particular success stories you’d like to highlight?
One of our graduates, Ismael, reached out to us in August to share some great news. Despite the setbacks of COVID-19, he was promoted to the role of Pastry Sous Chef, with a new salary and benefits. He shared that he was walking near our restaurant with his new colleagues, and his boss pointed to Emma’s Torch and informed the group, “This is where my best cook was trained.” We are so proud to be part of Ismael’s success.
Behind each of these numbers is a story. We are proud of each of our graduates, and know that their increased earnings are not simply about finances, but truly about empowerment and independence. We are excited to see them continue to grow.
Tell us about the menu at Emma’s Torch. How does it reflect your students’ cultures?
Our menu is designed as an extension of our education. Every dish is structured around culinary tools that our students can use for their careers. But we also use it as an opportunity to have a conversation. Two of our most beloved dishes are good examples of this: our black-eyed pea hummus and our pistachio bread pudding each meld flavors and techniques with a global twist.
How does food help create that cross-cultural conversation?
The experience of sharing a meal is one that is deeply human, and an extension of love and caring. We see food as a way of building common ground.
Food has the power to evoke memories, and to transcend boundaries and divisions. We can enjoy a meal together even if we don’t share the same language or background.
What cultural changes have you noticed since 2016?
The past few years have presented us with countless challenges, and have also underscored the importance of our work. We are seeing greater need for paid training opportunities, especially as we welcome more new arrivals than in previous years.
We are also seeing an increase in overall awareness of the importance of supporting the holistic needs of our students. We are so grateful that our community has supported us through the past turbulent few years, and we’re excited for our ability to expand and do more to support our students.
And how have the restaurant and training program been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?
Like so many others, we pivoted consistently throughout the pandemic. From partnering with other organizations to providing emergency food relief and changing our business model, we have adapted to the needs of our students and the constraints of public health.
We are fortunate that now we are able to be fully open. We hope to continue to operate with this ethos of agility, remaining focused on how we can best serve our students despite all of the challenges.
What are your hopes for the future of Emma’s Torch?
We are about to embark on a period of growth, opening our first location outside of New York City. Our hope is that we can continue to expand and scale our work, while still maintaining the standard of impact for our students.
Thanks again to Kerry and the team at Emma’s Torch!