Rachael Ray Every Day - - Contents -

A Brook­lyn restau­rant em­pow­ers refugees by teach­ing them to cook.


iIt’s 6 p.m. on a Tues­day and the two-tops at Emma’s Torch, an airy white-walled restau­rant on a leafy cor­ner in brown­stone Brook­lyn, have been re­ar­ranged to form a sin­gle long ta­ble that’s dot­ted with vases of Peru­vian lilies from the bodega down the street. A menu has been spe­cially pre­pared for the night’s event— Grad­u­a­tion Din­ner No. 3—and cooks Nagela Moise, Caro­line Mbanga, and Kes­nel Joseph have traded their aprons for their fa­vorite civil­ian clothes. Founder Kerry Brodie has al­ready turned away sev­eral prospec­tive cus­tomers, who may have been en­ticed by the New Amer­i­can menu of black-eyed pea hum­mus and her­broasted chicken with harissa—or by the promi­nent let­ter­ing on the side win­dow: Em­pow­er­ing Refugees Through Culi­nary Ed­u­ca­tion.

Emma’s Torch—named for Emma Lazarus, whose fa­mous words are in­scribed on the Statue of Lib­erty (“Give me your tired, your poor, your hud­dled masses yearn­ing to breathe free”)— is a non­profit so­cial en­ter­prise. Part restau­rant and part culi­nary-train­ing pro­gram, it hires new New York­ers—refugees, asy­lum seek­ers, or sur­vivors of hu­man traf­fick­ing—for a two-month paid ap­pren­tice­ship be­fore help­ing them find mean­ing­ful ca­reers in the restau­rant in­dus­try. For the first four weeks, trainees learn crit­i­cal food-prep skills: how to read a recipe and mea­sure in­gre­di­ents, dice onions, debone a

chicken. For the next four weeks, they work the line, jug­gling the de­mands of the din­ner rush while ab­sorb­ing lessons in com­mu­ni­ca­tion and lead­er­ship. “We have a lot of women who have never worked out­side the home and are gen­er­ally shy,” says Brodie. “I’ll stand on the other side of the restau­rant and make them call out the dishes to me. They think I’m kid­ding. I’m like, ‘No, I re­ally want you to yell!’”

Af­ter nearly 400 hours of train­ing, Caro­line, Nagela, and Kes­nel are walk­ing out of this boot camp with pro­fes­sional kitchen shoes, a chef’s knife, and jobs— all three will start en­try-level cook­ing gigs at a buzzy new rooftop restau­rant in Man­hat­tan’s Meat­pack­ing Dis­trict. Pre­vi­ous grads have landed at pres­ti­gious New York City eater­ies Marc For­gione and the Dutch. “Em­ploy­ers are not hir­ing our stu­dents as char­ity,” says Brodie, who re­mains a re­source for alumni af­ter they en­ter the work­ing world. “Our stu­dents have al­ready worked in a restau­rant. They are trained and ready.”

Alexan­der Har­ris, a chef and the restau­rant’s culi­nary di­rec­tor, ex­plains that for many stu­dents, the life skills they pick up at Emma’s Torch are just as cru­cial to their suc­cess as the top-notch knife skills. “It’s not just culi­nary,” Har­ris says. “Our in­ten­tion is to get them to in­de­pen­dence, so they step out th­ese doors and spread their wings and fly.”

For tonight’s party, friends and fam­ily join the grads to en­joy tra­di­tional dishes from their home coun­tries: Haitian-style chicken with black rice; fumbwa, a Con­golese stew, made here with col­lard greens; and pain patate, a sweet po­tato bread. Also in at­ten­dance are coun­selors from the YMCA New Amer­i­cans Ini­tia­tive, one of a num­ber of or­ga­ni­za­tions— in­clud­ing the In­ter­na­tional Res­cue Com­mit­tee, Catholic Char­i­ties, and Refugee and Im­mi­grant Fund— that Emma’s Torch part­ners with to find can­di­dates for its pro­gram.

It’s an emo­tional evening for ev­ery­one, but for the stu­dents in par­tic­u­lar. Fight­ing back tears as she holds up her grad­u­a­tion cer­tifi­cate for her young daugh­ter to see, Nagela re­peats the af­fir­ma­tion that she’s learned in the last eight weeks, one she hopes will pro­pel her to­ward her goal of be­com­ing a fa­mous chef: “You can.”

Nagela Moise, Kes­nel Joseph, and Caro­line Mbanga are re­cent grads of the culi­nary­train­ing pro­gram at Emma’s Torch (left). Nagela and culi­nary di­rec­tor Alexan­der Har­ris share a hug (top). Friends and fam­ily feast on tra­di­tional dishes like pain patate, a Haitian dessert (above).

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