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Emma’s Torch Reopens Its Refugee-Centered Culinary School After Eight-Month Shutdown

The Brooklyn nonprofit hopes its reopening will give some stability to its students

the exterior ordering window of a restaurant
Emma’s Torch, in Brooklyn
Giada Randaccio Skouras Sweeny

Emma’s Torch — the Carroll Gardens restaurant that doubles up as a training program for refugees — has reopened for the first time since the pandemic-related shutdown in March, and co-founder Kerry Brodie is keen to get back to the restaurant’s central mission: providing meaningful employment and culinary training for refugees.

A large part of why Brodie decided to reopen now was the fact that indoor dining was allowed to return in NYC at 25 percent in late September, and the fact that the spread of the novel coronavirus in NYC has been generally contained, save for a few neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens. But the central reason, Brodie says, was providing jobs back to their refugee staffers and students, in an environment where the unemployment numbers in the hospitality industry are still significantly high.

Since launching in 2016, the organization has provided a free, two-part, 10-week training program for refugees, along with asylees and survivors of human trafficking. More than 100 of Emma’s Torch’s students have since gone on to have careers in the hospitality industry.

When the pandemic shut down indoor dining in March, the opportunities for these students disappeared much like they did for most others in the hospitality industry. Emma’s Torch temporarily closed along with hundreds of other restaurants in the city that could not sustain themselves on takeout and delivery meals.

At the same time though, Brodie began mobilizing her organization in the hopes of reopening when it would be safe to do so. For the more than 40 Emma’s Torch alums who had either been furloughed or unemployed, the school started hosting online cooking classes to help graduates maintain their skills. Emma’s Torch staffers also helped their alums apply for unemployment benefits and network in the hospitality industry to secure new jobs.

Unlike most other restaurants, Brodie says Emma’s Torch has managed to remain relatively stable over the course of the pandemic due to its nonprofit status and owing to the fact that donors have continued to fund the organization over the past several months.

Now as the state has allowed indoor dining to resume in NYC, Emma’s Torch is pushing ahead with taking on new students at its culinary center. There are three students currently enrolled in the November cohort, and four will start as the December cohort next month. An additional 10 students are waiting to be enrolled into the program, Brodie says.

Students sitting around wooden tables wearing masks and working on their laptop
Emma’s Torch has reopened after an eight month closure
Megan McGibney

In this new reality, Emma’s Torch is focussing on equipping its students with skills needed to work in a kitchen in the COVID-19 world. That includes learning new food safety and public health awareness rules, and being more careful about keeping everything clean including food and equipment.

Due to the current indoor restrictions, students also have more space to work in, and get more individual attention. Emma’s Torch culinary director Alex Harris says the restaurant has procured three six-foot-long metallic tables that allow for more social distancing, and also gives Harris a better view of how each student preps food at their workstations.

The focus with this reopening, though, is the students, and not the restaurant as much. Emma’s Torch is keeping its indoor dining section closed, and will instead place a few tables and chairs outside. When it gets colder though, there won’t be any heating outside as the historic building the restaurant is located in prevents it from installing equipment outside. Instead the focus will be on training the students — who receive $15 per hour for working there — and the restaurant’s limited guests will be able to sample a new menu created by the current cohort which includes items like potato and cucumber salads, kabbouleh, and a black-eyed-pea fritter sandwich.

With the job market for the hospitality industry still bleak though, Emma’s Torch is also pushing ahead with new partnerships to ensure more work opportunities for its students. It has partnered with the Brooklyn nonprofit Rethink to create 600 weekly meals for the food pantry Nutrition Kitchen, is in the midst of launching a new entrepreneur series to train students and alumni on opening pop-ups, and is working on gift bags to be sold towards the end of this year.

Although the Trump administration placed a new cap on refugees last month at 15,000 per year — an all-time low that could go into effect next year — Brodie and the team are not too worried about how it will affect Emma’s Torch. Brodie has cited NYC’s large refugee population as one of the reasons for it, along with the fact that there’s continued interest to join the school.

“We believe in the resilience of New York, and our students,” she says. “We’re going to be, every single day, doing what we can to support our students. If there are fewer places to go, we’ll diversify and find opportunities [for them] where they exist.”

Megan McGibney is a freelance journalist who wants to see how businesses can make a difference.

Emma's Torch

345 Smith St., New York, NY 11231 (240) 441-6326 Visit Website