At This Brooklyn Cafe, It's Brunch, Then Life-Changing Culinary Classes

Through Emma's Torch, refugees are acquiring the skills to start the next course of their lives.

A little after 9 on a Saturday morning in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn, Boubacar, Yasmin and Chef Laura Licona have already been at work for several hours. In a kitchen not much bigger than the kitchen in a typical Brooklyn apartment, Licona calls out orders and waits for an audible "yes, Chef!" from Boubacar and Yasmin before sticking the ticket on the edge of the metal shelving unit that creates the fourth wall of the kitchen.


This is Boubacar and Yasmin's third weekend in the kitchen as part of a program called Emma's Torch. Envisioned by Kerry Brodie and named for Emma Lazarus, the poet responsible for the sonnet beneath the Statue of Liberty, the organization seeks to give refugees real-life culinary experience through a 200-hour, 8-week training program that has resulted in a full-time position in New York's culinary industry for all six trainees who have gone through the program. 

"I think what sets us apart is that we're really focused on this workforce development pipeline," Brodie told A Plus. "We want to open doors and we want our students not just walk through them, but really shine as we go through them."

Most of that curriculum, which is informed by a council of chefs and others in the culinary industry, involves learning while doing. Every Friday, Emma's Torch trainees are in the kitchen prepping for the weekend brunch service. They are baking corn muffins, and they are removing the skin from tomatoes for shakshuka. At the same time, they are learning knife skills, managing time in a kitchen and practicing skills they would learn if they were attending culinary school.

Chef Laura Licona helps Boubacar make corn muffins during meal prep for the brunch service the following day at Emma's Torch. Katie Ward / A Plus

All of this is overseen by Licona, who is equal parts head chef and head English teacher. The day before, Boubacar, who speaks French in his home country of Guinea, didn't know what a "whisk" was when Licona asked for one. She showed him one and then paused meal prep for a minute to allow Boubacar to write the term and draw a picture of the utensil in the notebook that all Emma's Torch trainees keep on them to capture any new vocabulary word or kitchen tip they might come across. 

Brodie said a few weeks ago, none of the trainees spoke English and none spoke each other's language, but she came across them quizzing each other on vocabulary in the kitchen. 

"No matter what the skill level, I think that what we're looking for is people who want to build a community together through food," Brodie said.

For their work, trainees, who are found through the refugee resettlement nonprofits who partner with Emma's Torch, are paid $15 per hour. There are plans to expand the program into a bigger space that would allow both more individuals in the program and for trainees to be hired for a full 40 hours a week. Brodie explained that while they love the cultural exchange aspect of the program, it's important that students are getting paid and able to financially support themselves. 

"They're real people; they're grown-ups," she said. "For so long they're being told that they're victims, and that's unfortunately true, but they bring so much more and they're so much like us and have the same concerns and thoughts and feelings, so why not help them live fulfilling lives here?"

Yasmin walks A Plus' Emily Becker through the prep list for shakshuka, the recipe for which came from a former Emma's Torch student. Katie Ward / A Plus

This morning, Yasmin, whose name has been changed at the request of Emma's Torch, is in charge of avocado toast, a staple of brunch in Brooklyn but not something that she ever served in her home country of Pakistan. In fact, as a professional journalist in Pakistan with a master's degree in bioscience, Yasmin rarely cooked at all in Pakistan. She left her home country and her family three years ago when she was labeled an American spy after reporting on the trial of Osama Bin Laden. Now, while she awaits a decision on her application for asylum, cooking is one of the few options Yasmin has.

"In an ideal world, there wouldn't be refugees," Brodie said. "In an ideal world, we could offer so much more to anybody coming to this country, but we don't live in that world. And so, we try and figure out how we can make what is inherently at best plan B good. I can't offer them the job in their given field, but I can make sure that we're placing them in a place where they are valued as a human being, where they're learning new skills, where they're being challenged and where they're earning a fair wage."

When Brodie says she'll fight tooth and nail for any of her students, she means it. She's helped students set up bank accounts and obtain library cards. The day before, she was on the phone trying to track down a French-speaking immigration lawyer. 

"All of those things are part of what we do here and that's part of just welcoming in people as though they're family members," Brodie said. "If you were family, you'd do it all. So, we try and do that all for them, too."

Emma's Torch trainee Boubacar shows off the whisk he drew in his notebook. Many Emma's Torch participants do not know much English before starting the program but, like culinary skills, learn while doing. Katie Ward / A Plus

While Yasmin smashes avocadoes for two orders of avocado toast for the table of six seated in the back garden, Licona is teaching Baboucar how to plate a new dish on the menu this weekend: potato latkes with eggs and labneh. While two eggs are frying on the stove, Boubacar is practicing what Licona calls the "swoosh" for the labneh. 

The menu for brunch service, Saturdays and Sundays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., is sort of like an accordion, Brodie explains. It starts simple, but then evolves as the students develop particular skills. In the two-week overlap between training classes, the menu then returns to the basics to allow for the graduating students to help teach the new inductees to the program. 

In the future, the intention is for 70 percent of Emma's Torch's budget to be funded by its own revenue through its restaurant and catering services. For Brodie, having customers there to support the program is less important than having customers there just because their food has a reputation as one of the best brunches in Brooklyn. When the first Yelp reviews started coming in, Brodie said when she read them to the students, they weren't convinced that she hadn't written them herself. Now, she lets the empty plates coming back to the kitchen speak for themselves.  

"My goal is that people never feel like they're coming here just because they want to support the mission but because they really think they're getting a high-quality meal and that they love that they can do that while also supporting something they care about," Brodie said. 

Yasmin's plate of avocado toast waits to be served to Emma's Torch customers. Katie Ward / A Plus

After garnishing his plates of eggs and latkes with fresh basil, Boubacar places them in the pass along Yasmin's two plates of avocado toast and a blueberry muffin waffle Licona prepared. 

"What do you say now?" Licona asks Boubacar.

"Order up," he responds quietly before being prompted by Licona to say it louder.

"Order up!" he repeats as the plates are whisked away to their respective customers.

"From each of them, I've learned really what it means to be resilient, what it means to be optimistic in the face of adversity," Brodie said. "That sounds really trite, and I thought that I knew what that meant before talking to them and understanding as much as I could what their challenges are, but I think what continues to amaze me is this eternal hopefulness. 

"Many of our students have seen the worst of humanity and the fact that they don't have some sort of chip on their shoulder, that they kind of see the world through prism of it's going to get better is something that's very inspiring and I feel very fortunate to be able to witness." 


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