A new non-profit in New York City called Emma’s Torch is lighting the way for refugees to become chefs in the United States.
Emma’s Torch works with groups like the International Rescue Committee and Church World Service to identify refugees and asylees. The organization then provides them with culinary training and job placement services. Founder Kerry Brodie is building partnerships with restaurants in New York, creating an employment pipeline to connect those restaurants and her students.
Other inspiring organizations like Hot Bread Kitchen in New York City and Cafe Reconcile in New Orleans have successfully jump-started culinary careers for low-income and immigrant families. Emma’s Torch, however, is unique in targeting its services to refugees.
Economists such as UC Davis economist Giovanni Peri have shown that immigrants complement the skills of the U.S. workforce, raising the wages of native-born Americans. Peri said in an email, “The presence of immigrants who bring to the U.S. labor markets a variety of skills enlarges the opportunities of firms to grow and of other Americans to find employment. In a complex economy such as the United States, different types of workers enrich local opportunities.”
Immigrants start many businesses, creating value in the economy. According to Krishnendu Ray’s recent book The Ethnic Restaurateur, immigrants account for 69 percent of New York City restaurant owners. By connecting immigrants with skills and job opportunities, Emma’s Torch is able to make the refugee absorption process smoother and more gainful for immigrants and employers alike.
The hospitality industry has a reputation for being fickle, but according to the New York Department of Labor, it is one of the biggest sources of employment in New York City. It is slated to grow by 30 percent over the next 15 years—twice as fast as the city’s overall economy.
The transition from a high-demand job market to a low-demand one has not been seamless, however. Chefs used to hire line cooks straight out of culinary school, but now graduates are going into other more visible—and potentially better paid—ventures. Emma’s Torch serves both sides of this labor market by training refugees, and then connecting these newly skilled workers with restaurants in need of chefs.
For refugees driven to the seek opportunity in America, finding employment can be disorienting and overwhelming. The minds behind Emma’s Torch understand that “a job is important for more than just a paycheck.” Fulfilling work provides the chance to practice new language skills, develop relationships, and find a feeling of independence. By tapping into New York City’s bustling culinary and hospitality industry, Emma’s Torch allows refugees to celebrate their cultural heritage and cuisine in their work.
A child of immigrants herself, Kerry Brodie founded Emma’s Torch to empower immigrants and ease their transitions into new communities. Brodie grew up cooking with her mother and grandmother. Today, she is in culinary school, and she plans to use her training to teach immigrants marketable skills. Brodie said, “Emma’s Torch was a way to use my love of cooking in order to try and change lives.”
Emma’s Torch has already begun to accomplish that in the refugee community. At a recent information session for a three-student pilot program, fifteen people showed up, all of whom wanted to invite their friends and family to apply to the program as well. The pilot program is still ongoing, but Brodie has already placed two refugees in restaurant jobs.
With Emma’s Torch, Brodie dreams of “making the American Dream more attainable for those in need.” The namesake of her non-profit can be found at the base of Statue of Liberty. Engraved there are the words of poet and activist Emma Lazarus: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Lazarus was a tireless advocate for refugees in the 19th century. Her emphasis on vocational training led struggling Jewish immigrants to self-sufficiency.
Today, Brodie and Emma’s Torch carry Lazarus’s legacy forward by empowering refugees today and making good on Lady Liberty’s promise.
Dillon Tauzin is a contributor to Economics21.