Emma’s Torch: Many changes, same flame

March 12, 2023 Andrew Cotto
Emma’s Torch, a nonprofit that empowers refugees, asylees and survivors of human trafficking through culinary education, recently opened at 345 Smith St. Shown: Culinary director Alexander Harris speaks with a student. Photos by Giada Randaccio Skouras Sweeny
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CARROLL GARDENS — Things have changed at Emma’s Torch. There are new developments, a new menu, new hours, and even a refurbished interior. But what hasn’t changed is their style of cuisine and benevolent agenda behind the food, described collectively and beautifully as “new American food for new Americans.”

After an opening stint in Red Hook, Kerry Brodie, all of 27 years old at the time, raised Emma’s Torch five years ago in Carroll Gardens, in a bright, open storefront on the corner of Smith and Carroll streets, as a restaurant and culinary training center for refugees. The endeavor was a natural intersection of her respective passions for food and humanitarian work.

Brunch. Photo courtesy of Emma’s Torch

Since that time, the nonprofit has expanded to a cafe within the Brooklyn Public Library’s main branch at Grand Army Plaza (where there’s also a classroom and an adult learning center for their students), a catering business (with a preferred partner standing at the Prospect Park Picnic House), and a pop-up at Union Market in Washington, D.C. (where a physical location is coming soon). Most importantly, in those five years, Emma’s Torch has empowered over 250 refugees with a culinary education that has resulted in just under $5 million in increased wages. 

Chef Alex Harris and Founder & Executive Director Kerry Brodie. Photo: Andrew Cotto

After donating an estimated 18,000 meals to hungry neighbors during the pandemic, Emma’s Torch reopened with a new vision for its flagship location. And like the big-hearted ethos of the entire operation, the focus was outward, on the students trained and the community served. 

“We were trying to capture something that wasn’t necessarily a full-service restaurant, but more of a community gathering place,” Brodie said. “The place you want to go with your friends and your family to eat and be accepted, but also a place accessible for our students, alumni and their families.” 

The new digs has a casual, classy-cafe vibe with the brick walls shellacked in white paint, complemented by earthy brown fixtures and furniture (original donations from Rachel Ray) with a forest green trim and ceiling. Wooden spoons, with the names of major donors and foundations, and plates signed by chefs adorn the walls around the open kitchen.

Orders are placed at the counter with the options handwritten on a framed blackboard next to a glass display lined with sweets. The menu from 9:00 to 3:00, Wednesday to Sunday, is comfy, modern American fare, split between breakfast and lunch items during the week with additional favorites of Shakshuka, Caramel Apple Pancakes and French Toast available on the weekends.   

Current students. Photo by Andrew Cotto

The most symbolic item on the menu is arguably the Homemade Sausage, Egg & Cheese on a Biscuit. The standard American item gets the Emma’s Torch treatment, with students — under the guidance of Culinary Director Chef Alex Harris — learning how to make the sausage in-house and the biscuits from scratch. The addition of this dish was born from the students’ interests as opposed to any culinary agenda of Harris. 

“So, we can talk about things like making sausage in class. The students express interest. We bring it downstairs to the training kitchen at the restaurant, and then it’s a conversation with the students about, ‘This is what we’re doing and why,’” Harris explained.

“And now their interests and their hands are part of the menu changes, not ours. So, they have the opportunity to really usher in this change and to everything we’re doing right now. They are involved on the back end in terms of the production. They define what we can do because they are our students. So, it’s really cool.”

 

Andrew Cotto has been eating his way through Brooklyn for 25 years. As an author, the food of our borough has been featured extensively in his novels and journalism. In his new column for the Daily Eagle, Andrew will tell the tales of Brooklyn eateries, from the people behind the food to the communities which they nourish.


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