Emma's Torch students Elio Torres (Venezuela), Cisse Tiguira (Côte d’Ivoire) and Vallerie Fall (Senegal)

Kerry Brodie is one of the featured speakers at Drexel’s Chef Conference on Sunday, but she’s not a chef, has never owned a restaurant, and has only limited experience working in kitchens.

What she does have is a plan to empower refugees through culinary education.

Emma’s Torch, which Brodie launched last December in New York City, is a culinary training program for refugees and asylees. The curriculum includes a lot of what you’d find in any restaurant school — hands-on instruction about cooking techniques, knife skills, kitchen safety and food presentation — but also job readiness training like ESL classes, resume workshops and interview prep.

If the concept sounds familiar, it’s similar to what goes down at the Philabundance Community Kitchen in Philly. But at Emma’s Torch, instead of the student body being made up mostly of formerly incarcerated people, it’s made up of refugees — and they’ve been in the news a lot lately thanks to President Donald Trump’s order attempting to ban them from entering the country or seeking asylum here.

The timing of the program’s launch made it seem like it was put together in direct response to the Trump Administration’s refugee stance. But Brodie has been working on Emma’s Torch since autumn of 2015.

“It’s a bit uncanny,” she told Billy Penn about the confluence, “but unfortunately the global refugee crisis has been ongoing. It hit a level of urgency before it started blaring from the pages of every newspaper.”

Brodie, 26, became familiar with the crisis via her background in public policy. She holds a degree in Middle Eastern studies from Princeton, worked as communications director for the Israeli Embassy in DC and spent nearly two years as press secretary for LGBTQ civil rights nonprofit Human Rights Campaign.

She often came into contact with refugees and asylees, she explained, and slowly an idea began to take root.

“My happy place has always been cooking with my mom and grandmom in the kitchen,” Brodie said, noting that her grandmother was a immigrant from South Africa. “Whether it’s here or Aleppo or Eastern Europe, people have memories of creating food together. That commonality can build bridges between people.”

There’s more to it than just cooking. “There’s something incredibly empowering about feeding people,” she said, “and I wanted to give that to [refugees], give them the feeling that what they brought to the table mattered.”

Over the course of several months, Brodie had trouble letting go of the concept.

“Someone should be doing something like this!” she kept telling her husband. One day came back with the reply that would set her on her current path: “How about if that someone is you?”

More than a year of research followed. Brodie sought advice from what she calls “stakeholders” — influential people in the restaurant and refugee assistance worlds. She set up an advisory chefs council to provide feedback and guidance. She even attended culinary school herself (she just graduated in January), to learn more about cooking but also for a first-hand look at how modern culinary education is organized.

And in December, she welcomed the first group of refugees to the pilot run of Emma’s Torch, which is named for Emma Lazarus, the poet whose words make up the Statue of Liberty’s famous inscription:

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

The first class was small — 25 people interviewed for just three spots — and was really more about learning how the 100-hour curriculum would play out than anything else, Brodie said. Starting in June, the program will welcome 10 students at a time. The hope is that graduates will score good jobs cooking in US restaurants, but there’s a secondary goal: Brodie wants Emma’s Torch to also become a catering company in its own right, so it has the ability to hire its own graduates.

A third goal is to inspire others to follow in her footsteps.

Brodie’s talk at Drexel on Sunday afternoon, which is open to the public ($25 tickets here), is titled “How the culinary industry can help in the fight for social justice.” She’s familiar with the Philly food scene because her sister and nephew live here, and has been following Philly restaurants’ efforts in fundraising and awareness-raising in support of immigrants in the hospitality community.

“I think both the food scene in Philadelphia and the push for social justice in Philly are incredible,” Brodie said.

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Danya Henninger

Danya Henninger is director of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the...