I return to the restaurant
Ever since I waitressed at a struggling brunch restaurant, I've always had an unshakable fear of what goes on in the kitchen churning out the food on my plate. The fear of stomaching a $12 crepe that has been poked and prodded to look Instagrammable by a dozen greasy fingers is only seconded to fear of the possibility that the crepe came from a package and was heated up in the microwave (true story). And my suspicions have undergone severe confirmation bias via the likes of Anthony Bourdain and other too-honest chefs.
Walking into Emma’s Torch and peering into their open-air kitchen caused quite a culture shock. The kitchen was pristine and well-ordered. There was no brown bananas dangling out of crevices, no vats of chunky, off-white granulated sugar. I suppose that is the currency we deal in in a restaurant that functions dually as a culinary school for refugees, asylees, and survivors of human trafficking. The head chef is always setting an example. The kitchen is always a classroom.
This past Thursday, we graduated four students, all female, who emigrated from Vietnam, Jamaica, Ethiopia and Cote d’Ivoire. In a culminating moment for their graduation dinner, they crafted, cooked and plated a six-course menu for thirty guests. The kitchen teemed with energy from six till nine. I could spy on all four of them squidge-ing around in a tiny space with head chef and culinary director Alex, once in a while stopping to grin at one another and the sheer magnitude of it all: In 8 weeks, these women had gone from occasional home cooks to masters in a high-pressure New York kitchen. Some did not know how to introduce themselves beyond a name and a place, but they knew how to scale a fish, temper a custard, deglaze a pan, any day. And they knew it in English.
I always believed food to be a creative pursuit. But food as a bridge into a new society—this never occurred to me. At this culinary school, food was the both familiar and unfamiliar. It came with the territory: You were crafting dishes and learning techniques you never would have imagined. (The cuisine is new American carrying international influences). But the art of nourishment was perhaps something that you—a mother, a daughter, a brother—had learned from a loved one, knew already.
The Tuesday before their graduation dinner, the students sat round table to finalize menu plans. At one point, one of a shier students known to speak in single decibels could not decide between an Ethiopian fit fit shredded bread salad and dish that would be more familiar to the crowd. Alex looked her in the eyes and said: "Listen to me. Which one speaks to you?" She settled on the fit fit bread salad. It was the most unusual dish I tasted on the menu. And it was melt-in-your mouth delicious.
Food had become a mouthpiece for the self. It is fitting that at the end of the program, the students choose the food they cook. Often, they choose to ‘return home,’ to pay homage to their own histories. But when they enter the kitchen, the hand on the knife is steadier, the way around the kitchen is smoother. At this graduation, we were celebrating old foods and new selves.
Emma’s Torch students have gone on to find jobs in top-tier New York restaurants, move out of homeless shelters, bring their families to the United States, and start their own businesses.
- Allison Huang '21