In 2022, Bulleit Frontier Whiskey and First We Feast embarked on a journey to find activists creating a more sustainable future for America’s food landscape. Together, they selected a chef, a farmer, a bartender, and an educator to be New American Food Pioneers. Under this initiative, Bulleit Frontier Whiskey gave each pioneer a $10,000 grant from its Bulleit Frontier Fund, a grant administered by Fairfield County’s Community Foundation, to reinvest in their communities and to support causes that align with their personal missions. Get to know them through this four-part video series highlighting their work to ensure a healthy, sustainable future for their cities, then read more of their thoughts below.
Many of us think about changing the world for the better. Helping others is a powerful human instinct. But figuring out exactly how to help is much harder. Few ever get that far. But Kerry Brodie is someone who has. With a bit of inspiration from her husband, Brodie turned what she calls a “nutty idea” into a non-profit that provides paid culinary training to refugees, asylees, and survivors of human trafficking.
Before founding her non-profit, Brodie worked in public policy and political communications. She loved the work, but says, “I had all these crazy ideas in my brain about what was wrong with the world, these massive problems.” One day, her husband asked, “Why can’t you be the person to create that change in your community?” Put like that, Brodie agreed that she could and got to work.
That was the start of Brodie’s Brooklyn 501C3 culinary arts training program. In the six years it’s been open, her non-profit has seen 175 students graduate, with 96 percent of those who want a cooking job finding one. But it hasn’t been easy. “Running a non-profit is constantly needing to be a pessimist, an optimist, and really determined,” Brodie says. “There are days where you’re so inspired by the outcomes you’re seeing for your students. And there are days where there’s the reality of keeping the lights on. It’s living in both of those realities of the hope for the future.”
Part of that is because the program houses a unique and diverse student body. With a wide range of ages, backgrounds, and educations, Brodie’s students are often united only by traumatic pasts, determination, and profound hope. “Our students are survivors of forced migration. They are refugees as asylees. They are people who supported the US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. They’re survivors of human trafficking and domestic violence,” Brodie explains. “But they’re so much more than that. Our students are people who come to this country believing in that American dream, in that hope for what’s possible.”
Brodie and her students keep that sense of hope at the forefront of their goals, a guiding principle to help navigate uncertainties and challenges. An emphasis on flexibility and reciprocal learning have also been key to the program’s success. “Something that’s really special about our program is that it’s constantly evolving to meet the needs of the students, but also to learn from them,” Brodie says. “Our whole team is made up of lifelong learners.”
A sense of balance also helps. “Running this organization is knowing that every single day is a learning opportunity, because something crazy or weird or exciting is going to happen,” Brodie says. “While a lot of my day is predictable, every day there is a chance for something wonderful to happen. That’s the combination of the predictable and the possible.”
True to Brodie’s philosophy, the two portions of her ten-week culinary training program mirror that balance. The first five weeks, which Brodie calls “boot camp,” are highly structured. In that time, students learn fundamentals like knife skills. The second half is more open ended, offering students a chance “to explore what those fundamentals could lead to in the job market.” During that portion of training, which Brodie calls “operational,” she says students are “working in our businesses, getting that real world experience, and learning the different stations in the restaurant.”
Throughout it all, Brodie’s non-profit provides students with language education and emotional support. “Students are receiving English classes and trauma-informed care to ensure that they’re not only successful throughout our program, but when they graduate,” she says.
The fact that Brodie’s program pays students to learn is also crucial, providing them a sense of stability right from the beginning of classes. “We’re actually paying them to participate in all of this,” she reminds us. “From day one, they’re earning a living and that is establishing their future for a career. So, it’s really all of these pieces because it’s never just enough to do one thing.”
Brodie believes that a holistic approach is necessary, because the program’s students are looking for far more than training alone. “One thing that everybody is looking for is community,” she says. “A sense of belonging, a sense of confidence and respect, of saying, I know I have something to offer and I would like to be in a context that appreciates what I have to bring to the table.”
In that respect, Brodie knows she and her staff have “built something that fundamentally works.” And with that comes a sense of pride for those who’ve completed the program. “I’m so incredibly proud of our graduates,” she says. “We have students at Michelin Star restaurants, we have students at incredible food production places. We have students really in every part of the culinary industry.”
To Brodie, seeing program graduates work in New York’s best kitchens is an American success story, not only because of what her students have accomplished, but because of where they started. “Whenever we talk about American cuisine, we always point to the fact that American cuisine is the story of American migrants,” she says. “Our students are people who come to this country believing in that American dream.”
That’s the essence of the New American Food Pioneers program according to Brodie. “To me, New American Food Pioneers are people who are saying, What can I be doing in this space that’s going to improve the world,” she explains. “Not just improve the four walls in which I operate, but truly make a difference?”
With the difference she’s already made, it seems possible that one of Brodie’s students could some day become a New American Food Pioneer themselves. “I always say with our students that if you can see it, you can believe it,” she says. And that’s as true inside a kitchen as it is anywhere else.
As part of the New American Food Pioneers program, Kerry Brodie received a $10,000 grant from the Bulleit Frontier Fund. Brodie is working with The Good People Fund to use that grant to support her mission of teaching refugees, asylees, and survivors of human trafficking to be professional cooks and chefs. The Bulleit Frontier Fund is a donor-advised fund administered by Fairfield County’s Community Foundation.