Fine dining serves up training and dignity
Brandon Chrostowski is telling his origin story for probably the thousandth time. He’s pacing the stage of a high school in Cleveland, Ohio holding his microphone with the confidence of a rock star. Chrostowski is a distinguished chef – he was a restaurateur semifinalist in the 2022 James Beard awards – and founder of a restaurant with a philanthropic mission. Yet he’s ambivalent about all the acclaim. He’s tasted what it’s like to be stripped of dignity. At 18, he was arrested for fleeing and eluding the police after he and some friends were found in a car with drugs they intended to sell.
“I learned a lot of things. One, the dehumanisation in the criminal justice system,” he tells the students at Gilmour Academy. “Also, the idea of freedom. You don’t really know what freedom is until you lose it.”
A lenient judge decided against sentencing Chrostowski to prison and he’s never forgotten how fortunate he was not to serve a 5-to-10-year sentence. It’s the reason he launched Edwins Leadership & Restaurant Institute on Cleveland’s East Side.
What makes Edwins unique isn’t just its French cuisine. It’s that its workers are formerly incarcerated adults. Over six months, those in training learn skills relevant to the culinary world. More than that, Chrostowski tries to draw out a sense of self-worth in those who’ve served time by showing them how to attain excellence. “The single hardest thing we have to do at Edwins is really build esteem in someone who has lost that, or that sense of humanity, through incarceration,” he says.
Hours before giving his speech, Chrostowski strides into a kitchen where two trainees are singing along to a tune on the radio. Donning a half apron, he quickly assesses a hunk of braised beef inside a pot as large as a bassinet. “Got bay leaves?” he asks an apprentice named Richie. “And celery?” As Chrostowski shares tips with Richie, he picks up a knife and demonstrates how to slice asparagus.
In 2017, Edwins was the subject of an Oscar-nominated short documentary titled “Knife Skills”. Sahithya Wintrich, a former Edwins board member who appears in the film, says the program is designed to instil confidence. “As soon as they are able to learn how to perfectly chop a vegetable or dice an onion — using the julienne technique, you know, all the different slicing, chopping, mixing, cooking techniques — it creates a certain dignity within themselves,” she says. “And also how other people view them. Their past doesn’t matter anymore.”
Abdul El-Amin enrolled in the program in June after being imprisoned for 20 years. “When you come here, it is sincere. You’re welcome. You can feel it,” he says after his first two weeks of training. He adds, “I’m seeing so many other opportunities that I didn’t think about when I was incarcerated.”
That’s not to say the program isn’t demanding. More than 2,000 people have trained at Edwins since it opened in 2013. Of those, only 600 have graduated; most drop out, often within the first two weeks. (They’re always welcome to reapply.) The program boasts a 95% employment rate for its alumni, though, and fewer than 1% of graduates end up back in prison. Star pupils have gone on to work in restaurants across America and even in France.
“[Chrostowski] really doesn’t care what walk of life you’re from, who you are, what you’ve done,” says William Brown, a staff member at Cleveland’s Community Assessment & Treatment Services, a rehabilitation organisation that enrols promising individuals in the Edwins program. “He wants to see you succeed. And he will go the extra mile.”
Chrostowski has a hectic daily schedule. During peak restaurant rush hours, the chef admits to hurling pans in frustration, but they’re not aimed at anyone. “I still have my moments,” he says. “I’m not perfect.”
He pursues the exacting standards he learned as an apprentice at restaurants in Chicago, New York, and in Paris. He rose fast. But he’s never forgotten his first break. In the late 1990s, a Detroit chef named George Kalergis took him in while he was still on parole.
Many years later, Kalergis called from Detroit with bad news. A man named Quentin, who’d learned the rudiments of restaurant cooking alongside Chrostowski, had been stabbed to death. A week later, Kalergis called again. Another restaurant worker had been killed.
“I started to think, ‘How is it possible I’m here, and others are not?’” says Chrostowski. “And so, 2004, 18 years ago, I decided to say, ‘I’m going to build a restaurant that can change the world.’” He wanted to help others, just as Kalergis had helped him. But it took another decade of working in restaurants before he was able to raise the money to fulfil his vision.
Chrostowski came up with the name, which is shorthand for “Education wins.” Edwin is also his middle name. A few years after moving to Cleveland, he opened his restaurant in a historic, racially diverse area called Shaker Square. In 2020, he opened a second restaurant, Edwins Too, on the opposite side of the town’s leafy square. He’s also launched a French bakery and a butchery. These expansions have helped the area become a dining destination.
Just off the main street in Shaker Square, Chrostowski proudly shows off his latest project, which will become a child care centre. “We’ve raised about $250,000 for a family centre or day care,” he says. “Free day care for staff and students, because 80% of our students with children don’t finish. It’s a big number and we want to change that.”
He also wants to help beyond Ohio. He’s developed a 30-hour curriculum and distributed it on 400,000 tablets to prisons in the United States.
“[Brandon] has a big heart,” says trainee Ce’Lo Croff, whose ambition is to own a food truck. “Just watching Brandon and the amazing things he does, it is just so true that anything you set your mind to literally is possible. And you have to have the diligence and the perseverance and the drive to just go get it.”
TOP Brandon Chrostowski (centre) with trainees in Edwins Too restaurant
ABOVE LEFT Abdul El-Amin, who spent 20 years in an Ohio prison, travelled from Columbus to Cleveland to enrol in the Edwins program. “You’re welcome. You can feel it,” he says.
ABOVE RIGHT Belinda Anderson and John Carlos learn about different types of sauces and how to prepare them
PHOTO Stephen Humphries/Christian Science Monitor