“A Restaurant Saved My Life”
05-16-2018 01:00pm

“A Restaurant Saved My Life”

A French Restaurant in Cleveland Serves Second Chances and Haute Cuisine

“I didn’t know I was such a polite guy,” says Dorian. Caught on film in the 2017 Oscar-nominated documentary Knife Skills, Dorian is working the front of the house at Edwins, a high-end French restaurant in Cleveland staffed almost entirely by people recently released from prison.  Dorian did 11 years for drug trafficking before getting a shot at a culinary education, and he marvels at how restaurant training transformed him. “It was like a show, and I liked being in that show.”

Brandon Chrostowski is the 32-year-old chef who started the Edwins Leadership and Restaurant Institute more than five years ago. His goals seem contradictory: to run not only a world-class restaurant but to train, employ and nurture people for whom employment is essential but elusive. “A restaurant saved my life,” he says simply.   He was 18 and living in Detroit when he was busted for dealing drugs. He avoided a possible ten-year sentence, but the look of disgust from the judge who gave him a year of probation and a chance to redeem himself is something he’s never forgotten.

Chrostowski knows he was lucky—“If I’d had black skin I would have done some time”—and that’s what drove his desire to give others the chances he had. “I found someone who would mentor me, teaching me skills at the highest level,” he recalls. Chef George Kalergis’s restaurant became his haven and his family. What he learned there and, later, at the Culinary Institute of America, allowed him to get out of Detroit, work at Charlie Trotter’s Michelin-starred Chicago restaurant, then in Paris, New York, “and all over.” “If it wasn’t for that skill, that confidence, that leadership,” he says, “I’d be like the rest of the people I know.”

It was while he was working at Le Cirque in New York’s Palace Hotel that he had the inspiration for what would become Edwins (which is both his middle name and a mash-up of “Education Wins”). Chrostowski was living in a dicey neighborhood, commuting every day to a work place redolent of luxury.

“I remember going to work every day with these copper pots, thousands of dollars of wine being sold, unfathomable amounts of money being passed through,” he says. He got a call one day from Kalergis saying that a friend of Chrostowski’s had been stabbed to death in a Detroit crack house.

“Quentin was this young kid,” he says of his late friend. “You couldn’t find a more peaceful soul.   And I started thinking: I could have been behind bars; I could have been dead. There’s got to be something more I can do. Actually I thought about going to a seminary and becoming a priest. I didn’t think that was the right path for me, but I decided to do something for a bigger picture. It took ten years to go from that thought to actually opening up Edwins.”

Chrostowski wrote a business plan in 2004, when he was still in New York, working at Chanterelle. He became a quick study in recidivism—two-thirds of prisoners are rearrested within three years of release—and learned that stable employment opportunities were among the chief challenges faced by people getting out of prison. He chose Cleveland for his program because of the city’s abysmal high school dropout rate and the school-to-prison pipeline. “I got a prison program running to show it could be done,” he recalls. Then he set out to raise money and found donors almost as enthusiastic as people in the restaurant business, who generally only care how hard people work. “One lady offered me $25,000. When I got that I thought, ‘I can pay myself a small salary and work nonstop to raise the rest of the money.’”

There were low points along the way, he admits. He went through a divorce (he has since remarried and has two young children) and doubted his own value as well as his ability to help others. It is that intensity, powered equally by purpose and regret, that has helped him succeed. “At the end of the day, I still consider myself trash,” he says in Knife Skills. “I’m no different than these guys.”

Since opening in 2013, the Edwins  program has expanded. They bought three new buildings within a few blocks of the restaurant for housing (another challenge for ex-prisoners), a library, a gymnasium and a test kitchen. Their mission has grown as well; when we spoke, Chrostowski was driving to the nearby city of Medina. “We opened a restaurant there about three weeks ago, helping people in recovery,” he says. As in the rest of Ohio, the opioid epidemic has taken a toll in the town, helped in part by “pizza delivery” dealers who come to your door with special toppings not found in nature. Chrostowski was going to be meeting U.S. Senator Rob Portman there, not for the first time.

“We have 250 graduates now,” he says. “One percent recidivism; people aren’t going back.” About half of those who start the intensive six-month program, where they learn to master dozens of French dishes as well varieties of wine and cheese, don’t make it to the end. Dorian, profiled in the documentary that has given Edwins national attention, got into a beef with Chrostowski and walked out, but showed up at the premiere of the movie with no regrets—and with a steady job elsewhere.  What people learn at Edwins is greater than knife skills; they’re life skills, the tools they need to live outside.

One thing Edwins is not concerned with is the past. Chrostowski does not ask applicants what they did, or even how much education they’ve had. Even if they’re forced to leave, they’re always welcome back. “As long as you didn’t punch someone in the eye,” he says, “or steal a bottle of wine.”

— Sean Elder

Learn more about Chrostowski’s mission in his TEDTalk and in the Oscar-nominated documentary Knife Skills.

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