“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only things that ever has.” – Margaret Mead
D’Artagnan is proud to work with chefs across the nation, in both big cities and small towns, and we are particularly proud of Chef Brandon Chrostowski, a client in Cleveland, who is the subject of an Academy Award-nominated short documentary film.
Directed by Thomas Lennon, Knife Skills is a 40-minute documentary about EDWINS Leadership & Restaurant Institute, a classic French restaurant in Cleveland that serves 20,000 people a year, with a unique and revolutionary social cause: it is the only white tablecloth restaurant in the country whose staff consists entirely of formerly incarcerated men and women. The EDWINS re-entry program trains and equips people with the job and life skills needed to succeed in the restaurant industry.
Focused on a few weeks in the fall of 2013, Knife Skills follows Brandon Chrostowski, the visionary founder and CEO of EDWINS, and his team as they train the first class of students for opening night.
We recently spoke to Brandon, just after he screened Knife Skills at a federal prison with filmmaker Thomas Lennon, and a distinguished guest, Judge Benita Pearson, the first African American woman to serve as a United States District Judge in the State of Ohio.
“We got a standing ovation; it was very powerful. About 50 men attended and the whole morning just built a lot of hope,” said Brandon. “It was a historic moment to have Judge Pearson as a guest there.”
Knife Skills has been screened often since its release at the end of July 2017, both at film festivals and in prisons. Six years after his fledgling culinary training program began in a single Ohio prison, Brandon returned there to screen the film, which now serves as an effective recruiting tool. Today Brandon’s re-entry program is in 13 different Ohio prisons, where inmates begin to learn the kitchen skills they will develop at EDWINS when they are released.
“It all began with a break I got when I was younger, not understanding what it meant until later in life. In 2004 I realized I had to build this, and went back to school at the Culinary Institute of America. I worked on the vision for ten years until I opened in the current restaurant space in late 2013, but 2011 is when we began working in the prisons. It was just something important that needed to be done.”
Brandon refers to his youthful arrest in Detroit, where a judge gave him probation instead of a prison sentence that would surely have changed the course of his life. The condition was that he get a job, which he did, as a dishwasher in a kitchen. The chef there took a teenaged Brandon under his wing. That small kindness inspired Brandon to help others, and pay it forward, as he says, “That mentor put me on a different path. I felt I was on borrowed time, and I had to do this.”
Brandon apprenticed at Charlie Trotters in Chicago and did a stint at Lucas Carton, the longest-standing Michelin 3-star restaurant in Paris. He worked in some of the finest restaurants in New York City – Le Cirque, Picholine, and Chanterelle; all of his experience, in the kitchen and the front of the house, uniquely qualified him to teach haute cuisine to unlikely students.
“The most amazing part about this was the clarity and conviction and vision to do it. The rest was just hard work, common sense, problem-solving and troubleshooting. Fundamentally it’s very simple.”
In Ohio, at any moment, 50,000 people are in prison; about 20,000 are released yearly. Almost a quarter of these individuals re-enter society in Cuyahoga County. Then the arithmetic gets very bad: Within three years, one-third of these folks are back in penitentiaries. Meanwhile, the state is spending $1.3 billion on these prisons. – Brandon Chrostowksi
As the EDWINS re-entry program began, Brandon quickly realized that asking people to study French food and wine pairings while living in a shelter, as many of his students did, was not tenable. His long-range plans included building housing, but that project had to be accelerated when he saw how great the need was. In 2016 he opened the Life Skills Center.
“We focus on the student while they are here, the campus gives them a safe place to live if they need it, a library to focus on their studies, a fitness center to focus on their bodies and minds, and lastly, we are in the middle of a fundraiser right now to expand with a butcher shop.”
Every human being regardless of their past has the right to a fair and equal future.” -Brandon Chrostowski
“We are pretty focused on what we have to do – run a restaurant at the highest level possible and make sure every student there is cared for,” said Brandon. “We develop very strong leaders – there are over 250 graduates now – and 95% of them are employed, some are managers in other restaurants, where they hire like we do.”
More than a training program, EDWINS has earned accolades as a restaurant; a three-star review from the Cleveland Plain Dealer, a Silver Spoon recipient for Best French Restaurant from Cleveland Magazine, and been called “High-Stakes Haute Cuisine” by The New York Times and one of the best new restaurants in Cleveland by Scene magazine. Clearly “EDWINS isn’t just about giving inmates a new life. It’s also about providing an exquisite dining experience,” as NPR said of it in 2014.
On Being the Best
Brandon set out to become the best chef in the world, but his priorities shifted and he determined to make EDWINS the best French restaurant. He told many people that goal, and someone finally told him, “You did open the best French restaurant – who else is doing what you are doing for society?”
He reflected that “Maybe it is the best French restaurant in the world. Who else is teaching ambassadors of the cuisine like we are? Who is giving equal opportunity to learn the fundamentals of French cuisine?”
Now he wants EDWINS to grow into the best culinary school in the country, building strong leaders for tomorrow. He sees the expansion including a butcher shop, training for pastry chefs, and more. If he has the vision then we expect the rest of us will see it all come to fruition soon.
“It took ten years to get to where we are, and it will take 10 more years to finish the next phase.”