In Cleveland, fine dining serves post-prison education — and dignity

What makes the Edwins Leadership & Restaurant Institute on Cleveland’s East Side unique isn’t just its French cuisine, but also its employees — they’re formerly incarcerated adults.

For six months, trainees acquire skills for employment in the culinary world. More than that, the leader behind it all, Brandon Chrostowski, tries to bring out self-esteem in those who have served their time by showing them how to achieve excellence.

Why we wrote this

What is the best way to help formerly incarcerated people get back on their feet? Inspired by his own experience, a Cleveland chef offers an educational approach in which skill and dignity are the two key ingredients.

“The hardest thing we have to do at Edwins is really build the esteem of someone who has lost that, or that sense of humanity, because of incarceration,” Chrostowski says.

More than 2,000 people have trained in the program since its launch in 2013. Of these, only 600 have graduated as most drop out, often within the first two weeks. (They are always welcome to reapply.) The restaurant boasts a 95% employment rate for its alumni and less than 1% of graduates are returned to prison. The star students went on to work in restaurants across America and even in France.

“When you come here, it’s sincere. Please. It shows,” says Abdul El-Amin, who started training in June. “I see so many other opportunities that I hadn’t thought of. when I was incarcerated.”

Cleveland

Brandon Chrostowski is telling his origin story for probably the thousandth time. He paces the stage at a local high school, holding his microphone with the confidence of a rock star. Mr. Chrostowski is a distinguished chef — he was a restaurateur semi-finalist for the 2022 James Beard Awards — and founder of a Cleveland restaurant with a philanthropic vocation. Still, he’s ambivalent about all the cheering. He’s tasted what it’s like to be stripped of his dignity. At 18, he was arrested for fleeing and evading the police. He and some friends were in a car with drugs they intended to sell.

“I learned a lot of things. First, the dehumanization of the criminal justice system,” he told students at Gilmour Academy. “Also, the idea of ​​freedom. is freedom until you lose it.

A lenient judge decided not to sentence him to prison. Mr. Chrostowski never forgot that he was lucky not to serve a 5 to 10 year sentence. That’s why he started Edwins Leadership & Restaurant Institute on the East Side of Cleveland.

Why we wrote this

What is the best way to help formerly incarcerated people get back on their feet? Inspired by his own experience, a Cleveland chef offers an educational approach in which skill and dignity are the two key ingredients.

What makes Edwins unique is not just its French cuisine, but its employees – they are formerly incarcerated adults. For six months, trainees acquire skills for employment in the culinary world. More than that, Mr. Chrostowski tries to bring out self-esteem in those who have served their time by showing them how to achieve excellence. “The hardest thing we have to do at Edwins is really build the esteem of someone who has lost that, or that sense of humanity, because of incarceration,” Chrostowski says.

Hours before giving his high school speech, Mr. Chrostowski walks into a kitchen where two interns are singing a Bobby Womack tune on the radio. Tying a half-apron around his waist, the chef quickly assesses a piece of braised beef in a pot as big as a cradle.

“Do you have any bay leaves? he asks an apprentice named Richie. “And the celery?

As Mr. 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 called “Knife Skills.” Sahithya Wintrich, a former Edwins board member who appears in the film, says the program is designed to inspire confidence. “As soon as they are able to learn how to perfectly chop a vegetable or a diced onion – use the julienne technique, you know, all the different techniques of slicing, chopping, mixing, cooking – it creates a certain dignity in themselves,” Ms. Wintrich said in an interview. “And also how other people see them. … Their past doesn’t matter anymore.

Stephen Humphries/The Christian Science Monitor

Abdul El-Amin, who spent 20 years in an Ohio prison, traveled from Columbus to Cleveland to enroll in the Edwins program. “You’re welcome. You can feel it,” he says.

Abdul El-Amin enrolled in the program in June after being incarcerated for 20 years. “When you come here, it’s sincere. Please. It shows,” he says after his first two weeks of training. He adds: “I see so many other opportunities that I didn’t have thought when I was incarcerated.

This does not mean that the program is not demanding. More than 2,000 people have trained at Edwins since it opened in 2013. Of these, only 600 have graduated because most drop out, often within the first two weeks. (They are always welcome to reapply.) The program boasts a 95% employment rate for its alumni and less than 1% of graduates return to prison. The star students went on to work in restaurants across America and even in France.

“[Mr. Chrostowski] really doesn’t care where you live, who you are, what you’ve done,” says William Brown, a staff member of Cleveland Community Assessment and Treatment Services, a rehabilitation organization that enrolls promising people in the Edwins program. “He wants to see you succeed. And he will go the extra mile.

Mr. Chrostowski has a busy daily schedule. During peak restaurant hours, the chef admits to throwing pans out of frustration, but they aren’t meant for anyone. “I still have my moments,” he says. “I’m not perfect.”

He continues the exacting standards he learned as an apprentice at restaurants such as Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago, Le Cirque in New York and Lucas Carton in Paris. He got up quickly. But he never forgot his first break. In the late 1990s, a Detroit chief named George Kalergis took him in while he was still on parole.

Years later, Mr. Kalergis called from Detroit with bad news. A man named Quentin, who had learned the basics of restaurant cooking alongside Mr. Chrostowski, had been stabbed to death. A week later, Mr. Kalergis called again. Another restaurant employee was killed.

“I started thinking, ‘How is it possible that I’m here and others aren’t?’ “says Mr. Chrostowski. “And so, in 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 Chief Kalergis had helped him. But it took another decade of restaurant work — including a move to Cleveland in 2008 — before he could raise the funds to realize his vision.

Mr. Chrostowski came up with the name, which is short for “education wins.” Edwin is also the chef’s middle name. A few years after moving to Cleveland, he opened his restaurant in a historic and racially diverse neighborhood called Shaker Square. In 2020, it expands by opening a second restaurant, Edwins Too, across the leafy town square. He also started a French bakery and butcher shop. The expansions have helped the region become a gastronomic destination.

Stephen Humphries/The Christian Science Monitor

Belinda Anderson and John Carlos learn about different types of sauces and how to make them at Edwins Restaurant.

Just off the main street of Shaker Square, Mr. Chrostowski proudly displays his latest project, which will become a daycare center. “We raised about $250,000 for a family center or daycare,” he says. “Free daycare for staff and students, because 80% of our students with children do not finish. That’s a big number and we want to change that.

The chef also wants to help outside of Ohio. In April, he traveled to his ancestral home in Poland to cook for refugees fleeing Ukraine. He also created a 30-hour program and distributed it on 400,000 tablets to prisons across the United States. Dee and Jimmy Haslam, co-owners of the Cleveland Browns football team, will pay for transportation for anyone in the United States who takes virtual instruction and applies to join the Edwins program.

“[Brandon] has a big heart,” says intern Ce’Lo Croff, whose ambition is to own a food truck. “Just by watching Brandon and the amazing things he does, it’s so true that literally anything you think about is possible. And you have to have the diligence, the persistence and the will to go after it.

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