In Cleveland, Fine Dining Serves Up Training – And Dignity – After Prison

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

Belinda Anderson and John Carlos learn about different types of sauces and how to prepare them at Edwins Restaurant. (Photo by Stephen Humphries / The Christian Science Monitor)

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This story was originally published by The Christian Science Monitor.

Brandon Chrostowski is telling his origin story for probably the thousandth time. He’s pacing the stage of a local high school, holding his microphone with the confidence of a rock star. Mr. Chrostowski is a distinguished chef – he was a restaurateur semifinalist in the 2022 James Beard awards – and founder of a Cleveland 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. He and some friends had been in a car with drugs they intended to sell.

“I learned a lot of things. One, the dehumanization 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 him to prison. Mr. Chrostowski has never forgotten that he was fortunate 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, but its workers – they’re formerly incarcerated adults. Over six months, those in training learn skills for employment in the culinary world. More than that, Mr. 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 that has lost that, or that sense of humanity, through incarceration,” says Mr. Chrostowski.

Hours before giving his speech at the high school, Mr. Chrostowski strides into a kitchen where two trainees are singing along to a Bobby Womack tune on the radio. Tying a half apron around his waist, the chef 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 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 titled “Knife Skills.” Sahithya Wintrich, a former Edwins board member who appears in the film, says the program is designed to instill confidence. “As soon as they are able to learn how to perfectly chop a vegetable or dice an onion – use the julienne technique, you know, all the different slicing, chopping, mixing, cooking techniques – it creates a certain dignity within themselves,” says Ms. Wintrich in an interview. “And also how other people view them. … Their past doesn’t matter anymore.”

Abdul El-Amin enrolled in the program in June after being incarcerated 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. Over 2,000 people have trained at Edwins since its opening in 2013. Of those, only 600 have graduated because 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, and fewer than 1% of graduates are re-incarcerated. Star pupils have gone on to work in restaurants across America and even in France.

“[Mr. 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 organization that enrolls promising individuals in the Edwins program. “He wants to see you succeed. And he will go the extra mile.”

Mr. 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 such as Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago, Le Cirque in New York, and Lucas Carton 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.

Years later, Mr. Kalergis called from Detroit with bad news. A man named Quentin, who’d learned the rudiments of restaurant cooking alongside Mr. Chrostowski, had been stabbed to death. A week later, Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Chef Kalergis had helped him. But it took another decade of working in restaurants – including a move to Cleveland in 2008 – before he was able to raise the money to fulfill his vision.

Mr. Chrostowski came up with the name, which is shorthand 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, racially diverse area called Shaker Square. In 2020, he expanded by opening 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. The expansions have helped the area become a dining destination.

Just off the main street in Shaker Square, Mr. Chrostowski proudly shows off his latest project, which will become a child care center. “We’ve raised about $250,000 for a family center 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.”

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

“[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 that 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.”

This story is part of the SoJo Exchange from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems.

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Stephen Humphries is a staff writer covering culture at The Christian Science Monitor.

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Tags: incarceration

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