Chef Brandon Edwin Chrostowski had plied his culinary skills at some of the world’s most renown eateries in New York and Paris including Le Cirque, Chanterelle and Lucas Carton. A classically trained chef and sommelier, he had advanced to the apex of his profession and yet something was missing for him.
He moved to Cleveland to become general manager at L’Albatros Brasserie, a French bistro when he changed his life and pursued a mission.
In 2007, he established a non-profit organization, Edwins Leadership & Restaurant Institute in Cleveland, Ohio, which combines a fine dining French eatery, a bakery, and butcher shop with an events space. In running the restaurants and shops, his goal is to train former prisoners and provide them with a steady career and income.
A chef who worked at the finest restaurants in the world, due to his own personal history, has dedicated himself to turning his non-profit restaurant complex into teaching skills that can transform an ex-prisoner’s life.
When Chrostowski was 18-years-old and growing up in Detroit, he got into trouble with the law. He was arrested for selling marijuana and then got into a scrape with the policeman trying to arrest him. He plea bargained, got off with a one-year probation and sealed record, but since that time he has always felt that he needed to give back.
“I got a pass,” he admits. He had a culinary mentor, graduated from the State University of New York Oswego and then from the well-respected Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and was on the pathways to success.
His goal in creating Edwins Institute “was to change the perception of someone who is incarcerated,” he said. To achieve his mission, he created a 501c non-profit organization, which includes a three-person development team to raise funds.
With the funding provided, its students are trained for free at culinary school, and are also offered free housing, with assistance from a full-time case manager, for supportive services.
Its training program, the Second Chance Life Skills Center, contains 40 beds, in two apartment buildings. Students can stay for up to six months in the program, but for its graduates and for those who want family housing, they can remain longer than that.
Students participating in the program receive a stipend. If they stay in housing, $100 is taken out of their stipend but returned when they leave. It functions essentially like a savings account.
Trainees learn a variety of skills including every position in the dining room and the kitchen, and that entails host, bartender, server, manager, cook, and food prep covering desserts, fish and meats, and the basics of restaurant business.
“Upon graduation our grads have done it all, from managing the kitchen to serving, bartending, baking and pastries, working in corporate kitchens to working their own restaurants and food trucks,” he explained.
Moreover, prisoners that are currently incarcerated can take classes online via closed-circuit tablets.
The prisoners have been found guilty of a variety of offenses, including substance abuse, aggravated assault, and armed robbery. To prove how successful the program is, its recidivism rate of graduates returning to prison is 1% or negligible.
Edwins Institute has about 40 employees, full and part-time, so openings are sporadic. Since it can graduate up to 500 students a year, only a handful are hired at his complex.
“You’re here for six months, and if there’s an opening,” he said, “you can get hired.”
But the point of the program transcends teaching culinary skills, noted Chrostowski. “We’re here to build a student’s confidence in himself first,” he said.
Its 2021 budget ending July 31 amounted to $1.5 million, stemming from a variety of donors including Key Bank, the Cleveland Browns and Bank of America.
How much time does he spend fundraising? “You’re always fundraising,” he explained, even when you’re schmoozing on the dining room floor.
All of its entities are named Edwins and entail the French eatery, Edwins Restaurant, Edwins Bakery and Edwins Butcher Shop. Chrostowski chose his middle name to embody its efforts because it was his grandfather’s name, and he stood for “grit. We continue this grit in everything we do, day in and day out, at Edwins,” he noted. Edwins is also short for the motto Education Wins.
Located in the Buckeye-Shaker neighborhood, which once was considered edgy, Chrostowski described it as “definitely distressed but full of potential.”
Edwins Restaurant is a fine dining eatery, where patrons spend $75 to $80 per person with wine, for dinner. He described it as “classic old-style French, with warm and hospitable atmosphere, but not pretentious.” He says some specialties include braised rabbit, frog legs and seafood sausage.
The bakery, he described, as a classic boulangerie or French bakery, and the butcher shop as a friendly charcuterie.
Chrostowski has been recognized for his efforts in a variety of ways including being named a CNN Hero and was the subject of a 2017 Academy Award-nominated documentary short Knife Skills. He also turned politician when he unsuccessfully ran for mayor of Cleveland in 2017.
Asked about the future of the institute, he replied, “I continually want to disrupt and challenge and change the world of reentry. We’re helping to make sure their reentry goes well.”
How satisfying is it for Chrostowski to be on this mission? “That’s where I was meant to be,” he replied.