Brandon Chrostowski was just wrapping a particularly challenging dinner service at EDWINS Leadership & Restaurant Institute
when he answered his phone. The person on the other end of the line was freaking out about a broken toilet, which may or may not have been the cause of the flooded basement.
“Now, I’m a landlord,” Chrostowski groans.
We are standing in the freshly completed test kitchen and library of the EDWINS Second Chance Life Skills Center
, the latest maneuver in the humanitarian’s mission to give formerly incarcerated men and women a foundation in the hospitality industry. The kitchen is outfitted with new commercial cooking equipment, while the library is stocked with computer terminals, cookbooks and couches.
“I look at what worked in my life, and what was inspirational,” Chrostowski explains. “I’ll never forget going into the Culinary Institute of America’s library and seeing what a safe place it was to incubate and read. You could literally grab anything off the shelf and dream about it. The next thing you know, it’s not a dream.”
Since Chrostowski launched EDWINS in 2013, 148 students have graduated from the taxing six-month program, which goes well beyond instruction in cooking and serving fine French food. All but a handful have gone on to jobs at fine local restaurants like Pier W, Crop and Fire Food & Drink. None have relapsed into criminal behavior and returned to prison.
This latest expansion to the program is a three-building campus in Cleveland’s Buckeye neighborhood that provides housing, services and amenities to current and former students while striving to improve the surrounding community. In addition to the dorm and alumni house, the campus includes a fitness center, basketball court, greenhouse and chicken coop, all of which is a five-minute walk from EDWINS.
For the privilege of living in the facility, students pay about $35 per month in utilities and $100 per month in rent, both of which come out of their EDWINS stipend. Every rent payment is deposited, set aside, and returned to the students when they move out.
The EDWINS path begins long before students walk into the Shaker Square facility. Chrostowski makes frequent visits to Ohio prisons, where he speaks to inmates about the program and drops off the curriculum, text books and DVDs filled with hours of recorded lessons.
“You plant the seed,” he says. “They start thinking about it, writing about it, dreaming about it, and emailing us. And when they get released they come here and it’s everything they were thinking about and visualizing. This might not be everyone’s final destination, but this industry gives you fundamentals in life. It fosters a solid work ethic, it teaches you about working as a team and communicating, and you learn about customer service.”
There are 50 local restaurants eager and willing to hire EDWINS grads, but not every one of them will be able to. In addition to limited supply – the program can only turn out so many employees – not every restaurant meets Chrostowski’s lofty standards.
“We visit restaurants to scrutinize the operation, the management culture, is the chef present and will the job foster growth,” he says.
Even this latest milestone in the undertaking is just a start, says Chrostowski. Of the 4,000 men and women returning home to Cuyahoga County each year from prison, only 100 or so can be accepted into the program.
“To solidify the EDWINS mission and make it stick, we have to keep doing these impossible tasks,” he explains. “This is just another notch in our long-term plan of building an elite culinary school, building this community up, enlarging our footprint, and casting that mission even farther.”
To those ends, Chrostowski intends to purchase surrounding buildings to house a future butcher shop, bakery, fish shop, and wine and cheese shop, each of which will present the students and alumni with a new set of skills, new employment opportunities, improved confidence and heightened self-esteem.
“Nobody in the country is doing something like this,” Chrostowski says. “Not to this level, not all centered around food, and not with reckless abandon. Those coming out of prison can do the best and will do the best if given a fair and equal opportunity. The success at EDWINS is validating that point. Now, let’s take on the next challenge.”