CLEVELAND, Ohio (CNN) — This week, politicians and delegates to the Republican National Convention flocked to Cleveland’s best restaurants – including EDWINS, known to foodies for its upscale French cuisine.
But this high-end establishment provides far more than a good meal. It’s staffed almost entirely by people who were once incarcerated.
By day, ex-offenders learn the fundamentals of the culinary arts industry. By night, they put their skills to work.
It’s the vision of Brandon Chrostowski, a chef and veteran of elite restaurants in Chicago, New York and Paris. He realized that the stigma of a prison record made it challenging for ex-offenders to find work, so he decided to do something about it.
“After someone’s done their time, everyone deserves that fair and equal second chance,” said Chrostowski, 36. “At Edwins, you can come to us after you’ve served that time and start over.”
His nonprofit program provides 40 to 50 hours a week of free training in everything from knife skills and the “mother sauces” to the steps of service and the basics of wine. Students then rotate through positions in the front and back of the house.
“It’s a top-down perspective of this business,” Chrostowski said of his six-month program. “Once they learn that, they can work anywhere.”
Students get a weekly stipend, as well as a portion of the donations left by diners in lieu of tips. A full-time caseworker helps them with housing, counseling or getting a driver’s license.
It’s a recipe that seems to be working. Chrostowski says 114 students have graduated, more than 90% of them are employed, and none has returned to prison.
CNN’s Kathleen Toner spoke with Chrostowski about his work. Below is an edited version of their conversation.
CNN: Your program is about second chances, something you once had.
Brandon Chrostowski: I was a reckless teenager, and one night, I was arrested and thrown in jail. Fortunately, I had a judge who gave me a break instead of 10 years in prison. While I was on probation, I met a chef who mentored me. Once I was in that kitchen, I knew that’s where I belonged for the rest of my life.
Seeing the struggle of (these men and women) coming home from prison, I think all the time, “That could’ve been me.” It just pushes me to work harder for them. We’re giving an opportunity and believing in someone, just like that judge believed in me.
CNN: What’s your philosophy, and how does it work?
Chrostowski: We all make mistakes, so we take everyone, regardless of their past, and we have a culture of trust, period.
The first thing I did when I moved into this space was rip out the old security cameras, because moving forward means you accept someone for who they are and not who they were. We’re providing the ultimate freedom — we’re not judging you — and our students love it. I’ve had less problems here than any other place I’ve ever worked.
If someone is violent or comes to work on drugs, we have a zero-tolerance policy. But when people are ready, we welcome them back. Edwins is a family. There’s a spirit in here where we’re in this together. To have a second chance is to have a new life. And if you’re ready to work hard, you can change the stars.
CNN: What’s the significance of the name, Edwins?
Chrostowski: It’s my middle name, from my grandfather. He was a tough guy, but he knew that through hard work and courage, you can succeed.
It also comes from a declaration that “Education Wins,” because to overcome challenges, through education, is to win again. No one forgets the taste of winning. It’s not on our tongue, but it’s in our soul, and it’s contagious. So if you can overcome a hard challenge here at Edwins, it’s a win. It gives you confidence. That’s our secret ingredient.
CNN: You’ve recently expanded beyond the restaurant. What are your ambitions for the future?
Chrostowski: The need for housing was immediate. Many of our students were going home to a shelter or the back seat of a car. So we ended up buying three buildings that are now our campus.
At the Edwins Second Chance Life Skills Center, we have the dorm, the alumni house, and we’re building a fitness center, library and test kitchen. For students, the housing is essentially free; the $100 a month you pay gets returned to you at the end, which gives you a nest egg.
In the future, my hope is to expand that even further with a butcher shop, a fish shop, a spice shop, you name it. It improves the community, and it improves the education for our students.
Edwins is a passageway, a brief part of your journey. And I’ve been given the gifts to kick and to scratch and to fight to make sure that that door does get opened.
Want to get involved? Check out the Edwins Leadership & Restaurant Institute and see how you can help.
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