A Restaurant Gives A Second Change to Formerly Incarcerated Individuals.
Prompted by the growing number of individuals returning to society after serving time in incarceration,
Brandon Chrostowski of Edwins Leadership and Restaurant is no stranger to the issue of incarceration, which is why he founded a Cleveland-based business that helps ex-cons get a second chance at life in a society often unwilling to give one.
Cooking Up A Recipe That Makes a Difference
Like other teenagers who grew up in low-income neighborhoods and as lack of parental guidance, 26-year-old Rufus Hill was in and out of prison for most of his twenties.
“I was in a very, very bad situation. I was pretty much at the bottom, ya know, my bottom,” Hill recalls.
After serving four and a half years in prison, and then going back again for another three years for a burglary charge, Hill was tired of living the way he did. With one walk into Edwin's Leadership Institute and Restaurant and an encounter with the brains behind the establishment, Brandon Chrostowski, Hill says his life turned around.
As stumbling into the food business was a game-changer for Hill, it too, was for Chrostowski. A Detroit native and lover of food since he could sit at his mother's kitchen table, Chrostowski found food as a solace during a time in his life when he wasn't in charge of his own fate. After a brush with the law in his teens, his journey towards plating culinary masterpieces and learning from the best of the best in France, Detroit and Chicago started in jail while waiting for his verdict for a crime he committed.
Instead of being sentenced to 10 years in prison, Chrostowski was given one year probation, something that he is grateful for.
“This whole idea of culinary arts throughout life just taught me these little lessons that say no matter of your past or who you are, you can do anything you want if you learn the right way and you work hard,” says Chrostowski.
Chrostowski is using food to not only nourish the stomachs of hungry guests, but uses it to nourish and guide lost souls that resemble him in his younger years.
With five months of his education completed and one more month to go ending in November, Hill emphasizes how the program has helped him received culinary and hospitality skills as well as boost his self-worth.
“Before coming to Edwins, it was a time in my life when I couldn't really hold conversations because I was intimidated by other people and the status in society. Since being here at a restaurant that deals with people who have more wealth, it got me to a place where I'm comfortable talking to people and socialize with people from different backgrounds,” Hill says.
Goals, guidance, and hard work is the recipe for success at Edwins. To date, 89 students have graduated from the Edwins, and about 90 percent of them have not returned to prison. Having mentors believe in Chrostowski in the beginning of his career was a key to his upward mobility in the food industry.
The Brains Behind the Operation
During his probation while still in Detroit, he stumbled upon Chef George Kalergis who taught Chrostowksi the fundamentals of cooking and hospitality. With a solid year of culinary experience under his belt, Kalergis gave him a polite shove out the door to learn more culinary and hospitality skills. Shortly after, Chrostowski found himself at the Culinary Institute of America in New York.
“I realized really quickly that I was heads and shoulders above most students there because George taught me a couple of lessons throughout life that were influential to my success,” says Chrostowski. “It is not practice that makes perfect, but perfect practice makes perfect. George really taught me that and emphasized this in everything. Right then and there in school I realized these lessons are true.”
Soon after, Chrostowski joined the ranks of top talented chefs with an internship working for the late James Beard Award winner and top chef, Charlie Trotter in Chicago. Making it happen with what you have was just one of many valuable lessons Trotter passed along to Chrostowski.
For those who knew Chrostowski in his early teens, success and food didn't seem as a likely match. But with a few mentors by his side overseeing every culinary masterpiece, he wanted to give back what he had received from chefs like George and Charlie: a second chance at life.
In 2004, the business plan and curriculum of Edwins was born. In late 2008, he made the journey from the culinary capital of the world to Cleveland, Ohio—a city that was facing an economic crisis and a culinary arts scene that lacked diversity and a national culinary reputation. Opening up a restaurant employing formerly incarcerated individuals in a city still developing its culinary presence would have seemed like an unnecessary risk to many, but for Chrostowski it made perfect sense.
“Cleveland had the worst high school graduation rate in 1998, which is when I graduated high school. It was a totally objective decision to write this business plan in 2004. I knew I had to go to a city that is in desperate need of opportunity. I looked for a town that needed what George gave to me and that was mentorship and some direction,” Chrostowski said. “They built prisons based on graduation rates and so I knew this was a town that needs me.”
Breaking the Barriers and Changing Perspective
The difference between other restaurateurs in the city and Chrostowski is that he has been in the shoes of most of the men and women he enrolls. He isn't afraid to test the limits when it comes to what can be done. Changing perception is one way he wants to achieve a society more accepting of others.
“I've been through one divorce, homeless twice, and when I opened up the restaurant I had $10.44 in my bank account. Rock bottom. So when you say to yourself, if I really give my life to this, it might actually happen and that is the difference between people making a change and those who wonder why? If you give it your all, you can make a difference,” Chrostowski says with a tone of enthusiasm. Racism I don't think will ever go away. It is engrained, but we just got to keep saying that we can do this and challenge these existing views. If you give half, you will make a difference. Anything is possible and that is the beautiful thing about America.”