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From Prison to Five-Star Chef: EDWINS Transforming Lives, One Plate at a Time

02.22.2018

“He wants to open the best French restaurant in the United States…in Cleveland?! Staffed by people out of prison?!”

EDWINS CEO ChrostowskiIt’s safe to assume the founder and CEO of EDWINS restaurant, Brandon Chrostowski, heard these words more than a few times over the years he spent planning its launch. In this instance, Chrostowski is directly quoting Thomas Lennon, director of Knife Skills, the Oscar-nominated film chronicling the opening of EDWINS Leadership and Restaurant Institute. “His radar instantly went up,” Chrostowski says, recounting the moment he told Lennon about the project he had been working on for nearly a decade. The resulting film follows Chrostowski, his staff and the first class of EDWINS graduates over the weeks leading up to the opening of the now nationally-renowned restaurant.

At EDWINS, award-winning French cuisine and top-tier table service combine with a revolutionary social cause. The nonprofit organization gives formerly incarcerated men and women a foundation in the hospitality industry while providing the necessary support for successful re-entry into life outside of prison.

Chrostowski is a professional chef who trained at the Culinary Institute of America and honed his skills in kitchens from Chicago to Paris. He wanted to create a second chance for ex-convicts because of the difference that being a chef has made in his own life. EDWINS is short for “education wins.”

Through a six-month training program based on curriculum taught at the Culinary Institute of America, EDWINS provides intensive training in food preparation, service and hospitality. Participants who complete the program leave with valuable skills for re-entering the workforce and meaningful connections to industry specialists, teachers and mentors.

With only a few years of operation behind it, the results are already impressive.

EDWINS has graduated more than 225 individuals, an astonishing 98 percent of whom have successfully remained in the workforce. The majority of graduates, Chrostowski says, have capitalized on their education at EDWINS to remain in the culinary industry.

“More than 100 restaurants in the region have EDWINS graduates working in their kitchens,” Chrostowski says. “Some have even become entrepreneurs themselves, opening their own catering operations.”

But the most important measure of success, according to Chrostowski, is one he says the team at EDWINS is most proud of: a less than 1 percent recidivism rate for graduates.

“EDWINS proves that when you fight for someone, you can help them achieve incredible results,” Chrostowski said.

While Chrostowski is often front and center in promoting EDWINS, he credits much of its success to board members and community volunteers.

“Without our strong board of directors behind us, giving tirelessly every single day, none of this would be possible,” said Chrostowski. “We do this together.”

Brandon Chrostowski and Chris Cole

Chris Cole, chair of the EDWINS Leadership Institute Board of Directors, says it was Chrostowski’s commitment to the Buckeye-Shaker neighborhood that initially drew him in.

“Brandon is one those people that pull you into his orbit,” says Cole. “When he announced that he was committing to EDWINS full time, I immediately offered my time and support.”

A senior vice president at KeyBank, Cole uses his consulting expertise to help guide operations and strategic planning for EDWINS. Cole says the board has served as a hands-on support team from the beginning.

“When we first started, there was a lot of volunteering with everything from building maintenance to planning the graduation ceremonies for students,” says Cole. “We were really a ‘boots on the ground’ extension of the EDWINS staff, working to ensure students have everything they need to be successful.”

Chrostowski also points out that while EDWINS has accomplished a rapid rise in prominence thanks to a number of industry awards and accolades, it has taken years of dedication to build momentum.

“The business plan was written in 2004, and here we are all these years later,” said Chrostowski. “This wasn’t an overnight success.”

As with any restaurant, selecting a location was important – but not as much as some thought. Chrostowski says he knew Cleveland was where EDWINS needed to be, even if it left some scratching their heads.

EDWINS Kitchen

“I knew from working in Europe that people take the kind of food we make very seriously,” Chrostowski said. “People will take a plane to a train to a donkey to a boat to try an incredible lobster bisque. So, I said, ‘Look, no matter where we do this, it will work.’”

To support alumni and students, EDWINS owns and operates a dorm facility near the restaurant in Shaker Square, in which about 30 students and alumni are housed at any given time. The facility features a fitness center, library and a test kitchen where students and alumni can further hone their skills.

“Every time we go over there, it feels like a home,” says Chrostowski. “It’s empowering for potential students to know they can enter our program and have somewhere to stay free of charge, and feel like they will be supported.”

Chrostowski’s next phase for EDWINS is a butcher shop, for which a $1 million campaign was recently launched. The butcher shop will offer fresh meats and prepared food in Cleveland’s Buckeye-Shaker neighborhood.

"The butcher shop is the next step for EDWINS and our effort to transform the Buckeye neighborhood,” said Cole. “Not only will it add another revenue source for the organization, it will also give students an opportunity to gain another layer of experience and understanding.”

EDWINS has served as a revitalizing force in the neighborhood. Over the past two years, each building around the dormitory has been purchased, signifying a growing investment in the area. While the neighborhood continues to grow and thrive, in part due to the dedication of organizations like EDWINS, Chrostowski says it wouldn’t be possible without the support of the community.

“EDWINS is not ours . . . it belongs to the community,” said Chrostowski. “There are heroes in Cleveland. None of this happens without Cleveland.”

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