This Saturday, the French Bistro EDWINS in Cleveland's Shaker Square marks its one-year anniversary. The enterprise is unique. The culinary staff not only serve artisan cuisine…they’ve also served time behind bars. ideastream’s Brian Bull profiles the restaurant and its mission to give former inmates a second chance.
It’s a crowded house tonight. Brandon Chrostowski – founder and CEO of EDWIN’s Leadership and Restaurant Institute – opens the door for patrons coming in from the rain.
“Well, good evening. Hi, welcome. Want to see a menu, there?"
They’re greeted with the warm, heavy aroma of fresh baked bread, garlic, and maybe a waft of merlot. Vintage French posters line the candlelit walls. Waiters bustle in and out of the kitchen.
Behind the scenes, Francine Warren and nearly a dozen chefs-in-training put the crowning touches on their entrees. After shucking oysters for an appetizer, she preps a dozen roasted birds on a baking sheet.
“It’s the orange duck, and we stuff it with orange peels, it can enhance the flavor of the duck. And we glaze it with an orange glaze…. (BULL: That sounds amazing!) It IS amazing, it’s very great!”
A broad-shouldered woman with a raspberry streak in her long, dark hair, Warren is putting in her tenth month of training at EDWINS. It’s her way of moving on from a nine-month sentence for attempted aggravated assault.
“I’ve a passion for cooking. I’ve been doing it for a long time at home in the kitchen with my mom. I felt coming here would enhance my skills that I have, to become a better chef.”
“I don’t look at the previous offense, I don’t look at education,” says Chrostowski. EDWINS is helping Warren and other former inmates get a new start. Work for ex-cons is tough to get. Chrostowski and his team train roughly three dozen students in every class, with the goal of giving them specialized culinary skills that’ll spare them menial and low-paying work.
“I just look for someone who’s ready and someone who wants it…for themselves. We’re becoming – and will become – the best restaurant in the United States. That’s the goal. No dream is too big if you come through EDWINS. ”
Chrostowski expects to hit nearly $1.5 million in sales this year. That money and support from private donors sustains the operation. Classes are held in the basement, with prospective students fed through a pipeline of correctional facilities, job services, and homeless shelters.
As a teen who ran afoul of the law growing up around Detroit, Chrostowski is sympathetic.
“Selling drugs and just getting into trouble y’know…fights, and mischief…and everything else that a young teenager would kinda find the time to do when they had too much time on their hands.”
A lenient judge put Chrostowski on probation instead of a 10-year sentence. After taking a job at a local restaurant, a chef noticed the young man and changed his life.
“And his instinct was to teach me the business of culinary arts and hospitality. Whatever he saw in me, I don’t know. But…ah…to this day, I thank him.”
Chrostowski worked restaurants in New York and France, before taking a job at L’Albatross French brasserie in Cleveland. He wrote a business plan for EDWINS in 2004, and opened it last year. They’ve just started their third class for ex-felons, and Chrostowski says he supports them all the way….even when they land back in jail.
“He’d go to bat for you, he came and visited me and everything," recalls George Nance. He's a former drug dealer who came back to EDWINS…after what he calls a “brief spat”….again put him behind bars.
“(Chrostowski) told me I still had a job. Brandon put his name behind you. If you come here and do right, he’ll back you up.”
EDWINS isn’t just about giving inmates a new life. It’s also about providing an exquisite dining experience. Taylor Kaar and Kirsten Karakul have come here since EDWINS opened. Did they have any apprehension about having their meal prepared and served by former inmates?
“It certainly crept into my mind, and five minutes in it, it was gone. Because how professional they were and how well-trained the staff was," says Kaar.
“Funny moment the first time I was here," recalls Karakul. "I left my purse on the chair! And immediately someone ran out and came up after me. That was just one of those moments that showed just how wonderful this place was.”
Culinary trainee Francine Warren agrees. She feels a sense of achievement at EDWINS that would’ve pleased her mother, who died this summer.
“Mom, we finally made it!" grins Warren. "‘Cause you always loved my cooking but look at what I can do now that I’ve taken it to the next level.”
There’s plans to expand EDWINS even further. Within two years, Chrostowski hopes to have a dorm and fitness center built for his students…to keep them off the streets and close to work. He’ll mark the restaurant’s first year this Saturday….with a glass of wine.
Note: A previous version of this story identified EDWINS as a Shaker Heights restaurant. While Shaker Square is close to Shaker Heights, technically it's a Cleveland-area development.