From Serving Time to Serving Food: EDWINS’ Winning Recipe

You can’t be a regular at EDWINS. You can’t say, “I’ll have the usual.” It would be fruitless to even try, because nobody who works there will know who you are or what you’re having. Like any restaurant, EDWINS has a revolving door of staff. But what I’ve come to think of as the best restaurant in America doesn’t merely endure turnover—it actively welcomes it. Because that means the restaurant’s mission is working: Every staff member who leaves EDWINS is another human being on the path of re-entry into the workforce after incarceration.

EDWINS was an accidental win for me. I found it the old-fashioned way. Yelp. I searched “best restaurant in Cleveland, Ohio.” No mincing words. Just facts. French cuisine. Five star reviews. Staffed by the formerly incarcerated. It sounded like a great place to bring my date, a federal law enforcement agent. I made a reservation online for an evening in the future when I’d meet up with my long-distance boyfriend in Cleveland. I assumed the staff would be non-violent criminals who had been convicted of drug offenses, larceny, tax evasion, racketeering.

I packed my best dress. He packed a suit. The night of our reservation, we Uber’d from our hotel to Shaker Square and were dropped off in front of a brick restaurant with giant arched windows framed with heavy architectural woodworking, and some smaller windows with matching white, louvered hurricane shutters. Cobalt and navy blue striped awnings covered the lively patio, perfect for the summer night, which, in Cleveland, is not to be taken for granted. As we approached the front door, a man leaving the restaurant said, “Your dress is gorgeous!” Good omen.

An exceedingly tall, bald man who reminded me of Lurch from The Addams Family held the door. He, like the rest of the staff, wore a starched shirt and dark pressed pants. I’m used to New York City and stone-faced greetings that say, This is a serious restaurant, which always feels to me like an invitation to leave. But the second we crossed the threshold, we were greeted with a choir of voices gathered at an antique writing desk where the hostess stood: “Welcome to EDWINS!”

The interior was irresistibly quaint: dim and intimate, painted in rich brown and cool charcoal gray offset with warm wood and amber lighting. The service station that held table settings was an antique buffet under a recessed portrait of Marie Antoinette—or some similarly styled woman—staring at herself in profile wearing her signature stacked powdered wig. In contrast to the dark walls and lacquered woodwork, the painting was monochromatic with gold tones and bronze, and complemented the light reservation desk beautifully. Exactly here, in this restaurant, is where I’d want to receive a marriage proposal.

We were seated inside, as was our preference, at a table for two next to one of the grand windows covered with structured plum bistro curtains. The restaurant was full at 8:45 p.m., and my date was sleepy after a day of sightseeing. Our waitress approached us and introduced herself. “I’d like to order an espresso,” he said. Bread and water was on the table within seconds, and the espresso was soon to follow.

“You see,” said my date. “It’s the little details that aren’t right.” He was referring to the absence of the lemon rind that comes with espresso.

This irked me, not because lemon rind is an American convention and usually there to mask bad espresso. It simply wasn’t her mistake.

From the outset, I loved this restaurant, even if he was skeptical. The theater of it drew me in, as though we were in an interactive play with an elegantly choreographed waltz happening around us: people making the most of their steps, spinning in rhythm, filling glasses, swirling wine, carrying bottles, serving entrees, displaying cheeses, flambeing bananas, setting places. Carts rolled through, some for cooking, others for presenting cheeses. “Behind you.” “On your left!” And one older gentleman, shuffling in slow laps, through the dining room, into the kitchen, behind the bar, circling the restaurant throughout the night. His pacing was off, and he moved as though he were in shackles. I didn’t see him carry anything or approaching tables, but he never seemed to be in the way. I never learned the answer.

As we perused the menu, I downed bread. It was delicious, with the right amount of golden crust and not too soft—perfect for spreading butter or sopping up sauce without falling apart. Our waitress showed up with the basket and tongs the second there was nothing left on my bread plate. To her credit, she intuited both our personalities. As engaging and warm as she was, she also tempered her pace to match ours, so when my date was ready to order a glass of wine, never having been out of our periphery, she returned. He asked for a red wine recommendation.

“I don’t know, I like white wine, but let me find out.” She grabbed the attention of a handsome man with silver hair in an impeccably tailored suit who had been on the floor attending to guests, working alongside everybody else. He came over and asked what brought us to EDWINS.

“I live in Connecticut,” I said.

“I just moved to Minneapolis from New York.”

“We met in the middle.”  

Those two started talking about wine and motorcycles. Both were avid riders, but only one was certified by the Court of Master Sommeliers—one of only 182 in the U.S. Wine was selected and he passed the selection to our waitress. I was less tense, because things across the table eased up with the polished guy standing there. He introduced himself as Brandon Chrostowski, proprietor of the establishment, a man of elegance, as one expects in a classic French restaurant. But I was watching a criminal talk to a Fed who assumed he wasn’t chatting with a criminal. Chrostowski is both: a world-class chef and a man who has been on the wrong side of the law, jailed for drug possession and evading arrest.

“This whole idea came from a break,” he said. “When I was 18, I got popped. I was in county facing 10 years. I grew up in a place called Detroit. I’m a minority in a largely African-American town. Part of my break had to do with that. I don’t think people confront that issue enough or speak loudly about it.”

He drew a probationary sentence. That second chance was a call to action: “In life you’re going to get setbacks,” Chrostowski said. “Embrace that—that solitude you have. That time for reflection. Education cannot teach you perspective. It can teach you some things, but you have to really go through something to find yourself out. Once you find yourself out, you find the path that you need to be on. And that’s the story of my life. I’ve been very thankful when I was homeless. I said, ‘Thank you, God, for putting me here on this bench. I’m happy because I couldn’t relate to someone else who’s going through this unless You put me in this position.’”

A “big portly Greek chef” in downtown Detroit taught him the fundamentals of cooking. He went on to the Culinary Institute of America in New York and worked for Charlie Trotter, “a real SOB” who pushed him by constantly dialing up the stress in a crowded kitchen on busy nights. “Without him, I’d never be able to do this.”

Unable to read, write, or speak the language, he bought a one-way ticket and landed in central France, where he worked his ass off to land a position at a 3-star Michelin restaurant in Paris. Eventually, he missed baseball, so, determined to be the best chef in the world, he went to Manhattan, “because that’s the world, right?” He worked in the finest kitchens, Le Cirque and Chanterelle. Everything was going great. Then he started getting phone calls from back home in Detroit.

“These men who really helped me become a man, the men in the kitchen in Detroit, they were slowly getting murdered, one after another—stabbed countless times, people put in prison. And I’m sitting here working at these restaurants with copper pots and $10,000 bottles of wine, and you just kind of look at life, like what the fuck is going on here? It just didn’t sit well with me. So in 2004, I wrote this business plan called EDWINS.” In 2007, he incorporated and started a non-profit called EDWINS Leadership and Restaurant Institute. By 2011, he was teaching in prisons. The program started inside the walls. It’s now in 13 prisons in Ohio. By his mid-thirties, he had raised the money to open the Cleveland restaurant, which all-in cost about $180,000, salaries and liquor license included.

“When I opened EDWINS, I had $10.48 in my bank account. I printed out the bank statement. I was signing leases for $100,000, and buying all this shit with money I didn’t have. I wore a suit and had a ’99 Audi I bought for $4,000. No one ever questioned me. It was incredible. If someone said, ‘Hey, that guy’s a felon,’ they would have checked everything. They would have wanted to know my shoe size. What if they asked? What would I have told them? I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere. I didn’t have a family with money. I didn’t have anything. It’s perception. Everything’s perception. It’s a game.”

EDWINS isn’t named for a person. The name combines education + wins. It’s a business like any other. It’s also a six-month culinary arts and hospitality school with a re-entry program that is a real-time, real-consequence bootcamp inside a classic French restaurant. In six months, students learn every job that one might encounter in any restaurant in the world, and they graduate holding a universally transferable skill set.

“When you’re succeeding, it feels good,” Chrostowski said. “It’s like a high. That’s generally the hook that we use, and we keep nurturing that as we move people through every position for the next five and three quarters months.” (The first week in the program is devoted to life planning, establishing goals, getting ID, bank accounts, and basic health care in order.) “You’re learning, you’re achieving, you’re building this muscle of esteem that prison and poverty can rip away. Then we switch your position to something else, so you don’t get too cocky. We do this over and over and over again, and we’re finding that we’re developing leaders.”

EDWINS’ success proves that he also knows what he’s talking about. “Fifty-five restaurants are waiting to hire students. We have a 97-98 percent employment rate, 1.2 percent recidivism. They don’t go back. They just don’t. There’s a more powerful yes that we have introduced into someone’s life and they go forward.”

“We don’t ask about prior offense,” he said. “We don’t care.” The message was clear: And neither will you. He was territorial in his friendly delivery. Protecting the students—dignifying and empowering them—was all he cared about. To keep the program—and maybe more important, its participants—from being exploited, media access to EDWINS has been all but denied, the one exception being Knife Skills (2018), Thomas Lennon’s Academy Award-nominated documentary, which shines a light on how much love, tenacity, desire, and work goes into giving and receiving a second chance.

“French cooking ‘teaches the fundamentals of cuisine,’ Chrostowski said. “When someone leaves EDWINS, they have this toolbox of fundamentals and techniques and ratios… It’s so fundamentally great that, once you have these tools, you can go anywhere, and you’re not beholden to somebody.’”

One scene in Knife Skills outlines some surprising math about what students can expect to earn with what they learned at EDWINS. “Numbers don’t lie,” Chrostowski is seen telling one group. “The demand in this town is high, and the supply for great managers is low. So, you should be walking out of here saying, ‘Where’s my 35-45-55 thousand, because you’ve got this kind of information.”

“Are there cameras?” my date asked before I could.

“No cameras,” Chrostowski said. “It’s a culture of trust, a culture of moving forward, not looking backwards.” I could see my date’s mind turning over the possibilities: gun fight, stabbing, armed robbery. But EDWINS has peacefully existed for almost five years. The only threat these individuals pose is to people who don’t want to see ex-cons enter the middle class.

French cooking “teaches the fundamentals of cuisine,” Chrostowski said. “When someone leaves EDWINS, they have this toolbox of fundamentals and techniques and ratios. EDWINS makes 3-2-1 pie dough: 3 parts flour, 2 parts fat, 1 part cold liquid. If you have the cutting technique, you can now make pie dough around the world. Same goes for chicken stock and the mother sauces. It’s so fundamentally great that, once you have these tools, you can go anywhere, and you’re not beholden to somebody. You can control your destiny.”

In the kitchen, skills matter, not language or origin. “Come in contributing, come in leading, and you move up very quickly.”

There is no such thing as a perfect dining experience. Front of house service is personal. Human interaction around food is intimate. Whether at home or in a restaurant, the people we choose to eat with regularly are the most loved and known to us. When I prepare and serve food to anybody, it’s with love, even if it didn’t turn out perfectly, and it’s that kind of warmth that I felt at EDWINS. The passion is there. The desire to give each diner the best possible experience is there. To be welcomed for the sake of just having walked through the door is special. Gathering around a meal is special. There may be science to ratios, but where there are people, there is variation. Being served by automatons just isn’t that much fun. It’s not memorable. “You’ll forget what you had that night,” Chrostowski said, “maybe who you were with that night, but you’ll never forget how you felt.”

After my bread plate was cleared, our waitress spied the little mess of crumbs before me. She didn’t have a breadcrumber, but she did have standards. I saw the spark when she decided to wipe the crumbs off the table with one hand into the other. It was another detail she got right—she had the tools to resolve the situation. Nothing else needed.

At a Q&A for a screening I attended of Knife Skills in New Haven, Connecticut, something Chrostowski said brought me back to this moment with our improvising waitress: “Your instincts don’t lie to you. It takes years to learn that, but the great ones understand that, when you don’t blur the line between what you feel and your mind, it usually works out. Some people overthink that, and get pummeled by some messaging that interrupts that natural instinct. Everything you need right now is inside of you. There’s nothing you need to go out and buy or do. What you need is here.”

With the white linens tidy again, there was a blank spot to place our appetizers. She knew the hits on the menu, so she placed before me a filled ramekin: Merguez d’agneau et orecchiette, poivrons rouges rôtis, petits pois, zeste de citron, menthe et Parmigiano Reggiano. Each fork was layered with lamb, pasta, and peas for heartiness, a hint of mint and lemon, and just enough cheese to make it complementary, not overbearing, and everything held together nicely.

She and Chrostowski agreed my date should try the saucisse de fruits de mer grillée et beurre blanc aux échalotes, en hommage à David Waltuck. (A reference to the chef behind New York’s famed and now closed Chanterelle restaurant.)

I didn’t taste this dish, because I’m allergic to shellfish (and therefore not a food critic), but it was a summery white casing filled with fresh scallops, lobster, white fish, and pine nuts with a bit of shallot beurre blanc. I’m fairly versed in French animals and sauces, but frog legs (I regret not trying) veer off the map for me, so the English subtitles were helpful. Even with a cursory ability to pick out a few words, stringing them together to order would be embarrassing. Our server didn’t speak French, but neither did I. Nor did my date. Only Brandon does, having worked there for many years.

Between my date and me, we had two Bachelor degrees, one from Yale, and a Masters, and were connoisseurs of nothing, experts at nothing that was relevant in any country but our own. We were two people with enough walking around money to fine dine now and again, and we were asking for recommendations from two people with rap sheets. No matter what our qualifications were, we needed them more than they needed us.

It’s natural to look at a well groomed, polite and happy woman in her fifties, and wonder what in the world she did to land in prison. Most of our table service that night was provided by women. They could have been any mom, aunt, or grandma, the way they doted on us. The harrowing part of that is how many middle-aged people are released without EDWINS or another re-entry program? I don’t doubt that 20 years ago, they did something illegal, and maybe terrible, but if sentencing guidelines are such that these people will be released someday, then skills have to be taught inside.

Our second course arrived. I had the duck: Poitrine de canard, carottes anciennes glacées, cresson, salade de pommes de terre alsacienne, vinaigrette à l’huile de noix et au vinaigre de banyuls. Describing taste is like describing music. It didn’t melt in my mouth, because duck—any meat really—does not melt. That would be weird. So I’ll just say my duck was perfect. People come to EDWINS for the food—it’s that simple.

The other side of the table had poitrine et aile de pintade fourrée aux morilles, purée de petit pois de printemps, blettes, et sauce aux madère et romarin, which looked exactly like what he eats, because he hunts birds. The guinea hen was great, too. It had the little chef hat thing on its foot that cartoon turkeys have. Because I believe such things are so exquisite that they can’t be bought, I asked our waitress how to make one of those, as though it’s origami.

“I don’t know. They come in a big box.”

Damn.

When I was finished, she gave me the secret ingredient, which I deleted, because you’ll have the secret ingredient when you have the potatoes. I promise it’s great. Go and enjoy the experience, and know you’ll be better for having it. Brandon nailed it: “The food’s damn good, so we’ll feed your soul. When you leave the restaurant, you say, this was the best experience of my life.”

My date asked me, “Do you think the people go back to their communities and get shit for working for and serving white people?” He tends to ask the questions we all have that aren’t confronted loudly.

“Yeah, probably. People are dicks. Poverty’s a bitch.”

But Brandon addressed that problem, as well. “We have the campus around the corner, so part of that mission was to help people in toxic environments.” The institute raised private money for student housing and a campus: a 22-bed apartment building with a fitness facility, library, and test kitchen, and an eight-bed alumni house. The campus is two blocks from the restaurant, and Chrostowski lives a block from both places. “That’s the world, right there. It’s about staying small and tight and making sure we’re working with that staff every day, shoulder to shoulder.”

The program is open to anyone facing re-entry. “We don’t try to skim from the top,” Chrostowski said. “We don’t try to find the least offensive person. It’s, ‘You want to do this? Let’s go.’” It’s a tough program. Even with transportation, child care, and addiction counseling, about half the students who start will quit in the first few weeks. “It’s a readiness thing, not a literacy thing. If somebody isn’t ready to do it, they’re always welcome to come back. If there’s any violence or something that breaks our culture and what our code is, you’re not welcome back, but we forgive a lot. We often times forgive many more times than people would expect.”

For dessert, we shared crème brûlée and bananas foster. From the kitchen, a woman in chef’s whites rolled a cart tableside and began a lesson in preparing bananas foster. “First, I put the butter in with the brown sugar, and a little cinnamon, and get it bubbling. You don’t want it too hot or it burns. But you’ll get the flame, don’t worry.” The pan was tilted so the bananas could slide around while she spooned the mixture over the top. No banana was less coated than the others. “Now, comes the rum and the banana liqueur and fire!” Giddy with the fun part, her smile was enormous, as though each time was as exciting as the first.

Then a draft from the front door extinguished the flame. “Sometimes that happens at this table. If it’s not good, I’ll make you another.” As she served it, she bent down to get the ice cream, but it wasn’t there. The bottom fell out from under her, and her eyes widened in fear. I wondered if she and others revert back to the trauma of prison, where a mistake might have dire consequences. I pretended not to notice and turned to my partner. Offside, she signaled, and somebody brought her the vanilla ice cream. Her pride and excitement in performance had been so full that I didn’t really care that the ice cream took a few seconds longer. There was a net for her.

It had been a long day, and we had a late reservation, but the staff wasn’t fatigued. It was showtime the entire night, and the food was terrific! It was fun, and there was a real sense of family. We closed the place down that night, well past the kitchen closing. Chatting with Chrostowski, his team, and each other made for a great end to the best dining experience of my life.

When the check arrived, we had another surprise.

“It’s partly tax deductible!” my date said.

“Add more to the tip.”

The total and tip were contributions to EDWINS Leadership & Restaurant Institute, a “501(c)(3) organization that gives formerly incarcerated adults a foundation in the culinary and hospitality industry while providing a support network necessary their long-term success.” Give all you want, but you’ll give more—and get a whole lot more—if you just show up for dinner.

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