Inside the restaurant serving up second chances for ex-prisoners

Ed Pilkington in Cleveland

It’s 9am and there’s a hush in the kitchen of Edwins restaurant on the east side of Cleveland. Apples are stewing gently on the stove, filling the room with unctuous aromatic promises.

Suddenly, the back door bursts open and a tall man with a shock of white hair rushes in dressed in jogging gear. The calm is shattered as Edwins transforms into a vortex of energy that barely ceases until closing time 13 hours later.

Brandon Chrostowski has a mission: to create one of the great French cooking and hospitality schools, in a largely African American neighborhood of Cleveland, Ohio. But that’s just the start of it.

The ultimate goal of Edwins Leadership & Restaurant Institute is to heal the wound in the bleeding heart of America. The injury that condemns 2.3 million men and women to life behind bars, 49,000 in Ohio alone, then brands them as felons and condemns them a second time to failure and recidivism when they are released back into society.

“How do you change the face of re-entry?” Chrostowski says, stirring Pommeau de Normandie into the apple sauce. “How do you change the views of men and women coming out of prison so that they gain confidence? You have to show them the impossible.”

Every two months Edwins does just that: the impossible. The culinary school takes in 40 or more former inmates, about 80% of whom are African American and 15% female. Some are fresh out of prison, most have been scarred by decades of addiction, poverty and neglect. None have ever enjoyed what Edwins offers them: a second chance.

Over the next six months they are put through gruelling training in professional cooking and front-of-house hospitality. By the time they graduate they are fully equipped to become the next generation of Cleveland’s culinary leaders.

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Edwins turns out first-rate chefs and, as importantly, has a magnificent record in breaking the cycle of re-offending. Every year almost 23,000 prisoners are released from custody in Ohio, yet within three years almost a third of them will be back inside. Nationally, the picture is much worse. Of the more than 650,000 offenders released every year, 68% are rearrested by the end of year three.

Compare that with the record at Edwins. Of 350 students to complete the leadership course to date only two have landed back in prison.

Edwins is one of 25 inspirational people and organizations that the Guardian is highlighting as part of a week-long City Champions project in Cleveland. The project is designed to showcase the upsides in a city like Cleveland where grassroots activists faced with endemic problems – like lead poisoning, infant mortality and gun violence – and little or no state support, are taking the initiative and helping to change lives in some of the city’s most marginalised communities.

Many cities across the US face significant challenges – places like Baltimore, Detroit, Pittsburgh and Cleveland are among them. And much has been written about how these former economic powerhouses have struggled over the last few decades. 

But this week in the first installment of our City Champions series, we want to highlight the remarkable people and groups working on inspiring projects that show the resilience of those wanting to improve the lives of people in one of those cities: Cleveland, Ohio

Cleveland has many challenges - inequality, structural racism, infant mortality, shamefully untreated lead poisoning - but it also has a network of people creating innovative projects that are addressing these challenges with significant success. 

Collaborating with the local newspaper - The Plain Dealer - and the local PBS and NPR stations, run by ideastream, we canvassed residents for their suggestions for who to recognize and received hundreds of replies. 

We then created an advisory panel of mostly local public figures who helped select the final 25 champions, whose stories we will be telling this week. 

As part of this project we have also worked with the art collective For Freedoms to create a public art expression for this project. Working with For Freedoms and local artists, we commissioned artwork for six billboards that help tell the stories of the city and the challenges the champions are addressing. 

–John Mulholland, editor in chief, Guardian US

‘The idea behind Edwins is the story of my own life’

“The toughest part is building esteem in someone who has had it ripped out of them,” Chrostowski says. “That starts right at the beginning when you tell them, ‘You are in the program, you are accepted’.”

It’s 10am and we’re on the move. As we sprint out of the kitchen to his car, it becomes clear why the need for jogging gear: Brandon Chrostowski doesn’t do walking.

We drive at breakneck speed to the Edwins campus, a collection of brick buildings in a previously derelict part of Buckeye that he chose because it represents the collision point between Cleveland’s poor and wealthy neighborhoods. “If you go a day without heavy gunshots around Buckeye there’s something wrong, but four blocks away, that’s where the millionaires live,” he says.

The campus includes very low-cost accommodation for Edwins students and graduates, and facilities to support their successful re-entry, such as a gym and an entire room full of suits and dresses donated by supporters. In the same complex, there’s a butcher’s shop that’s already open for business, soon to be joined by a 20-table diner, coffee shop and bakery that are still covered in dust in mid-construction.

Time and money are tight: the bakery must open in six weeks, Chrostowski explains, and he’s still short of $30,000 out of the total budget of $600,000 to build and launch it. The money is being raised in large part through donations from Edwins diners under the motto: “Eat well, do good.”

Chrostowski picks up a paint brush and starts painting the bakery walls with his own hands. A master multitasker, as he paints with one hand he uses the other to order on an old Blackberry a batch of wood panelling, dozens of nails and several pounds of pork belly for week-long marinading.

It was a one-two punch: I was forgiven, then I was mentored and introduced to a high-level skill. I never looked back

Brandon Chrostowski

Amid the whirlwind of activity that surrounds him, there is an ethical core of steel to Chrostowski that holds him and everyone else together. It stems from his own experiences growing up as a bright but somewhat lost teenager in Detroit.

“The idea behind Edwins is the story of my life,” he says, using a roller to apply a top coat of cobalt blue paint to the bakery walls. “I was 17, just a kid with a lot of energy and not much direction, going wherever the impulse led me.”

‘I’ve survived, I’m alive, I’ve got out of a really shitty place’

The impulse led him into trouble. He was convicted of resisting arrest and faced 10 years in prison, at which point he would have become just one more statistic in the gruesome graveyard of US mass incarceration. But a far-sighted judge saw the potential in him – Chrostowski is convinced the whiteness of his skin was a major factor – and he was spared a custodial sentence in favor of probation.

Soon after that he had his second big break: he acquired a mentor, a chef named George Kalergis, who inducted him into the culinary arts. “It was a one-two punch: I was forgiven, then I was mentored and introduced to a high-level skill. I never looked back.”

Forgiveness then inspiration – the combination put him on a path to a top-flight career in prestigious restaurants in Chicago, New York and Paris. Despite the rewards, a niggling voice kept telling him that his own success was not enough: he had to give the same second chance to others.

“I’ve survived, I’m alive, I’ve got out of a really shitty place. It felt like I was living on borrowed time, and I had to do something with that.”

He moved to Cleveland in 2008, having chosen the city because at the time it had the second-worst graduation rate among high-school students in the country (it remains low at 79% compared with 87% nationally). Three years later he began teaching culinary skills in local prisons, and in 2013 he enshrined the first class of former inmates turned Edwins leaders.

It’s noon now and it’s time to hurry back to the restaurant where the current intake of students is gathering in their chefs’ white coats and hats for tonight’s sitting.

‘Edwins has been the family I’ve never had around me’

Leonard, 50, is frying bacon and shallots in butter and cream for a Diane sauce. He splashes cognac into the pan then ignites to produce a dramatic golden fireball.

That’s nothing compared with the drama of his own life. Six months ago Leonard was in Grafton correctional institute. The Guardian asked him whether he was happy to describe his prison time – something that Edwins never does. The restaurant never requires trainees to divulge any details of their penal history before, during or after the program.

Leonard said he was fine to share the information. He served 24 years for murder.

As part of his parole terms, he went straight from Grafton into the Edwins program, and in 10 days’ time he will graduate. “I’ve found my worth,” he says. “Coming from where I come from, a poor family where as a kid I went hungry at the end of every month, I didn’t know my worth. Now I can see that if I put my mind to it, I can accomplish anything.”

Leonard’s five-year plan is to run his own food truck, with a place to live where he can help out with his three grandchildren. “I want to show them, even as a black man in America you can still succeed.”

Does he worry about slipping again, ending back in prison? “There’s not a chance I could reduce myself to that again,” he says firmly.

Jenna, 32, knows all about the macabre cycle of prison-release-reoffend. She has been locked in it since 2009, when she gave birth to the first of her five children while in custody for the felonious assault of a police officer.

Over the past decade she has had repeated stints of incarceration, a product of an unsettled childhood in which she was separated from her mother at age three and bounced around foster homes until she was 18. Now she is days away from graduating. What has the past six months given her? “Hope. Light,” she says.

Of the more than 650,000 offenders released every year, 68% are rearrested by the end of year three.

“Brandon didn’t know me, but he trusted me,” Jenna says. “That felt good. Edwins has been the family I’ve never had around me.”

The intense learning curve that Edwins puts its students through has not been easy for Jenna. But when the crunch came, and she had to dig deep or risk flunking the program, she found strength inside herself she never knew existed. “There’s no going back into that dark place. It’s over,” she says.

Her five children will all be at the graduation ceremony, and for Jenna that’s in the end what this is all about. “I want them to be proud of me. I want to provide for them so they don’t have to go through what I did.”

It’s 4pm now and there’s just an hour to go before the first customers arrive. In the front of house, students decked out in trim suits with waistcoats and ties – all donated by diners – are starting to light candles and give the final polish to white linen cloths and glistening cutlery.

In another gust of energy, Chrostowski hurtles up the stairs from his basement office waving a card that says, “Thank you for the incredible dinner, and for your work.” Attached to it is a check for $25,000 – the bakery can now be completed.

‘You show them you care, then you let them fly’

The masterplan, Chrostowski explains as he adds a dollop of heavy cream to the apple sauce, is for Edwins graduates to go out and spread the mission to other vulnerable neighbourhoods in Cleveland and beyond. There are signs that’s already happening – the butcher’s shop is managed exclusively by Edwins graduates and others have set up restaurants and bars across the state.

“Poverty is a bitch,” Chrostowski says. “This is an impoverished city, and students are fighting demons. So we treat them like the people they could be, not the ones they were. You show them you care, that they can do this, then you get your ass out the way and let them fly.”

It’s dark outside now and the candles are flickering in the packed dining room at Edwins. Soul music is playing in the background as the students take orders for cuisse de canard and paupiettes de mérou.

Chrostowski has changed out of his jogging gear into the maitre d’s dark suit and bow-tie. With one last glug of calvados, he declares the apple sauce ready for serving.

Then he dashes off again, down the stairs, passing some words that years ago he scrawled on the wall: “Today we will win. We’ll study our mistakes and become stronger. We will win, each day we will win.”

Some of the names have been changed in this article.

These photographs were a collaboration between Kassidy Cameron, a student photographer at Shooting Without Bullets, Amanda D King and McKinley Wiley.

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