Chef Who Spent Time In Jail Now Trains Other Ex-Offenders In Culinary Arts

This high-end chef trains and employs formerly incarcerated individuals in his restaurant — because he knows all too well the power of a second chance.

Brandon Chrostowski, founder of EDWINS Leadership and Restaurant Institute in Cleveland, spent a few days behind bars as a teen for fleeing and eluding an officer — and he credits his success to a chef who mentored him despite his past.

Now he’s paying it forward to dozens of others, with his restaurant doubling as a culinary arts training program for ex-offenders.

“We have a community of individuals coming out of prison who don’t get a fair and equal opportunity because of their past,” Chrostowski told The Huffington Post. “We give them experience in the culinary arts. They get the fundamentals, but also a perspective on the business — which means they’re employable. It worked in my life, it works in others’.”

Students are enrolled in the EDWINS culinary institute for six months, for 40 to 50 hours a week. They learn the essentials of high-end cuisine, from culinary math to wine selection, and then apply their new skills working in the restaurant.

The institute is free, and students get a stipend of about $300 every two weeksIn the last three years, 130 students have graduated from the program.

What’s more, most of the staff at EDWINS have also spent time behind bars.

“It’s about building a vessel to take someone from not having a skill to having the right ones,” Chrostowski said. “If you give someone a fair chance, and some mentorship, they can forge a way for themselves and turn the stars around.”

Here is Chrostowski on why it matters to give ex-offenders a fair shot at success:

What kind of challenges did you see your students facing as they came out of prison?

Some needed a place to stay — that’s why we have free housing. Some needed money for transportation, so we would advance a bus pass and take it out of their check gradually. If they need someone to watch their kids, we find a babysitter. 

It’s not easy, but we do it because that’s what’s right. We offer everyone a fair and equal opportunity.

When you see someone living in a shelter, working hard to memorize types of Bordeaux, there’s an injustice to that formula that just isn’t right.

When you see someone living in a shelter, working hard to memorize types of Bordeaux, there’s an injustice to that formula that just isn’t right.

What’s the importance of starting job training in prison, before someone even gets out?

The idea is that when someone is released, they have a skill.

We started our prison program in 2011. We are in Grafton Prison in Ohio, teaching the fundamentals of cooking: how to use knives, burners, select wines. Over the last five years, at least 100 people have come through it.

We also have inmate-led programs, where we teach one or two inmates to be the leaders, and then they go on to teach a class of 30 other prisoners.

We only have so much time, but if we can teach others… I believe we can turn prisons into something to be proud of.

How much do you think your privilege had to do with your experience with the criminal justice system?

I got a break from a judge when I was younger, getting probation — I believe, because I was white. Coming from a city where I was a minority, my mentors were African-American, and to see opportunities not happen to other people that happened to me, that didn’t sit well.

Along this journey I saw a lot of injustice out there. When people work in restaurants, they get paid less — there’s people buying $4,000 bottles of wine, served by people struggling to buy a carton of milk.

And if you look around at our country, race is a huge issue. But if you can help someone navigate the system, and succeed, it will start to peel back the layers of injustice and inequality.

I got a break from a judge when I was younger… I believe, because I was white.

Your students have a zero percent rate of recidivism. Why do you think that is?

I believe that if you give someone a fair chance, and some mentorship, they can forge a way for themselves.

The idea that people are carrying their mistakes with them beyond when they served their time — that just prohibits them from re-entering into a productive life. We need to get rid of sanctions on driver’s licenses, etc.

And in prison, more can be done. We should equip our inmates with a skill. I try to encourage other businesses to start in prison. If you plant the seed of excitement, of doing something positive, once people get out, they won’t return.

What does success look like for students in your program?

Successes happen every day. This one student, Josh, he started using again mid-way through — heroin. But we don’t kick people out if they use drugs.

We build them a stronger plan, we get them sponsors, the case manager gives them the tools to change, and we support them. We respond as a family.

Josh went through that twice, but he graduated. Now he’s working in a nonprofit kitchen cooking meals for adults who are overcoming addiction. Some would say, ‘What kind of culinary grad works there?’ But I think that’s a fantastic victory.

What can ordinary people do to help with the issue of re-entry?

What I know best is the restaurant business, so we change the way people think about those who get out of prison through food and through culinary skills.

But everyone does something well: What could you do in your life to help someone who doesn’t have as much as you do to get a little further? If you’re willing to teach, mentor and give opportunities, you can provide that support.

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