Brandon Chrostowski half-jokes that he opened EDWINS “with the swipe of a credit card.”
In early 2012, the general manager of Zach Bruell’s University Circle French brasserie L’Albatros began teaching a cooking class for men at the Grafton Correctional Institution with food and supplies purchased out of his own pocket. He wanted to establish a classic French restaurant on Shaker Square, a place where those released from prison could develop culinary skills. Although a $25,000 donation allowed him to quit his job the next year and focus on raising money to fund his dream, he alone covered fees for incorporating the enterprise, trademarking its name and legal work.
“I remember opening up these doors, and I had $10.48 in my bank account,” the 39-year-old says.
Chrostowski opened the restaurant as EDWINS Leadership & Restaurant Institute in 2007. The 501(c)(3) organization offers formerly incarcerated adults free culinary arts and hospitality management training in its six-month, 900-credit-hour, state-licensed program.
But EDWINS provides students with far more than the education and support needed to pursue a desirable career, according to August 2018 EDWINS graduate Marlon Hackett. The institute gave the 46-year-old Cleveland resident, now a corporate kitchen-manager trainee at TGI Fridays’ North Canton location, the confidence, credentials and references to demand a better job for himself instead of settling for less.
“[Brandon] set this up to empower people who were coming home from prison or who have ugly backgrounds,” he says.
The Detroit native’s determination to facilitate inmates’ reentry into society is rooted in his own experiences as a wayward 18-year-old in county lockup who got probation instead of a prison sentence. A local chef gave him a job at a downtown Motor City restaurant that taught him the fundamentals of French cooking, igniting a passion that earned him an associate degree in culinary arts and a bachelor’s degree in business and restaurant management at the Culinary Institute of America.
“About 2003, in New York City, [I started] getting calls from back home about people getting murdered or going to prison,” he recalls. “I said, ‘If I could just give this opportunity back that I had — a fair and equal opportunity and good mentorship, education, etc. — it could work for anyone.” In 2008, he moved to Cleveland with plans to do just that. “I was looking for the place with the worst high school graduation rate in 1998 — that’s when I graduated,” he explains. “In the United States, if [Cleveland] wasn’t No. 1, it was No. 2.”
Chrostowski says the Grafton culinary program, now an inmate-run eight-month curriculum, has spawned 26-week, inmate-led “culinary clubs” at 12 other prisons during the last three years. He helped replicate the EDWINS model at the Recovery Center of Medina County’s Serenite Restaurant & Culinary Institute in Medina, established in 2018, and the West Side Catholic Center’s Ohio City Pizzeria, which opened in July. The Texas state prison system, a Pittsburgh nonprofit and San Francisco restaurant, among others, have requested his assistance.
But Chrostowski’s mission is far from complete.
“The goal is to change the face of re-entry” he says. “It’s going to take many lifetimes to get to a point where someone could say, ‘Yeah, that [formerly incarcerated] person is equal.”