Brandon Chrostowski is back where he started. After an unsuccessful run for mayor, Chrostowski is hard at work as president and CEO of Edwins Leadership & Restaurant Institute, the French restaurant he founded in Shaker Square that, improbably, trains former prisoners for food industry jobs. In a few weeks, he will be mentoring another class of trainees. It will be a familiar sight to anyone who has seen Knife Skills, a buzzy new documentary about Chrostowski and the founding of Edwins.
Over a tight 40 minutes the lean, foul-mouthed Chrostowski comes across as driven and dogged, utterly dedicated to the people he has resolved to help despite their (and his) destructive impulses. In one scene, he takes careful notes in the gallery as a wayward student, an opioid addict, makes an unexpected appearance before Judge David Matia in drug court. In another scene, a defensive Chrostowski explains to the camera that he fired a student for mouthing off about refilling the wine cellar’s humidifier, a seemingly small offense. When the contrite student appears back at the restaurant to repent, Chrostowski re-admits him to the next trainee class. Chef or convict, all will find a second chance at Edwins.
Directed by Thomas Lennon, Knife Skills is an emotional origin story made immediate by Chrostowki’s return to the restaurant post-politics. We chatted with Chrostowski before the film’s local premiere Oct. 4 & 5 at the Chagrin Documentary Film Festival.
How did this movie come about?
The business plan I wrote was in 2004. After I wrote that business plan, I immediately knew that there were areas I was weak. I needed to hone in. Dining room management was one of them, so I started working at Chanterelle in New York City. The owners were friends with this guy Tom Lennon, the filmmaker. Midway through my time at Chanterelle, I incorporated this nonprofit [Edwins]. A year or two later, I was at Karen and David [Waltuck]’s apartment in New York. Tom was over there. We were eating meat loaf. I told them about this idea that I had. I said, this is what it’s going to be: the best French restaurant, staffed by those coming out of the justice system. He was, right then and there, intrigued. He said, “Look man, if it’s a bust it’s a great movie, if it’s a hit, it’s a great movie.”
Did this movie reaffirm why this re-entry work is so important?
You really see the growth of the alumni that came back. That’s always reaffirming. This [mayoral] campaign trail was reaffirming. The East Side, especially, the gratitude for this program and how it’s helped the community. I was at a Ward 9 club meeting, and someone said, “Can you help my sister?” That reaffirmed the impact that it made, and you don’t realize it. But this [movie] certainly did.
What did you learn on the campaign trail that you weren’t expecting?
This political thing really puts you on an island. I don’t know that a lot of people know what that means or looks like. When you really run for mayor, your friends; they’re not your friends. People that support you, they don’t support you. They don’t want to touch you with a 10-foot pole. As independent as I have been, never afraid to stand alone, I had to reach deeper to fight through this six-month campaign, to inspire, to fight. There was something deeper inside me. Taking that now to this mission of re-entry, there’s something deeper inside me that has to come out to fight for justice, to fight for equality, to fight for what’s right.
In an email you sent out to supporters after the election, you wrote: “As of now, I will continue my work in the community fight for the underserved of Cleveland. If I feel as though I can expand this mission through electoral politics at some point in the future, I will again become a candidate.” Are you done with politics?
I’m done with bad leadership. I’ll continue to run against bad leaders who, I think, intentionally screw the underserved. I’ll always fight that fight. I didn’t plan to become a politician. I understand what the job means. It’s a political world. The idea was to fight for what was right. That, I will continue to do. Who knows what it holds.