EDWINS restaurant in Cleveland aims to tackle one of the nation's biggest problems: Convicts getting out of prison and then going right back in. The expanding restaurant empire, led by Brandon Chrostowski, only trains those who have had a run in with the law, in an attempt to give them a shot at a better life.
Two decades ago, Chrostowski was 18 and dealing drugs. When he got caught, he found himself in front of a forgiving judge. Instead of sentencing him to five to 10 years in prison, the judge put him on probation – a decision Chrostowski credits to "the color of my skin and the grace of God."
Chrostowski eventually started working at a kitchen in his home town of Detroit. He later trained at the Culinary Institute of America, and was soon working at top French restaurants in Paris and New York. But the second chance he got was always in the back of his mind. So he came up with a plan: to open the best French restaurant in the world – in Cleveland.
"I just looked at where the worst high school graduation rate was, and Cleveland, Ohio, happened to be the number two city in the country where people in high school didn't graduate," he said. "So I figured that's a place that it's needed."
Everyone who trains at EDWINS – short for "education wins" – has had some run-in with the law, and many spent years in prison. Chrostowski aims to redirect their lives with a restaurant boot camp, a six-month program that provides housing, a library, donated clothes, and even a small farm.
Students take classes on a wide range of topics, including the art of champagne tasting and opening. The days are long -- noon until midnight – and only 30% of students make it through.
When he tells potential students about the program, he said, he gets two different responses. "First, 'I have no idea what you're talking about,' he said. "The other is, 'If you give me sand, I'll drink it. Just give me an opportunity. I'll take it, because that opportunity hasn't been there in the past.'"
His long-term goal, he said, is to change the perception of those who have spent time in prison, or struggled with hard times or addiction. Chrostowski also trains those still doing time inside 13 Ohio prisons. His students include convicts with sentences for murder, kidnapping and armed robbery. And despite that they're given knives for activities like filleting salmon, he said "it's the most at peace I feel all week… It's really the safest place that you ever could be."
"When I'm here and you're here with someone who's focused, and dedicating their life to the culinary arts, to improving, to fulfilling potential… There's no greater space to be in with another human being," he said.
Darrell Lempeck is nearing the end of a decade-long sentence for drug trafficking and weapons charges. He said he's ready to put in the work to keep himself from going back to prison – and Chrostowski's classes have "without a doubt" helped. "[It] gives me a purpose," he said.
Chrostowski's non-profit is funded by his main restaurant and private donations – but he says he won't take any government money.
According to the DOJ, in the 10 years following release from prison, the recidivism rate of convicts is up to 83%. Out of EDWINS' 350 graduates, Chrostowski said the recidivism rate is 1.4%.
"This thing is supported by like seven-year-olds, who've given like $4 of their allowance, $4 dollars in a Ziploc bag of coin. And the next day it's a half million dollar check," he said. "So from the very least of us to the very most of us it works. And without that it doesn't work. So the hero here is a community, the community of people."
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