CLEVELAND — It’s a busy Friday night in November, but Brandon Chrostowski leaves the hot line, where he’s teaching a pair of newbies to sear then roast fish paupiettes, swirl sauces onto plates and saute a half dozen snails in a half stick of butter. The kitchen is hopping, but it’s time to work the dining room floor.

Dressed in his chef whites, Chrostowski floats from table to table, offering a special wine for a diner trying his first foie gras, congratulating guests on anniversaries, schmoozing donors and potential donors. Whenever possible, he tells the story of Edwins, a fine dining French restaurant he opened in 2013 that also serves as training ground for people coming out of prison.

“I got arrested,” Chrostowski tells one woman, offering an abridged version of his story. “The seed was planted.”

The seed has grown and now consists of the 75-seat French restaurant on Shaker Square, on the border of Cleveland and Shaker Heights, plus a bakery and butcher shop and a third space for special events. Classes are offered in 13 Ohio prisons, and Edwins has a cooking curriculum available on 15,000 educational tablets used by prisoners in Arizona. The entire enterprise is powered by a nonprofit education and training program called Edwins Leadership & Restaurant Institute, which serves people touched in ways large and small by the criminal justice system.

The enterprise has grown along with a new national consensus toward criminal justice reform. In 2018, then-President Donald Trump signed bipartisan legislation to expand job training and other programs, hoping to reduce recidivism rates for federal prisoners. It also expanded early release programs and modified sentencing laws. Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, toured Edwins in 2019 and had dinner there. Chrostowski credits Trump with helping middle America appreciate the value of second chances.

This year, a report from the Brookings Institution found significant barriers — including stigmas and low wages — for the more than 640,000 people who are returned to communities from prison each year. More than half of former prisoners cannot find stable work in their first year out, and three in four are rearrested within three years of their release.

Every two months, a new cohort of students starts the program at Edwins, and there’s no upfront screening to begin. While more than half drop out, most everyone who makes it through the six-month training finds jobs on the other end, Chrostowski said. Edwins offers trainees a stipend of $600 to $800 per month, plus free housing and help finding health insurance and setting up bank accounts. Students who quit or are asked to leave the program are free to try again.

Chrostowski is its driving force. During his own training as a chef in the early 2000s, he was repeatedly pushed, sometimes brutally, to work hard and be better — a tough love that he says made him who is he. He’s now doing the same, with an extra dose or two of the love.

“I’m going to gamble on the fight in someone rather the flight in someone,” he said. “We’re fighters. Everyone is a fighter.”

A transformation

On the morning of June 21, Walter Atwood, 44, woke up in the Lake Erie Correctional Institution, an hour east of Cleveland, the final day of 27 years in prison. The next morning he began training at Edwins, and that evening he was preparing bananas foster tableside for guests.

“It was extremely surreal,” he said with a laugh. “It’s hands on. It’s like OJT: on-the-job training.”

Atwood had already been in prison for nearly 20 years when he joined a 10-month food preparation program at another prison, Grafton Correctional Institution, a precursor to Edwins restaurant that continues today. There, he learned about safe food handling, cooking techniques, ratios for dressings, how to follow recipes and knife skills.

He had been convicted at age 16 for offenses including aggravated robbery and attempted murder. He says that he was driven as a teenager by a toxic mix of alcohol, marijuana and anger. Anger, he said, was fueled by fear. Adrenaline drove a need to feel like he was in control. Once in prison, though, he said he began to read psychology books and learned more about himself.

“There’s a psychology that happens when someone challenges you,” he said. “So when a person doesn’t, like, hand over the money, that’s when violence starts happening.”

Today Atwood describes himself as “one of the happiest people I know,” and it shows as he makes easy banter and jokes with guests while taking their orders.

He was denied parole five times before winning release this year. Each time, he had to prepare a plan for how he would transition to the world outside of prison, and joining the Edwins training program was part of his Plan A. Upon release, he moved into a nearby two-bedroom apartment provided by Edwins.

As he was preparing to finish the training in November, he could easily point to his favorite task: making bananas foster.

“Normally you don’t get to show the guest what you do,” he said. “I could be back on the grill making a filet, but they don’t know what went into it.”

But preparing the dessert in the dining room is like making art. “It’s sort of like someone painting a picture and then watching somebody admiring that picture, that painting.”

Seed planted

In retrospect, the notion of Edwins can be traced to a fall day in 1997 in Chrostowski’s hometown of Detroit. He was in a car with friends and drugs they planned to sell when they caught the attention of police. He was 17, and was arrested for fleeing and eluding the officers. The charge carried a possible five- to 10-year sentence, but the judge gave him probation, an outcome he attributes to having a paid attorney and to being White in a system that favors White people.

He went to work at a restaurant, where he fell in love with cooking and was tutored by chef George Kalergis, who became a mentor. It launched a career that took him to the Culinary Institute of America in the Hudson River Valley of New York for professional training, Paris to learn the art of food and New York City, where he learned the business side of restaurants at some of the city’s top spots.

In 2004, he was working as a saucier during the first half of the day at Picholine, a French restaurant near Lincoln Center, and working nights at Le Cirque, a French restaurant in midtown Manhattan. One day he got a call from Kalergis, telling him that a young man he had worked with in Detroit had been murdered. It hit Chrostowski hard. “He was like my guy, right next to me,” he said. “He was just sweet.”

Two weeks later, Kalergis called to say another former colleague had been killed in a $5 lawn mowing dispute.

I think, 'I should be in prison right now,’” Chrostowski said. “I really believe I should be gone. I’m sitting here cooking on these ovens, entertaining the who’s who of the world. Like, the world is crazy. And the people that I knew or helped get me here are, like, gone.”

His friends were the victims, but he felt it was imperative to help the perpetrators and began developing a business plan for a restaurant that would help give offenders a second chance. He took restaurant jobs working in the front of the house, learned more about wine and got into management to round out his experience.

In 2008, he moved to Cleveland. In 2012 he began the training program at Grafton and, a year later, opened the restaurant. Its menu features lobster bisque and lamb lollipops, frog legs and filet mignon. He’s particularly proud of the canard a la rouennaise, a pressed duck dish that he says is served regularly only in a handful of restaurants.

At age 41, with spiky, prematurely white hair, Chrostowski was once asked whether he was a morning person or night owl. He answered “both” and also professed to consume no caffeine. He swears so frequently that nobody seems fazed by it, including his wife and young children.

“Hey Leo! What’s up buddy? Hey come here, I need you to make escargot,” he playfully yelled at his 6-year-old son during a Friday rush in November. Leo declined to jump onto the line. “Leo, that’s a real load of s---, man,” his dad joked. “You’re leaving us high and dry.”

Chrostowski has also made waves locally in politics, as an unsuccessful candidate for mayor. And he’s making enemies as he opposes a financial rescue plan by the city of Cleveland for Shaker Square, which is facing possible foreclosure. Edwins is located in the shopping center, but Chrostowski says he thinks the city is proposing to spend too much.

Edwins students are trained in all aspects of restaurants — which potatoes work for what dishes and why, what temperature various meats must be cooked to, why meats and produce are kept separate in a cooler and how to make sure a dining table is set just so, with fork on left, knife on right and a sauce spoon most people will never encounter set along the top of a plate. Entrees run from $29 to $55 (except for the duck, which costs $125 for two), and a line on the credit card slip invites diners to make a donation to the enterprise rather than add a traditional tip for service.

Half of the contributions go to the staff working that night as part of their stipend and half go to the nonprofit corporation, and every so often a diner will leave a $1,000 or even $5,000 contribution on the credit card slip. Edwins is also supported by corporate and foundation grants.

One morning this summer, Jon Khanna, the director of education, encouraged students to study the menu and asked what stood out. One man named the burger and, when asked why, he exclaimed, “It’s $40!” (Khanna admonished him for rounding up, noting the burger was only $35.) The student was also struck by the fact that the burger came with “goose fat-fried potatoes.”

“I’ll be honest with you,” Khanna replied. “Goose fat adds a little flavor. But when you see ‘goose fat-fried potatoes,’ it makes you think, ‘That’s fancy.’ … Part of any menu is how you present it … You want to make it so a guest says, 'Oh, that looks interesting.’”

Tough Love

As he moved through his early career, Chrostowski was repeatedly pushed. He says it taught him that he could handle anything. Once, in Paris, he was subjected to physical punishment amid a miscommunication over the number of brochette of escargot that were needed.

Even tougher was Chicago, where he was an apprentice at Charlie Trotter’s legendary restaurant. Trotter would give him a box of lima beans to shuck and nowhere near enough time to do it. He gave him a spade shovel and told him to clear the back alley of Chicago snow. And when Chrostowski was desperate to take an open position on the hot line and believed it was obvious he had earned it, Trotter sent him to the pastry station.

“Charlie did what he needed to do to a guy like me — a lot of energy, kind of undisciplined,” Chrostowski said. “He just beat the s--- out of me and beat into my head that you can make anything happen with what you have, no matter what it is, you can make it happen.”

Now the conditioning runs the other way. About one in five students at any given time has enrolled and dropped or been kicked out before, said Khanna, the education director, for problems such as attendance or drug use.

In January, a man will start training for the eighth time. “We’re going to keep letting him back in, because he wants to make that change,” Khanna said.

The staff consists of about 30 full-time employees in addition to the students in training. More than half the permanent staff are graduates, and a graduate is now being groomed to eventually take over as executive chef.

Justin Smith, 37, was introduced to Edwins through the course at Grafton, where he got to know leaders in the program and earned his food safety certification. “They always told me if I was going to … come home, (if) I need housing, let them know,” he said. After serving seven years, nine months and four days in prison for aggravated robbery, he was excited by the prospect of working at Edwins restaurant.

He said Edwins has challenged him to learn from his mistakes. “I’m very hardheaded and stubborn,” he said. Once, in the spring or early summer, he ordered scallops with no mushrooms for a diner who was allergic to mushrooms. But the scallops came out with mushrooms. Smith insisted he had entered it properly into the computer. He hadn’t.

Smith said he had to learn that there can be real consequences for mistakes. “It could have gotten someone sick — very sick.” In this case, the diner noticed the mushrooms, and Smith quickly had a new order made for her. He got through that evening and is now participating in Edwins’ management training program.

Mistakes are expected. At the end of that Friday night in November, after almost all the guests had departed, the students gathered in the back of the dining room to review the evening. It was only the third night on the floor for this cohort, who had started classes a few weeks earlier.

“Anyone make a mistake?” Khanna asked.

One person forgot to ring in a creme brulee. Another messed up the timing of the cheese and main courses. One person wasn’t sure what a wine flight was. Someone else asked whether goat cheese was vegan. (Answer: no.)

Chrostowski, listening, jumped in. “Is organic goat cheese vegan?” he asked. “Yes … no!” someone replied.

“Just because it’s organic doesn’t mean it’s vegan,” he said. “How about honey?” Not vegan either.

He offered another pop quiz. Who has right of way in a restaurant? Answer: a guest. Second place: someone carrying food. “Everyone else is chopped liver,” he said. He advised them to study the menu and memorize the system for identifying seat numbers. He told the group that the evening had gone smoothly, especially for their third night.

“You guys are going to be blown away every week how much stronger you have gotten,” he told them. “Where were you four weeks ago? Imagine where you’ll be five months from now.”