(CNS) -- Joe Dawson is learning that there's a skill to cutting celery and it begins
with how the chef's knife is held -- not by the handle but firmly above the sharpened
rocking motion, he carefully practices cutting long stalks into 1/4-inch
pieces, making sure to keep a good grip so the cuts are clean and without
Dawson's first day learning knife skills at the nonprofit Edwins Leadership Restaurant
Institute in Cleveland's Shaker Square, a vibrant mix of boutiques, banks and restaurants that
bridges the city's largely poor east side with the monied eastern suburbs.
It's challenging in a good way," Dawson, 44 and dressed in a traditional chef's
white jacket, told Catholic News Service before the start of a mid-August shift
at the French cuisine restaurant that trains former prison inmates for culinary
in May, Dawson had been "in the front of the house" at Edwins, honing
his hospitality skills by welcoming guests, serving meals and learning how to
anticipate diners' needs. For the next three months, he'll be in back --
meaning the kitchen -- learning how to cook classic French dishes, pair wine
with cheeses and move almost effortlessly among the dozen or so
chefs-in-training in tight, almost chaotic surroundings.
short for education wins -- is a venture of Brandon Chrostowski, 38, a no-nonsense, hard-driving
entrepreneur who saw a need to help people released from prison. He envisions
eventually that Edwins will host the country's best culinary school and provide
well-trained chefs and servers to the city's burgeoning local food scene.
like Dawson whom Chrostowski sees as valuable assets to the community. Dawson
returned home to Cleveland in April after spending 11 years in a West Virginia
penitentiary following his conviction in connection with the death of a man he
assaulted. Dawson said he was looking for a fresh start and Edwins is providing
explained to CNS that his undertaking is about giving people a second chance,
like the one he received as an 18-year-old in his hometown of Detroit.
story begins with his arrest for drug possession and fleeing police soon after
high school graduation. He faced a 10-year prison sentence, but in court, the
judge gave Chrostowski probation rather than time behind bars. He said the new
chance he received is something that African-Americans and Latinos who enter the
U.S. criminal justice system rarely get.
it's about fair and equal opportunity regardless of your past,"
Chrostowski explained about his reason for helping people now out of prison.
"When we take a student in here, we don't ask about previous offenses or
education level. It's about moving forward. I was never looked upon in a
different way when I was getting out of where I had to get out of.
is this idea that hard work doesn't have a language. If you work hard, it's
certain extent, he added, Edwins is rooted in the biblical call for justice for
people on society's margins. Chrostowski credited his grandmother for making
sure he went to Mass on Sundays in Detroit after his arrest. He continues to
practice the Catholic faith at Our Lady of Peace Parish in Cleveland with his
wife, Catana, and their children,
Leo, 3, and Lilly, 1. Chrostowski finds comfort in the Book of Genesis
and its stories of beginnings.
welcomes students into its six-month program after thorough screening and an
interview to determine their desire to succeed. Through August, 263 students will
have completed the program with more than 95 percent finding employment and
less than 2 percent recidivism.
graduate has opened a restaurant, and another runs a food truck. Others work at
know Chrostowski, who often clocks 90 hours or more a week on the job, expects
a lot from them. There are long hours, constant lessons to be learned and an
expectation to study after work hours.
receive a stipend and program-provided housing at the "Edwins campus"
Nicole Palmer, 31, is
another Edwins student. She began working on in the kitchen when she started in
the program in July. "It's going good," she said.
no cooking experience. It's all hands-on. Hearing compliments from everybody
makes me want to do more," added Palmer, who ended a 15-month prison
sentence on a felony conviction in the spring.
Chrostowski follows is simple: make sure people know when they are doing well
and point out errors in a nonjudgmental way so people learn from their mistakes
without feeling they will never succeed.
arrived in Cleveland 2008 after hearing that the city had the highest poverty rate
in the country. He had worked for a decade learning the culinary trade under
well-known mentors in New York, Chicago and France, and decided to bring to Ohio
his dream to develop the best culinary school and best French restaurant in the
country along with the desire to help others succeed. On Nov. 1, 2013, the
encompasses more than the restaurant and culinary school. Chrostowski has established
the Second Chance Life Skills Center two blocks south of Shaker Square. Four
buildings are involved including two residences for students and a culinary
library and recreation center. The fourth is being converted into a butcher
shop, Chrostowski said, will include Edwins graduates while providing quality
meats and healthy food at reasonable prices.
the venture comes from restaurant revenues, individual and corporate
contributions and foundation grants. Several parishes also collaborate with the
program by collecting money, books, clothing and household items to help
graduates re-establish their lives.
has been featured in an Oscar-nominated documentary short, "Knife Skills."
recruits students often before they are released, teaching basic cooking skills
learned about Edwins from an aunt before his release. He applied as soon as he
returned home and was accepted. He told CNS he likes greeting guests and making
sure their needs are met.
knew customer service," he said, "but I had no idea how to really
cater to someone and anticipate what they need before they need it. It's how to
become comfortable with the table, to listen to certain cues and just watch.
more than just giving them water. It's more than giving them bread. It's more
than just taking their order. It's catering to them. It's making sure they feel
admitted into the program, students are required within a week or so to obtain state-issued
identification card, a bank account, health insurance and a life plan. For
many, it's the first time they have been able to accomplish so much in so
days if I threw you in a scenario where you kept winning, winning, wining, what
happens then is that you get this more powerful 'yes.' That more powerful 'yes'
is stronger than the temptation around you and you're more likely to say 'no'
to this, 'no' to that. You're also building trust. That takes longer, but that's
the winning part of this and this building of esteem," Chrostowski said.
the biggest challenge we have, esteem. Poverty is ripped it away, that prison
is ripped it away," he continued. You're switching tasks (at Edwins), facing
new challenges. You're building that muscle of esteem and in six months you
have someone who is confident."
completes his training in November he will have a recommendation from the
Edwins staff that he can carry to one of Cleveland's classy new restaurants or
perhaps the new butcher shop. He wants to continue interacting with the people
who come through the door.
like when the guest asks me, 'What do you recommend tonight? What wine do you
With his new
culinary experience, he hopes to have the perfect answer.
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More information about Edwins can be found
online at www.edwinsrestaurant.org.