Close to my home is a French cuisine restaurant called Edwins where I have eaten a couple of times. What is different about this restaurant is that all the workers are ex-convicts, some of whom were convicted of serious crimes. Shannon Carrier visited Cleveland and found Edwins through recommendations on Yelp and describes her experience eating there. She also talked with the owner Brandon Chrostowski, who as a young man was jailed for drug possession and evading arrest but thinks that because he was white, he got off more easily with a probation sentence.
He learned to cook in a downtown Detroit restaurant before going off to France and learning to be a chef and returning to Manhattan and working at some of the finest restaurants there. But something nagged at him.
“These men who really helped me become a man, the men in the kitchen in Detroit, they were slowly getting murdered, one after another—stabbed countless times, people put in prison. And I’m sitting here working at these restaurants with copper pots and $10,000 bottles of wine, and you just kind of look at life, like what the fuck is going on here? It just didn’t sit well with me.
So he decided to open a restaurant as a rehabilitation pathway for people coming out of prison, to enable them to learn skills and get well-paying jobs. And it has worked, as shown in a 2018 documentary called Knife Skills
Fifty-five restaurants are waiting to hire students. We have a 97-98 percent employment rate, 1.2 percent recidivism. They don’t go back. They just don’t. There’s a more powerful yes that we have introduced into someone’s life and they go forward.”
“We don’t ask about prior offense,” he said. “We don’t care.”
One scene in Knife Skills outlines some surprising math about what students can expect to earn with what they learned at EDWINS. “Numbers don’t lie,” Chrostowski is seen telling one group. “The demand in this town is high, and the supply for great managers is low. So, you should be walking out of here saying, ‘Where’s my 35-45-55 thousand, because you’ve got this kind of information.”
“Are there cameras?” my date asked before I could.
“No cameras,” Chrostowski said. “It’s a culture of trust, a culture of moving forward, not looking backwards.” I could see my date’s mind turning over the possibilities: gun fight, stabbing, armed robbery. But EDWINS has peacefully existed for almost five years. The only threat these individuals pose is to people who don’t want to see ex-cons enter the middle class.
“We have the campus around the corner, so part of that mission was to help people in toxic environments.” The institute raised private money for student housing and a campus: a 22-bed apartment building with a fitness facility, library, and test kitchen, and an eight-bed alumni house. The campus is two blocks from the restaurant, and Chrostowski lives a block from both places. “That’s the world, right there. It’s about staying small and tight and making sure we’re working with that staff every day, shoulder to shoulder.”
The program is open to anyone facing re-entry. “We don’t try to skim from the top,” Chrostowski said. “We don’t try to find the least offensive person. It’s, ‘You want to do this? Let’s go.’” It’s a tough program. Even with transportation, child care, and addiction counseling, about half the students who start will quit in the first few weeks. “It’s a readiness thing, not a literacy thing. If somebody isn’t ready to do it, they’re always welcome to come back. If there’s any violence or something that breaks our culture and what our code is, you’re not welcome back, but we forgive a lot. We often times forgive many more times than people would expect.”
You can see the trailer for Knife Skills.
This kind of rehabilitation for prisoners, providing them with a transition that teaches them marketable skills as well as a sense of social responsibility is sorely lacking in the US which is why there is such a high recidivism rate.
Incidentally ‘Edwins’ is not the name of a person but a truncation of ‘education + wins’.