The man who was key in the opening of two Northeast Ohio fine-dining restaurants that give people second chances urged Akron to make a difference.
“We’re living and dying and in between … I hope to make a difference,” Brandon Chrostowski told an Akron Roundtable luncheon Thursday at Quaker Station.
“People get afraid and they don’t have the courage to say, 'What do I have to offer?' ” said Chrostowski, who founded Edwins in Cleveland’s Shaker Square and helped last year to launch Serenite in Medina. Both eateries are training grounds for people trying to turn their lives around.
“The list of what you’re capable of doing — it’s immense. So take that and put it together in a whole room like this, and now you can move mountains.”
Edwins opened in 2013. It's an upscale French restaurant that trains people leaving prison to do everything connected to fine dining, from budgeting to cooking to wine pairings. The nonprofit program provides free housing, legal services, basic medical care, clothing, literacy programs and, ultimately, help in landing a career for trainees who graduate.
Serenite is based on the idea of an informal French brasserie, with a menu that has some pricey dishes but is overall less expensive than Edwins. It’s part of the Medina Recovery Center, in the former Medina Steakhouse and Saloon a few blocks west of the town square, and offers similar training to people recovering from addiction.
Tracing his path to founding Edwins — "this place, this mission, this energy, this spirit” — Chrostowski revealed to the Roundtable audience that he had been given breaks and found people who took the time to mentor him. He began the story by talking of his arrest at age 18. (He didn’t offer details in his talk, but according to Edwins press materials he was arrested for fleeing authorities “when they came to break up a gathering involving drugs in suburban Detroit.”)
A judge opted to give Chrostowski probation, he explained Thursday, noting he faced five to 10 years in prison.
“I’ll never forget that feeling of being stripped of freedom,” he said of spending time in jail. “You don’t know what you have … until you lose it.”
Chrostowski said he believes he got probation because he’s white and “I had a paid attorney … at that time the public defense system was not very good in Michigan.”
Soon after he began working at a restaurant owned by an exacting Detroit chef, who set Chrostowski on the culinary path. The chef worked with him to hone his skills “with a precision that you wouldn’t believe.”
The chef “taught me a very great lesson. He said, it’s not practice that makes perfect, it’s perfect practice that makes perfect,” Chrostowski said.
Soon, Chrostowski was off to the Culinary Institute of America in New York, where he realized, thanks to the Detroit chef, he was “heads and shoulders above” other students.
“It gave me confidence,” he said. “It gave me this idea that I could dream and be anything.”
Soon, he was working for top chef Charlie Trotter, who also became a mentor. “The man was an eccentric … He was a freak. He would push you to this limit and then beyond. He taught you that you can make anything happen with what you have.”
Chrostowski graduated culinary school and went to work at restaurants in France before coming back to the United States to cook at highly rated New York eateries.
The violent deaths of two people he knew led to self-reflection, and a desire to make a difference with his skills. He went back to school and in 2004 wrote a business plan called Edwins.
Finally in 2013, the restaurant and institute opened its doors in Cleveland.
He persisted despite naysaying.
“We put people on the moon ... but the fact you don’t think someone can be redeemed because of incarceration,” he said, his voice trailing off. “Our society is still so callous, but even more so in the years past.”
The program has proved to be successful, with 97 percent of graduates finding employment.
Chrostowski recently launched a third venture, a butcher shop near Edwins with similar goals. He also is helping the West Side Catholic Center in Cleveland reopen a pizza shop as a nonprofit.
Katie Byard can be reached at 330-996-3781 or firstname.lastname@example.org.