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From behind bars to the James Beard House

Former prisoners are cooking up a new future through a Cleveland culinary program — and will show off their chops at 'the greatest place a chef can cook.'

by Dana McMahan /
Edwins Leadership & Restaurant Institute provides formerly incarcerated men and women with culinary training in a high-end restaurant featuring classic French cuisine.Lara Talevski /
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A taste of the past will be on the menu at the famed James Beard House in January when guests sit down to a classic French dinner. But it's a taste of the future that the man behind the meal hopes they take away.

Brandon Chrostowski is orchestrating the dinner with a team from his French restaurant EDWINS in Cleveland — a team made up of formerly incarcerated men and women. See it's not just the music that's different at this white tablecloth restaurant complete with cheese cart and $33 table-side burger service (the Motown soundtrack at dinner is just good for you, he says, though it's also a nod to his Detroit upbringing). The restaurant is also part of an intensive culinary training program that equips people released from prison for a new future — as long as they're willing to work for it.

Don't look back

EDWINS is about “taking a human being and meeting them where they're at,” Chrostowski tells NBC News BETTER, “where you're taking someone, not even asking about their past, knowing that they have the potential to fulfill whatever future they'd like, if they can get those fundamentals, are willing to work hard and have the mentor to facilitate it.”

Not everyone makes it, at least not on their first go-round. “The first two weeks are pretty intentional; they're pretty hard,” says Chrostowski. Half the class won't make it through the initial few weeks while another 10 to 20 percent won't complete the full six-month course.

 Marley Kichinka, trainee, previously struggled with heroin addiction; at Edwins she discovered a passion for restaurant work. TFL Films LLC

While the coursework may be formidable, nothing else should be. “If there's an excuse like housing, then we build housing,” Chrostowski says. “[Need] childcare, we'll connect you with childcare. Whatever it is, you need a bus pass to get here, we'll get that to you. We make sure everyone has a bank account, driver's license, the health care they need to be connected with.”

Those who make it are going to work every position in a restaurant, Chrostowski says. “[They'll] know what they enjoyed the most, what their five year plan is ... and what the next step is. We start to connect them with that next step.”

The one percent

And that next step is anywhere but back behind bars; among the graduates since EDWINS opened in November 2014 “one percent return to prison,” Chrostowski says. “That number is unbelievable. Literally, people won't believe you.” For comparison, more than four in ten offenders nationwide return to state prison within three years of their release, according to a 2011 PEW report.

Now that unbelievable success is being showcased with one of the highest honors in the industry, Chrostowski says. For the several students (that he's identified but not told yet) and one graduate going to New York, “it's like winning the high school championship,” he says.

“You can tell family and friends about it forever. It's one of those legacy pieces to say '20 years ago I wasn't doing right and no one would give me a chance and [then] they did and I worked hard and succeeded. My courage, my risk, my hard work added up to going to the greatest place that a chef can cook.'”

They'll be able to say, “'we were the team that took Cleveland to the James Beard House,'” he goes on, “'we were the people who represented the 52,000 people behind bars in Ohio.' There is pride and there is responsibility,” with that.

 Paupiettes de mer, a classic French dish on the menu at Edwins, features grouper wrapped in crispy potatoes with haricot verts and beurre rouge. TFL Films LLC

Think outside the plate

Because they're taking more than just their finest food. Looking at the menu (think Osetra caviar with Sicilian pistachios on terra cotta–cooked cipolline, and poached Dover sole with lobster mousse, black truffles, spinach, and lobster sauce), “it's pretty high brow, pretty swank,” Chrostowski says. But beyond the fare that he promises will excite the soul, “we're bringing a mission, a philosophy, a mindset that people will consume.”

And he hopes they're coming with an open mind. The biggest compliment the diners can pay, Chrostowski says, “is if people are just quiet and have to think about this for a minute, really think about this. If this could spread, if this could flourish, then what would things look like? What could things look like if we just gave someone an opportunity without question?”

Chrostowski himself got that opportunity as a youth in trouble when a Detroit judge offered him probation instead of prison if he got a job. Chrostowski landed in a high end restaurant when a chef gave him a chance. That opportunity launched his culinary career that has spanned top restaurants in Chicago, New York, and Paris — and the seed for EDWINS was planted.

Cleveland proud

Now the hope and mission of EDWINS is spreading, inside and outside prison walls in Ohio, with culinary clubs where currently incarcerated people are empowered to teach classes, and with the 200-plus graduates outside who are teaching and learning and growing, Chrostowski says. And it's spreading beyond Ohio with a new film from Tom Lennon.

What could things look like if we just gave someone an opportunity without question?

What could things look like if we just gave someone an opportunity without question?

Knife Skills, which follows the inaugural class and opening of EDWINS, just landed on the short list of contenders in the documentary short subject category for the 90th Academy Awards.

These recognitions are great, Chrostowski acknowledges. “The mission moves and people can't ignore this. It does Cleveland proud.”

“But you're still grounded by day to day,” he adds. “Back to reality, things are hard, poverty's a b-tch and we have to keep fighting.”

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