The Inspiring Path of Chef Brandon Chrostowski – From Struggles to Culinary Success & Social Impact

Brandon Chrostowski
Brandon Chrostowski, Founder, President and CEO, EDWINS (Photo Credit: Molly Nook)
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Founder, President and CEO, EDWINS


Brandon Chrostowski is a chef and entrepreneur who has dedicated his life to helping others through food. Born and raised in Ohio, Chrostowski overcame a difficult childhood marked by poverty, addiction, and crime to become a successful chef and restaurateur. He trained at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America and went on to work at some of the finest restaurants in the country, including Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago and The French Laundry in Napa.

But Brandon Chrostowski’s true calling was not just to create beautiful and delicious food, but to use his skills to help others. In 2007, he founded EDWINS Leadership & Restaurant Institute, a nonprofit organization that provides culinary and hospitality training to formerly incarcerated individuals to help them reintegrate into society and find meaningful employment. EDWINS also operates a highly acclaimed French restaurant in Cleveland, OH, where the program’s graduates work alongside industry professionals to gain practical experience.

Chrostowski’s work with EDWINS has received national attention and acclaim, including features on “60 Minutes” and “CNN Heroes.” He has also been recognized with numerous awards, including the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s prestigious “Culture of Health Prize” in 2016. Chrostowski is a true visionary and a shining example of how food can be a force for positive change in the world.

  • McKee Foodservice
  • Atosa USA
  • DAVO by Avalara
  • RAK Porcelain
  • AHF National Conference 2024
  • Imperial Dade
  • Cuisine Solutions
  • RATIONAL USA
  • Simplot Frozen Avocado
  • T&S Brass Eversteel Pre-Rinse Units
  • BelGioioso Burrata
  • AyrKing Mixstir
  • Day & Nite
  • Easy Ice

When Total Food Service heard that he had been nominated for Restaurateur of the Year by the James Beard Foundation, we knew it was time to share his amazing journey.


For those who don’t know you, can you share a little bit of your background before you came into the industry?

Before I came into the industry, I was in a bunch of trouble. It’s a pretty simple story. A lot of energy and no direction, the classic story.

I started dabbling in the industry when I was 16 years old by waiting tables in my hometown of Detroit. When I was 19, I walked into a restaurant downtown on Woodward Avenue next to the Fox Theatre and Chef George Kalergis took me in and changed my life. I worked for about a year and a half, and he taught me it’s not practice that makes perfect, but perfect practice that makes perfect.

What led to the creation of EDWINS? Talk a little bit about how this whole thing came about.

I was 18 when I got arrested. I spent some time in the County jail but never prison because the judge gave me probation. It was a gift that I didn’t really understand at the time. I started cooking for Chef George and I knew right away that I loved it. The chef wrote a letter of recommendation to the CIA. Next thing I knew I was in Poughkeepsie in school and that led to an amazing internship in France.

You went from the CIA in Poughkeepsie to France?

I apprenticed in Paris at a Michelin three-star restaurant that turned into a gig in New York at Le Cirque. I wanted to be the best chef in the world, and we all know for a chef that Manhattan is the center of the world. I was in the right place. I started getting calls from back home from Chef George about people getting murdered back in Detroit or put in prison. I knew that I was lucky to be where I was. I was cooking with Bonnet ovens, copper pots and we were selling $10,000 bottles of wine. I felt it was amazing, but someone else’s life. I sensed a calling and that was the beginning of the idea that I’m going to build this restaurant. But it’s going to be more than a restaurant, it’s going to also be a school. It’s going to help people that need the same break I got.

What were those first steps in 2004, did you open the school or the restaurant first?

The hard part was there was nothing out there like this. There were obviously organizations like C-CAP that were training people and helping them. At that time, I was cooking for Donald Tober from Sugar Foods, and he connected me with C-CAP’s Founder Richard Grausman.

I knew I needed to write a business plan. The problem was I didn’t have a clue how to do it. Between the public library and taking extension classes, from Oswego, I figured it out.

I was teaching at BOCES in Duchess County, NY. Having to write the plan was a blessing because I realized the things that were weak and would need to go figure out to make sure the project was a success. I needed to learn how to work a dining room and develop an understanding of wine. On top of that, I needed to learn how to start a nonprofit, a 501(c)3. In 2007. I got the certification, and the next step was to find a city that really needed a restaurant and a school. I ended up going to Cleveland, OH, in 2009. I was working elsewhere and found a local prison to start testing the educational program. I started working in a prison and teaching a class.

I found a warden who really understood what we were trying to accomplish. That was in 2012 and a year later we opened the restaurant. It took about a good 10 years to develop the idea and work on the weaknesses. Then come up with where to do it, how to do it, and fundraise. It wasn’t easy!

Brandon Chrostowski
Brandon Chrostwoski speaks to students and attendees at an EDWINS Leadership & Restaurant Institute event

Who did you work for to add those skills?

Karen and David Waltuck at Chanterelle gave me a wonderful opportunity to grow. They had a great sommelier, Roger Dagorn, what a teacher! Karen and David really took me under their wing. And they moved me up to a management position, so I was the maître d’ and managing the restaurant. It was a dream come true. I was in great restaurants learning amazing things. I simply would not have been able to create EDWINS without them.

Hold on, what did you learn about how to work a dining room properly?

David Waltuck confirmed that you don’t need a formal education to work properly with people. He was a college dropout who opened Chanterelle when he was 24 years-old and he had this amazing touch. David and Karen were also parents with a special needs child and that gave them this amazing patience. I had come from a background of throwing plates or having them thrown at you. You get burned or beat in the kitchen because you messed up an order.

What’s the correct response to the customer who looks you in the eye and says ‘This food is terrible’?

You say ‘It’s a lovely jacket you’re wearing, sir.’ We try our best to hire robots, but we get humans instead. We’ll work on this soon. I mean, that was the Waltuck’s approach. They were very friendly and very forgiving. They had a touch in that dining room and won all kinds of awards for best service in New York year after year. At the same time, they wanted people to be themselves. It was okay to be yourself, but you had to understand the fundamentals. The result was that the guests felt that positive energy. The key to this day is that you need to be patient with yourself.

What we are really talking about is learning the blocking and tackling for the front of house.

More than that because to get it right you need to start looking at the profit and loss. I was able to save Chanterelle 14%-15% by eliminating some inefficiencies. They saw space between tables as crucial to the guest experience.

With a limited floor plan of 11 or 12 tables in the dining room, I figured out a way without compromise to the customer experience to fit two more tables. Think about the value of two additional tables with two turns a night over a full year.

There are little things like the cost of using an Egyptian cotton tablecloth that needed to be dry cleaned rather than a tablecloth that we could launder internally. It all added up to a significant bump to the bottom line.

Cuisses de Grenouille EDWINS Leadership Restaurant Institute
Cuisses de Grenouille from EDWINS Leadership Restaurant Institute

Was the initial opening of EDWINS everything you thought it would be?

There’s a lot of fate involved in this whole journey. I’m not kidding you with things that have happened in my life that you couldn’t make up. Let’s just say that the Cleveland restaurant community didn’t exactly welcome me with open arms. Zac Bruell was opening a French restaurant in the heart of Cleveland, which is surrounded by the Cleveland Clinic, the Cleveland Orchestra and Case Western University and he hired me to open the Brasserie. We were absolutely killing it. Next thing I know Crain’s Business writes an article about the Brasserie hiring ex-cons. The story that was planted by a well-known Celebrity Chef with the hope that it would keep diners from coming to eat. It had the exact opposite effect; more people came than ever before. Then there was a need to know what I was going to do next and so when EDWINS finally opened in 2013, it was a hit and we’ve never looked back. People came and we packed the house. I had $10.48 in my bank account when we opened, I had enough for two weeks of payroll in the bank for the business. We packed the place for two straight months and made it.

What’s the legacy from there?

It’s always been the same, central to everything is someone who’s got a need, that we can help. There’s no book of needs from some author. What we do know is that the first step is always the highest standard of training in this business for people coming in and out of prison. That all begins with the teaching we do in prison. Once a week, we teach in juvenile corrections and five days a week, we have the capacity to reach up to 400,000 inmates nationwide, with our online training program. The next step was how to provide housing for someone in or coming out of prison. We created a case manager position to manage that process. We then signed deals on three houses without any money and then raised the funds. Went have two apartment buildings, one house for graduates, one house for families. Then it became how can we deepen our education curriculum. We opened a butcher shop and bakery. The we moved onto childcare and this month; we opened a childcare center.

Find a need and fill it. That’s what you’ve done.

Yes, and most importantly sustain it. It’s easy to open up restaurants, keeping them open as we all learned with the Pandemic is another question. We doubled our business during COVID. Because of the stupid table spacing, limitations I could only put so many people in a dining room. That limited how many of our people we could teach. We needed more space and opened a second restaurant because we were busy. That restaurant is still open today and packed.

How many graduates have come through the campus?

We’ve graduated almost 600 people. Many of these folks have gone on to open other restaurants for major restaurant operators. Our grads are doing great!

We also have grads that have opened their own bricks and mortar restaurants or even a hot dog cart. One of the keys is to understand is that everybody’s definition of success is different. It’s our goal to give them the skills they need to make their life dream a reality and to get them to that next step. Bottom line is that less than 1% have gone back to prison.

Maybe it’s the stress of trying to keep a restaurant afloat, that leaves no time for crime?

I think it’s an innate sense of humanity. You’re nourishing your mind and body with a primal need to be hospitable. You can find out very quickly that if you work hard that you get pretty good at serving others. When you’re good at something, it’s kind of fun. If it’s kind of fun, you’re focused on doing it consistently.

The drive is to get the skill to the next level. At its simplest, if I ask you to peel a carrot, you may or may not do it correctly. But if I can teach you the best and most efficient way, you end up with a truly valuable skill set. Now not only do you have the skill but you can teach it to others. Our goal is to train leaders out of here who can then go and lead in other places. We need to deconstruct the wheel in our industry and then reassemble it with their perspective.

How did you double business during COVID?

We came into it as a resilient and creative organization. We hired 16 people that first month in April 2020. We took any student who wanted to work and turned them into an employee because we couldn’t operate the school. We created four meals for $40 that could feed a family. We were baking our own desserts and employing somebody to cut meats. The distributors loved us, and they had fire sales on everything. It wasn’t unusual for our $40 for four to include lobster or Filet Mignon. My attitude was these bills are not going to get paid magically. Our staff wasn’t going to let anything get in the way of working hard and surviving. This was their second chance, and the mentality was we’re gonna get through this.

Foie Gras poêle sur brioche EDWINS Leadership and Restaurant Institute
Foie Gras poêle sur brioche from EDWINS Leadership and Restaurant Institute

That attitude certainly doesn’t reflect all of the labor issues that we’ve listed to over the past year.

I just spoke at a couple of industry events. All the industry giants are there, Daniel Boulud, Alice Waters, Lidia Bastianich. The problem is we don’t have a labor shortage, we have a leadership shortage. We have this incredible knack as an industry for going out and finding an auto loan or a mushroom. We can forage for these things, but chefs are choosing to do that rather than creatively find talent, in places like a prison or a juvenile justice center or a shelter. It’s up to us to find this next wave of talent, train them properly with an understanding that they need to be paid a wage that sustains a business and sustains the person. We have 50 or 60 people lined up here for our program. We pay only a stipend, but people see a future. Compare that to Amazon that paying $20 an hour in Cleveland and turns over 50% of their staff every month. People don’t work for wages; they work for
a future.

What role does technology play in the industry going forward?

I still think this is a skin-to-skin business. You know, and people will come back for the way they felt not because of your efficiency. I’ve tried for a long time to take the reservation system, not out of here, but reduce it down to a handwritten book. But I will tell you that our teaching across the country is very much dependent on tablets!

What about social media and stuff like that?

I just got rid of my flip phone! We got a social media guy here. I’ve never seen it once. I don’t engage in any social media now. I just trust him that things are working well. I’m old school with a publicist that gets the word out.

What’s your approach to your wine and spirits menu?

We are in a full-scale Bourbon boom. We are primarily a French restaurant with a large French wine list. I’m not an American wine fan. We need to offer them because of the pricing of French Burgundy and Champagne. We have spirits from around the world and we are seeing an inclination towards the old school spirits like Armagnac.

What are your thoughts on being recognized by your peers with a James Beard Award nomination?

What’s truly exciting is the access that an award like that gives you. Win or lose, it creates another PR opportunity to tell our story. With that will hopefully come a chance to meet with the Governor of Illinois and expand the work that we are doing in places like Cook County. The nomination drives me to work twice as hard to expand our program into places that have said no before. It gives us that opportunity to have a bigger sphere of influence for us to help develop more leaders.

What’s the crystal ball look like? Would you like to build one of these programs in every state in the country?

We have so much going on with the focus on maintaining our standard. It’s continuing to run our successful sustainable restaurants and educational programs. Making sure our campus and new childcare program is running smoothly. Most importantly, it’s deepening our impact to develop leaders. Because we don’t need 600 restaurants, we need 600 leaders who can run restaurants and open restaurants, right? We want to be the “Harvard” of hospitality training. Our prison program is expanding and we consult around the country.

In places like New Mexico, we are helping to make a difference with our training. We are looking for more partners like the Cleveland Browns. They will pay for transportation to get someone to Cleveland from another prison if they complete our 30-hour program. Our fund raising right now is focused on more family housing to support our participants.

You said that every human being regardless of their past has a right to a fair and equal future.

That’s it, that’s what we fight for. And we know civil society wins, government will validate what civil society puts out there. The goal is to really change the perception of what someone thinks a person out of prison looks like. We’re changing what it looks like!


ALL PHOTOS courtesy of EDWINS unless otherwise noted

Learn more about Brandon Chrostowski and EDWINS at their website.

  • AHF National Conference 2024
  • RAK Porcelain
  • Easy Ice
  • McKee Foodservice
  • Day & Nite
  • AyrKing Mixstir
  • Cuisine Solutions
  • DAVO by Avalara
  • Atosa USA
  • Imperial Dade
  • BelGioioso Burrata
  • T&S Brass Eversteel Pre-Rinse Units
  • RATIONAL USA
  • Simplot Frozen Avocado