Today, Brandon Chrostowski is the impeccably dressed manager, sommelier, fromager and "Johnny on-the-spot," if you should need anything while dining at L'Albatros.
He makes sure you get seltzer if you spill something on your new silk tie, recommends a special dessert if it's your birthday or the perfect celebratory cocktail, wine or champagne if you're celebrating a special occasion. He's an integral part of what makes L'Albatros – a 2011 James Beard Award nominee that has received national praise from The New York Times along with every local publication in existence – successful.
Chrostowski is also a man with a criminal record.
"I was arrested when I was about 18 years old," he says. "I spent only a short time in a county jail – made bail in less than a week. The charge I prefer to leave out, but the lesson I would say is that it was a wake-up call to straighten out."
Without strong mentor figures in his life, specifically in the restaurant where he was working at the time, and his strong resolve, he knows his life wouldn't have been turned around.
"I've learned most of my life lessons in a restaurant," Chrostowski says.
He kept the idea tucked away, always a catalyst for something he wanted to do in the future, which finally came to fruition when he founded EDWINS Leadership and Restaurant Institute, a nonprofit program and culinary venture to provide leadership skills to underprivileged and formerly incarcerated adults in the hospitality industry. In addition to learning the ins and outs of running a restaurant, they'll also address family and legal issues, and emotional, physical or substance abuses concerns.
Chrostowski's approach has three phases. The first began in earnest Oct. 14, with a sumptuous kickoff fundraising dinner in Bratenahl that featured many notable chefs from Cleveland and around the country.
The second phase is training. Chrostowski is currently visiting prisons to train those prisoners who meet the criteria to be in the program, which include a willingness to give the program a try and an interest in training to work for a restaurant.
"There's no shortage of candidates -- my phone rings off the hook with people trying to get in. Prison kitchen spaces however, are less than ideal," he says. "As you can imagine, knives are chained to the table and a typical prison kitchen is simply not equipped like a restaurant kitchen."
An immediate goal is to locate kitchen space in the Cleveland area. On this front, Chrostowski is confident a decision will be made shortly after the first of the year.
The last stage is to have a restaurant opened and staffed by spring 2013. The educational program will take six months to complete, and EDWINS' goal is to have 100 ex-offenders enrolled with no less than a 90-percent graduation rate and a 100-percent placement rate for the students within three months of completing the program. More importantly, they aim to keep the recidivism rate of graduates below 10 percent.
For those staring down past convictions on their record and an inability to find employment, generate personal income, and re-establish themselves in society are lingering problems.
Judge Dan Polster, who oversees the Federal reentry program, is on EDWINS' board.
"If society can provide a lawful means of support, the chance that the individual won't re-offend jumps to 80 percent. Without a job or a lawful means of support, that number falls dramatically," Polster says. "If we train them with the necessary skills to work in a restaurant, there is a ready market. He knows there are men and women under his supervision who are already interested in this field. In addition to providing a means of support, a job gives a person respect and self-esteem. Jobs allow them to become full members of society and that benefits them and us."
For more information on how to contribute to EDWINS or how to enroll in the program, call 216-744-2606 or visit edwinsrestaurant.org.
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