Edwins Leadership and Restaurant Institute
Podcast #91 — Aired May 2, 2016

Everyone deserves a second chance. At Edwins Leadership and Restaurant Institute, formerly incarcerated adults are getting that chance. This week on BetterWorldians Radio, we’re talking with founder Brandon Chrostowski. Brandon will tell listeners how an education in the culinary arts is helping empower students and change their lives.

 

 

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Brandon Chrostowski
Founder, Edwins Leadership and Restaurant Institute

Brandon Chrostowski is the founder of Edwins Leadership and Restaurant Institute. The idea for EDWINS was born “from a break” that Brandon received early in life. It has grown from a six-month program conducted in prison that provides training in culinary arts and hospitality to a full-service restaurant dedicated to teaching those recently released from prison all facets of restaurant operations. Brandon began his career in Detroit 19 years ago and has since trained in some of the world’s finest restaurants. He received an Associate’s degree in Culinary Arts and a Bachelor’s degree in Business and Restaurant Management at The Culinary Institute of America. An accomplished sommelier, Brandon received his certification from the Court of Master Sommeliers in 2008.

Episode Transcript

Raymond Hansell
Hi, welcome to BetterWorldians Radio. BetterWorldians Radio is a weekly broadcast whose mission is to uplift and inspire you to make the world a better place. Im Ray Hansell joined today by my co-host Gregory Hansell. BetterWorldians Radio is brought to you by the family team that created the popular social game on Facebook called A Better World. It rewards players for doing good deeds, while helping to raise money and awareness for charities. So far over forty million good deeds have been done in A Better World by more than four million people. Good deeds include expressions of gratitude, acts of kindness, and sending notes to real world sick kids, just to name a few. This week on BetterWorldians Radio were talking with Brandon Chrostowski, founder of Edwins Leadership and Restaurant Institute. The idea for EDWINS was born from a break that Brandon received early in life. It has grown from a six-month program conducted in prison that provides training in culinary arts and hospitality to a full-service restaurant dedicated to teaching those recently released from prison all facets of restaurant operations. Brandon began his career in Detroit nineteen years ago and has since trained in some of the worlds finest restaurants. He received an Associates degree in Culinary Arts and a Bachelors degree in Business and Restaurant Management at The Culinary Institute of America. An accomplished sommelier, Brandon received his certification from the Court of Master Sommeliers in 2008.

Gregory Hansell
Hi Brandon, this is Greg.

Brandon
Greg how you doing?

Gregory Hansell
Good, thank you for joining us today, appreciate it.

Brandon
Oh its a pleasure.

Gregory Hansell
So we know that youre all about second chances. Can you tell our listeners why?

Brandon
Well its right and just, and I believe in the very, you know, bowels of my body that every human being, regardless of their past has a right to a fair and equal future. So its just, you know, a hard belief thats inside.

Gregory Hansell
And how did you get the idea then to start the Edwins Leadership and Restaurant Institute?

Brandon
You know it was easy, it was really the story of my life and what worked, and I figured if, you know, a restaurant could help save me, it could save the world. So it was really just taking a look back on, you know, what mentors and what lessons in my career and life worked, and helped take me from a, you know, place that was misguided and not the right track to finding something that worked and, you know, I felt very valued in and how to become the best at it.

Gregory Hansell
Well I know that you yourself got a second chance as a teenager. Can you tell our listeners a bit about that story?

Brandon
Yeah, it was as simple of a story as I could tell is, you know, we were kids, you know, and we were having fun and as most teenagers do, and that reckless energy was in the wrong place at the wrong time and, you know, when the police arrived, you know, many of us fled so we didnt get caught with what happened at that moment. But, a few moments later, a day later they caught up with us. So, you know, after being thrown in jail and being transferred to, you know, a different jail and so on. Eventually led me to a courtroom where the judge had the ability to sentence me for five to ten years in prison, and he said I had more to offer and gave me a years probation instead. It was a great gift, but the even bigger gift came while I was on probation. A chef by the name of George Clerges in downtown Detroit mentored me and showed me a whole other world that I never felt possible, and he gave me that lesson that perfect practice makes perfect. If you work hard for long enough, you can become whatever you want to be. And thats where the story begins.

Gregory Hansell
Thats an incredible story. So tell our listeners what you do at Edwins Leadership and Restaurant Institute?

Brandon
Oh sure. I mean Edwins, what were doing here, our team is really connecting someone with, you know, with their dream, and you know, most of those dreams happen to revolve around food. You know, this world of food where you can do anything you want to if you know the basics the right way and work hard to achieve them. Its just like George had taught many, many years ago. So, you know, someone will come to us and we, you know, we talk to them, and we just get a sense of their desire to become better and were never asking about a previous offense, or previous education level, we just to find someone who is fired up and ready to make a difference in this industry. And once we find these students, we dont let go, and neither do they. So its a rigorous program, you know, not everyone makes it through, but its not meant to be easy. Were not pushing or pulling someone along the program. Were more or less blocking and tackling while theyre doing the running. But theyll get exposed to the fundamentals of the business, how to cost up the menus, and you know, engineer menus, that, you know, youre turning the right profit, well go through service aid, gastronomy then over the next five and a half months its every position in the restaurant will be worked by that student. So from hosting, to serving, to bartending, to every station in the kitchen, you know, thats where their path leads. And along the way, just again working above the neck and making sure that, you know, someones in the place where they need to be, you know, very clear focus, you know, handling any problems or issues that are necessary. You know, we have a case manager who like just really works tirelessly, seeing that happen. So at the end the six months someone has a road map of where they want to be, theyre on a solid ground, and well, we got their back from here on out.

Gregory Hansell
Thats interesting, so why do you think the restaurant business is such a good choice for people looking for a fresh start?

Brandon
I dont think it is, you know, the best, its the only thing I know. I guess thats why Im doing it this way.

Gregory Hansell
Right, right.

Brandon
I think that you could do this with any industry, you know, we encourage others in, you know, manufacturing, or even banking. Theres so many, you could do this in any industry if you were to lend your expertise, and you know, some support and care you could, you know, you could mentor anyone, right? For me this industry was critical because one, it was something I had access to without any questions about my past. I mean and, you know, that holds true until today. I mean a lot of employers, you know, we have forty plus restaurants who are waiting to hire, theyre not concerned about someones past, theyre concerned about someone who is going to show up on time and do the job right and increase their quality. So accessibility is one, two being able to navigate in this business is really intuitive. Yes, you need to know the fundamentals, ratios, techniques, but you know, what feels right usually is right in this business. Meaning if the guest needs something, you kind of pick up on that, youre able to identify with your intuition more so than any other book smart or any other smart. Thats also helpful, and lastly one of the greatest lessons Ive learned in my life is that hard work doesnt have a language. So when I went to France, I was illiterate, I couldnt read, write or speak, and I started in a very small town in central France, but worked harder than anyone else and ended up working my way to the best restaurant in all of Paris. And it wasnt because I was the smartest, the fundamentals were strong and the worth ethic was very strong. So this industry has no language except hard work. So whether youre coming from another country and youre looking for a second chance and starting your life again here. Whether you have a criminal history and youre looking for a second chance at a career. No matter what it is, if youre willing to work hard, youre going to do very good on your second chance.

Gregory Hansell
I think thats an amazing notion that the industry has no language except hard work. So imagine then that the criteria, the skills the students learn must be so important. What are some of the criteria that you present to students that they have to meet?

Brandon
Well, I mean, theres softer skills like any other job. You want to make sure someones here on time, you know, looks nice and sharp, but you know, one of the greatest skills is this idea that you can just keep working and out working and things will break. And that no matter what day youre having, whats going on in life, that you can make it happen. Thats a skill thats almost as universal as work ethic is making it happen. So no matter what challenge you come across, youre going to make it happen because you know you can, and you know you have to, and you know you want to. So just this idea that no matter whats thrown at you, because we throw impossible tasks at each student, I mean just impossible, but were showing them that its not impossible if you work hard. Its the same lessons Charlie Trotter gave to me, you know, he gave me a four inch spade shovel and told me to shovel the back alley in the middle of winter. He would, you know, at seven thirty on a Friday night when you dont think you can handle anymore, you know, orders or business, he would say Brandon, heres Greg, hes going to be your guest chef tonight, can you set him up with a first course and then, you know, out comes the wine. Its like are you kidding me right? But Chef Trotter, yeah he was a SOB, but I wouldnt be here without his mental conditioning. So those are like the universal lessons that really get taught here, but were also teaching the fundamentals and techniques of cooking. So its not just like, hey follow this recipe, its like, so youre making cookies and theres a ratio to this, its one, two, three, you know, one part butter, two parts sugar, three parts flour, and if you know the creaming method, now you can make this cookie anywhere in the world because you have the fundamentals and the technique. So you know, we teach that with sauces, and stocks, and the knife cuts, you name it, its just engraining these fundamentals so anyone can go anywhere and be confident, you know, hit the technical points and then start to learn whatever chef they work under touch or intricacies. But its really having someone leave here with this ability that they can do anything they want. They understand the fundamentals and they can apply them because they know how to work hard.

Gregory Hansell
So what are some of the classes you offer that teach those fundamentals?

Brandon
Well, I mean, one is, you know, the restaurant. I mean youre working at, in a restaurant thats fine dining at real speed with real repercussions, and you know, you have real chefs and managers coming down on you if things arent correct. Its really important to, you know, kind of galvanize the knowledge inside this pressure cooker. So the knowledge is taught throughout the day, the classes go from noon until we close the restaurant, so noon until two, theyre setting up the station, two until four its lessons, theres a little family meal, and then we open the restaurant. And thats typical throughout, you know, the six days were open. So in those lessons, you know, well teach pastries, well teach, we talk about breads, we talk about, you know, emulsions, vinaigrettes, mayonnaise, etc. How to prepare and cut fishes and meats, you know, vegetables, we hit the major cooking methods, you know, braising, sautéing, you know, poaching. So theres an understanding of that, theres understanding of seasonings, theres understanding of, you also learn, knife cuts, knife skills. So these are all the classes that were offering, its no different than a major culinary school. Big difference is we pay our students, we dont charge tuition. In the front of the house, the dining room is the same shtick, you know, we go through these fundamentals of receiving a guest in our home, and how the meal should kind of unfold, based on some fundamental standards that you find in finer dining. But wine knowledge is part of the lesson plan, spirit knowledge, well make our own beer, our own whiskeys, we have a little still here that we show what distillation looks like. You know, we go over cheeses, we go over, you know, anything thats under menu has to be described and known so those, thats kind of our curriculum is that menu and how we come to it. So youll find a lot of the finer points too in business, you know, how to cost up your menu, how to yield percent or what you have leftover versus whats wasted, how that factors into your costing, and then how your cost needs to be set at a point thats measurable, then how do you measure it? So its one thing to build a menu, its another thing to cost out a menu properly. And the third thing is making sure youre doing business at the point you set out to do business at. Cause things walk out the door, its about vendors raise their prices and people waste and portion control. But you cant catch it, I tell everyone all the time, you go into a busy restaurant what do you think? Well theyre making money, theyre doing it right, no they could be running very inefficiently and be losing money, they could be on a treadmill, how would you know if you dont set your mark and measure against that mark? So these lessons are just, I tell you theyre essential to getting hired in any business because theres two reasons someone hires you, you make them money or save them money.

Gregory Hansell
So Brandon, theres a great reason why you named the restaurant and school Edwins, can you tell our listeners a bit about that?

Brandon
Absolutely, its a great question. Theres a much deeper meaning behind just that name, you know, the first reason and the most important one is the declaration that education wins. I believe if we educate on all levels, meaning our diners to this idea that someone with a criminal history is capable of doing much more than youd think. Serving a nice bottle of Bordeaux with duck confit, starting to change perception. And two if we can continue to show those in prison that the lessons that were teaching our inmates are making someone a better person, and also more employable and, you know, better citizen in our society. Its start to change the perception of corrections officers and wardens and state officials that say, you know, theres more than just a number behind this shirt, theres an actual human being thats capable of more. So were educating in prison, were educating out of prison, and most importantly were educating our students to a new reality. So, someone who was taught, hey my life will only consist of this, that and the other, whats this idea of maybe going to a restaurant and working, and not only doing well in the restaurant, but open my own restaurant. So were just trying to educate to win the battle. And the other reason that its Edwin, its my middle name from my grandfather who, you know, was a real hardworking SOB and, you know, you need education but you also need a strong spirit behind it to set it in.

Raymond Hansell
Were going to take a short break right now. When we return well talk more with Brandon, founder of Edwins Leadership and Restaurant Institute. In the mean time if youre a fan of BetterWorldians Radio, please check out our game on Facebook called A Better World. A Better World encourages habits of goodness, positive mindsets, and giving to social causes to make a positive difference in the world. Players do things like express gratitude, share random acts of kindness, send get well notes to real world sick children and more. Wed like to congratulate our players in A Better World for a successful April challenge with the Kelly Anne Dolan memorial fund. Because you reached our do good goal, we released funds to support families caring for children with serious illness. And were excited to announce a new partnership with Emilys Entourage as our charity partner for the month of May. When our players complete the good deed challenge this month, well release funds to help accelerate research for a cure for cystic fibrosis with a focus on rare mutations. You can find out more and play at Facebook dot com slash A Better World. Well be right back.

Raymond Hansell
Youre listening to BetterWorldians Radio. Were speaking with Brandon Chrostowski, founder of Edwins Leadership and Restaurant Institute. Now let me welcome back Brandon and my co-host Gregory Hansell.

Gregory Hansell
Brandon, so I know Edwins Leadership and Restaurant Institute has been very successful. Can you tell our listeners about the success youve experienced?

Brandon
Yeah, its, you know, like to me, tomorrows never guaranteed so as good as weve done today, I dont know about tomorrow, but Id say that measuring success looks like are we helping some become a better person tomorrow than they were today. And we have become successful in that regard, were taking someone who has, you know, strong work ethic and desire to be better, strong passion for culinary arts and hospitality and were really making sure that those two roads connect, and people find their way. So I think success has been good, you know, the industry the way its expanding, you know, its hard not to get an individual employed I would say. I think its harder to develop that leadership ability, you know, we have, you know, this Edwins Leadership and Restaurant Institute. So its building a better leader for tomorrow, you know, we have for the first time in our nations history, you know, grocery market sales falling second to restaurant sales. Which is, you know, for this society is saying that, hey we dont have time to cook, we dont want to cook, or we dont know how to cook, but to sustain that kind of growth in this, you know, passion for eating fine foods, we need to make sure were developing leaders, and, you know, I think thats where weve found the most success is because our students not only just get a job and are placed, and find the next step, but theyre moving up in that next step, you know, to the next step, and son on and so forth. So weve done quite well, weve had now, I believe its, we just graduated another class, that brings us to a total of probably one hundred and twenty seven graduates, you know, zero percent of which have returned to prison. Which in a nation we only average mid-forties, and our state twenty eight percent are returning back to prison within three years. Were still at zero. I find that to be, not to be applauded, but something to be examined saying, hey if we keep creating fair and equal opportunities, then why cant we have zero percent across the board. So, you know, hopefully its starting to serve as an example for others to say, hey lets try to offer and create a culture that promotes this return, and also success in growth. This past year we started another not for profit, bought three buildings, and now we have a campus, so we have, you know, twenty one bed dorm room for our students to live, we have an alumni house, we have eight beds for any graduate who needs to live for, you know, very low cost. And we also have a basketball court, fitness center, library, test kitchen.

Gregory Hansell
So Brandon those are some incredible milestones of success that I think you should be really proud of, especially, you know, the milestones regarding people returning to imprisonment. Id like to stop a moment now and talk a little bit about the students and some of the things they face. You know, one question I had was what are some of the challenges that you know from your experience that people face when theyre released from prison?

Brandon
Yeah, I mean, theres a ton, I mean every situation is different. You can always point to the top two, which is housing and employment, thats always the difficult part. And I shouldnt say finding a job, finding a career, theres no sense in putting band aids on these big wounds. You know, we have to find careers for men and women coming home, and then they also have to know what they want to do as a career. So, you know, thats a two way street. But finding the job slash career, you know, finding housing, thats you know, not only affordable, but safe, you know, safes a big issue. You know those are the top two. We have like a litany of other things attached to it, you know, I dont want to equate it to homelessness, but as an example, homelessness isnt just being without a home, it is, but when youre homeless theyre so many other, you know, strings that have been snipped that you have to repair in order to rebuild. So I mean, someone coming out of prison has to, theyre rebuilding relationships with their family at times, you know, trying to become, you know, comfortable and confident, that they are on solid ground and what theyre doing is right. Theres, you know, theres a lot of things that happen between the ears, more psychologically than it is physically sometimes. You know when theres child support and having pressure to pay this off, or you know, rekindled that relationship with a son or daughter they havent seen in many years, and the guilt that weighs on them. Ive seen, you know, a lot of stuff, Ive seen some students, you know, trying to go through some court battles and just to make up some lost ground and its sometimes just, you know, you got to put the mask on first to save someone on an airplane, you cant start helping everyone, you got to become solid. So I think its different for everyone, we find solutions for every problem, and I do mean every problem. So if its someone that needs an attorney, you know, we have a dozen attorneys that are here to help, if its something that has to do with custody and making sure they see their children, we have, you know, specific attorneys for that. We have, you know, when it comes to counselors and psychiatrists and psychologists, we have those that work with us. You know, health reasons, I mean thats another issue that you have to consider is health. You know, someone producing at eighty percent because theyre feeling eighty percent, you know, lets get the health back up to pace. You know, so we work on this, housing obviously, you know, we built because we wouldnt find anyone that wanted to help out and partner with people who have felonies. So that was sad, but something that we had to fight for, and its done. You know, a lot of these problems that are out there, but theres no excuse not to solve them. Just like Charlie Trotter would preach, just like making it happen, you know, you got to continue to fight the problems, dont over think them, the team is very aggressive here to fix these problems, and thats what we do. Every day were troubling shooting to solve these barriers. So, you know, if you ask what the biggest barrier is, its you know, your network, and thats who weve become, you know, weve become every ones attorneys, weve become every ones, you know, drug counselor, if someones got an addiction, were going to make sure they get the treatment they need, find a strong sponsor, you know, check up on them, make sure theyre hitting their meetings. You know, these sort of things have to be, have to all be, talked about and trouble shot, and so theres a lot of problems.

Gregory Hansell
Yeah, seems that way.

Brandon
But theres always one solution Greg.

Gregory Hansell
Sure.

Brandon
The one solution is, work your ass off and lets fight it back, were not going to surrender to fear, were not going to surrender to this uphill battle, were going to fight, were going to fight long and were going to fight hard. And if you take that mindset, I think it becomes a lot, a lot, I dont want to say easier, but a lot more approachable.

Gregory Hansell
Possible, yeah, absolutely. So Im wondering what do you think the most common misconception about people who have been incarcerated thats held?

Brandon
Yeah, that theyre less than human, you know, thats what it is, people just think theyre not as equal, you know, for a lot of those who havent been around this world or in the system or this culture, youll, when you are you learn that everybodys all the same, really. When you put the psychological stigma or, you know, bubble around somebody its really, its really tough to pierce that. But again thats what were doing, were really piercing it by how were doing it and who were serving and so on. Yeah, just the idea that someone is less than human because of their past and, you know, my approach is were stronger, we have a better perspective then some of those who havent been to prison. So instead of saying, hey were just as good, I sometimes, I say were better.

Gregory Hansell
Yeah.

Brandon
We can do things and approach things in a different way that is healthier to cultures and corporations, its healthier to communities, because weve had reflection, weve had time to think about whats gone wrong and where we want to go right. But thats also the biggest challenge too, is you know, you have six months with students here to help them feel like they are as good if not better. They are human, the esteem to get that built back up is always the biggest challenge.

Gregory Hansell
Yeah, I think unfortunately people have this notion that if someones been to prison theyre a bad person, and to certain extent thats really ridiculous. I mean everyone makes mistakes and some people are less lucky, or less advantaged, or less privileged to be able to easily recover from those mistakes and it doesnt mean they are a bad person, just means that, you know, theyve caught some bad breaks.

Brandon
Yeah, yeah, I mean I totally agree with you. Its just sad that we still live in a society, were in the twenty first century here, that were still looking at someone as inept or inadequate and you know, theyre still people who wont come to the restaurant because they feel like its not a place where maybe good people are. So were in this day and age and were still having these conversations and thoughts and its just, you know, its just reflective of society and you know, hopefully well progress that area of society, you know, in the short time, you know, that at least Im here on earth and you know, the team here is. Edwins a not for profit, I set it up this way so it would be everlasting, because this isnt going to get, this battles not going to be won in a lifetime. Its going to take two or three or four.

Gregory Hansell
So what have you learned from the formerly incarcerated people that go through the Institute, what insights have you picked up along the way?

Brandon
I mean nothing, just reaffirming that what this was set out to do is exactly what it should have been doing, you know, fighting for civil rights and, you know, educating others that, you know, every human being regardless of their past has a right to a fair and equal future. I, you know, I dont think that, Im always proud, Im never satisfied, so I dont find that theres complacency here and weve accomplished a small win. It seems like we have so many more battles to fight, but again I think the only thing this has done is reaffirm it, and also know that we have to change this, meaning, you know, we as society, its not going to be a politician, its not going to be, you know, someone else in a different area. Theyll help assist, but theyre not going to drive this bus. Its got to be driven from within, this has got to be driven from inside prisons, its got to be, you know, inmates making prison a place to be proud of. As insane as that sounds, but you know, if youre going to prison its not for a good reason, but while youre there turn this into an oasis for learning, turn this into almost like college education, then maybe its more a reflection based college, I dont know if thats a Jesuit school or not, but I mean the Jesuit approach is a lot of reflection and action. So its got to be driven from within the prisons, its got to be driven from the communities, its going to take, you know, the one in three Americans with some sort of criminal record, history, or arrest to stand up and say, okay were here, were proud of who we are today and where weve come from and we need to make sure were not living in the shadows anymore. So, just like any other marginalized group in this country throughout time, its up to us to stand up and do this, and thats one thing I have learned by watching how the world spins inside this belly of this beast of reentry and sentencing reform and so on. Its not, the people got to drive this bus, and if we dont, shame on us.

Gregory Hansell
Yeah, well I mean, from those insights then and that really strong sense of mission, what do you hope the future holds for the Institute?

Brandon
Here at Edwins is one, staying the course, you know, continue to create the best culinary school in the country, you know, expanding with a butcher shop, a fish shop, a bakery, you know, controlling the supply chain which helps us teach better, we know we can distribute for sustainability, you know, we can improve our community, and most importantly we can demonstrate, continue to demonstrate this idea, this concept that you can do what you want with your future regardless of your past. So yeah it sounds good on paper, but wheres the proof? Well the proof is buddy if, you know, we can continue to, you know, build the best, youd have to say hows the best built? Youll say, from those coming out of prison, well hows this. So, you know, its continually just driving this, you know, physical piece to the highest level, someone can touch it or hear about and see it and say, its possible. And now we need to maybe start shifting our views. So its that, its getting into, you know, I teach in one prison right now hands on, weve got our curriculum textbook DVDs in all thirty prisons in Ohio. Id like to start doing these inmate led programs, inside the prisons to, you know, support that belief that we can create an area, we can create this Institute where we can be proud of if we reflect and learn at it or in it. Just continue to beat this drum for civil rights, thats what the future holds. This day and age youve got to convince, youve got to, weve got to do the impossible. Weve got to do something ten times as good and produce it, rather than just as good because people think of us I think as ten times less as good. So to come up to that level, we got to extreme, you know, be on one end of the extreme as well. You know, people view this and I think well start to get, change that perception.

Raymond Hansell
And you can learn more about Edwins Leadership and Restaurant Institute by going to Edwins Restaurant dot org. Brandon thank you for joining us today on BetterWorldians Radio.

Brandon
Hey its a pleasure guys, thank you.

Raymond Hansell
Youre very welcome.

Gregory Hansell
Thank you.

Raymond Hansell
By the way if youre enjoying this episode of BetterWorldians Radio, please be sure to subscribe to our show on iTunes and give us a review. Were always listening to your feedback, so let us know what you think. As we end our show each week we like to share our BetterWorldians mission here. We strive to make the world a better place by encouraging the very best in everyone. Today you heard an example of that live with this amazing guest. We focus on positive thinking, positive values, and positive actions. In short, our vision is to bring out the BetterWorldian in everyone, so that we can all make it a better world. So until next time, please be a BetterWorldian.