Meet the Ex-Con Chef Running for Mayor of Cleveland
He really believes he can make a difference.
The thing about Brandon Chrostowski is that he sounds enough like a politician—he can expertly criticize his opponents without mentioning their names and appeal to the "little" people even as he himself belongs to the upper middle class—that he can fool you into thinking he's worked in a boardroom his entire life and not a kitchen.
But then the Cleveland mayoral candidate lets loose. He curses—a lot. He's also a true believer inthe idealism he's pushing. Soon, he starts to sound less like a politician and more like who he is: EDWINS' founder.
In 2013, Chrostowski—a sommelier, fromager, and a member of the Cleveland restaurant elite—left his job at the prestigious French brasserie L'Albatros to launch EDWINS Restaurant, a storefront restaurant staffed by the graduates of a longstanding prison program by the same name. Since 2007, Chrostowski has entered prisons—starting at Grafton Correctional Institution and Northeast Pre-Release Center—and taught convicted felons restaurant skills from the very basic (culinary math and safe serving practices) to the more advanced (wine pairings and the history of food). His restaurant in Shaker Square has won national recognition and the love of the community with many members that don't realize the man or woman serving their charcuterie tray may have once held up a gas station.
EDWINS is open to anyone serving time or recently released from prison, who is willing to put in the hours to learn the difference between a hard cheddar and an aged gouda, or the cost to a cafe of peeling too much of a carrot rather than putting it on a plate. When they graduate from the 20-plus hours of classes, the former felons can work at EDWINS' restaurant or they can seek employment in other kitchens and cafes.
Since it opened, EDWINS has grown from an 85-seat restaurant to a 20,000-square-foot campus. In addition to the school—which still runs in Grafton and in Ohio's 30 other prisons—the program offers classes in the basement of its cafe, and, between an apartment building and an alumni house, has living space for some 28 students and graduates that is all-but-free—an incredibly important ammenity for a group that often finds challenges with standard leases. They also have access to a fitness center, a library, a test kitchen, and a thrift store, where the price of everything is $0.
So far, EDWINS has graduated 172 ex-felons. Another 30 will join them at the end of July. Only about one percent—two students, maybe three, Chrostowski says—went back to prison. The rest hold down jobs as line cooks, sous chefs and other restaurant postions, at EDWINS and elsewhere.
The last time I spoke with Chrostowski, it was long before EDWINS had grown from an intimate program to a statewide initiative. I didn't know there was housing for the students and its restaurant employees. I didn't know those beds were necessary.
"It's good, safe housing done to the right standard," Chrostowski told me. "That was a big problem I had with these halfway houses and shelters—they were horse shit." And there's that blunt nature that doesn't quite map on to the typical public image of a big city mayoral candidate.
You might ask why Chrostowski would leave a career in high-end restaurants—he trained at the Culinary Institute of America and worked at a couple esteemed restaurants in the Michelin-starred Charlie Trotter's in Chicago and Chanterelle in New York City—to teach felons how to work in the industry. But the answer is rather simple: Chrostowski is a felon himself. As a teenager, he got mixed up with drugs. The details are fuzzy, but he got lucky; a judge let him go instead of serving him a 10-year sentence. "I believe I am on borrowed time," Chrostowski told me in 2013. He's made it count.
Now, after building up EDWINS, Chrostowski is turning away from the kitchen and to the political arena, entering the race for Cleveland mayor. He faces an incumbent, Frank Jackson, who's won the last three races in what many consider to be landslide victories, and other competitors with somewhat more orthodox experience like city councilmen.
If he wins, Chrostowski wants to, essentially, make Cleveland his test kitchen. His platform, he says, is fueled by the goals of job creation, safety, and education—the cornerstones to EDWINS' true curriculum. "I started EDWINS for one reason only, and that's to help individuals who didn't have a fair and equal opportunity—and that's the same reason I am running for mayor," he said on the phone. "There's a lot of oppression. There's a lot of inequality. And it's wrong. But it continues because there's not someone maybe strong enough or brave enough to fight the machine."
For Chrostowski's followers that's what he represents. He is proof that one person can make a big difference.
"You can change the world," Chrostowski says. "It's going to take courage. It's going to take energy. It's going to take action. But our problems aren't unlike many other urban areas throughout America. It's hard work and energy, but you can change."
"But you gotta sacrifice, man," Chrostowski continues. "Everyone's gotta get a little uncomfortable." Can we get a cheers to that?
The first round of the 2017 Cleveland mayoral election will take place on September 12, 2017, with a runoff between the top two vote getters on November 7, 2017.