//French Cuisine with Social Change? Mais Oui

French Cuisine with Social Change? Mais Oui

EDWINS is more than a place to enjoy a stunning meal – it offers a shot at a second chance in life.

By Jennifer Kuhel

Brandon Chrostowski at EDWINS restaurant

The richly painted blue-gray walls, floor-to-ceiling windows, and white tablecloths topped with classic French cuisine transport diners at EDWINS to a place far away from Shaker Square. Paris, perhaps, or Bordeaux. The food, all exquisitely presented, is exotic and alluring, from simply seasoned and sauteed frog legs to a sublime braised rabbit served with a Dijon mustard cream sauce.

But equally impressive is the concept behind EDWINS Leadership and Restaurant Institute. It’s more than a place for Shaker residents to enjoy a stunning meal: It’s also a place where formerly incarcerated men and women spend 26 weeks learning the ins and outs of the restaurant business. The reward for their hard work? A shot at a second chance in life with an education in a field with a high workforce demand.

EDWINS is the nonprofit brainchild of Brandon Chrostowski, a 34-year-old restaurateur and advocate for social change who has carefully crafted the concept for the restaurant and its institute ever since he was given a second chance after his own troubled youth and run-ins with the law in Detroit.

Chrostowski, the former general manager, sommelier, and fromager at L’Albatros – one of several area restaurants owned by Shaker Square resident Zack Bruell – went on to graduate from The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York and work at some of the world’s leading restaurants, including the Michelin three-star Lucas Carton in Paris, as well as Le Cirque, Picholene, and Chanterelle in New York City.

EDWINS – a play on “Education Wins” and Chrostowski’s middle name – is an homage to all of Chrostowski’s life experiences and his passion for French food, and is his way of paying it forward for some of society’s overlooked and rejected citizens.

“Our mission is guided by what’s best for our students,” Chrostowski explains. “We have a concise message. From the board of directors, to the funding we take. That way, we can keep the message very clean and clear. It takes more work and it’s taken twice as long, but it’s better this way.” Now seven months into its operation, Chrostowski says EDWINS represents the beginning of what he hopes evolves into a model for reducing recidivism not just in Ohio, but across the country.

The Food

While Chrostowski’s plan is a noble one, he is well aware that without serving top-quality food, EDWINS wouldn’t succeed. He is a man with high expectations, which is why he chose French cuisine for the restaurant’s menu.

A cheese board at Edwins Restaurant in Shaker Square

Cheese lovers will delight at the selection offered by Edwins.

“It’s classic. It’s what I know, and it involves the fundamentals of cooking,” he says. “Throughout the world, you can learn the classic French sauces, the cooking techniques, the approach, the philosophy. You can use your own touch to preserve its integrity – and also enhance the flavors.”

That’s where chef Gilbert Brenot and sous chef Gerry Grim come in. Brenot is the former owner of Maxi’s in Little Italy, and Grim worked just across the Square at fire food and drink.

The Brenot-Grim team offers diners a fine selection of sublimely prepared classic French dishes. For the newbie, the frog legs, or Cuisses de grenouilles en persillade, are a must-try first course (this author’s seven-year-old gave them high praise and has requested them for dinner). French food lovers will swoon at the flaky and rich Bouchee a la rein (sweetbreads with mushroom cream sauce topped with puff pastry). The Paupiettes de poisson du jour (market fish wrapped in crispy potatoes) are a favorite of Chrostowski and diners alike and a dish he mastered at Le Cirque.

The braised rabbit, Lapin a la moutarde, smacks of comfort food and begs to top a home cook’s Sunday dinner list. Canard a lorange, roasted duck served with ramps and turnips, is so flavorful and tender that it barely needs a knife for cutting. Steak au poivre was evenly spiced and served perfectly medium, topped with pommes frites.

“Someone believed in me and said, ‘Hey, you can do this’, ” Chrostowski says of his own path. “Having that support took me in a whole new direction in life.”

The menu also has several vegan options, including a beautifully stacked Portobello napoleon of squash, zucchini, and red pepper coulis.

To drink, the restaurant has no small selection of wines and signature cocktails, including the delightful Spring in Champagne, a mix of sparkling wine, Chambord, St. Germaine elderflower liqueur, and sugar, as well as the Sazerac, a New Orleans riff on the Old Fashioned that combines Old Overholt rye whiskey, Peychaud’s bitters, and an absinthe rinse (“The best I’ve had,” according to my rye-loving spouse).

The Bananas Foster, set aflame tableside by a student, provides a not-too-sweet/not-too-heavy ending to dinner. Finally, for those who are familiar with Chrostowski’s work from his four years at L’Albatros, it’s important to note that the restaurant’s sprawling cheese selection is enough to make a diner justify a separate visit devoted entirely to fromage.

The Students and Volunteers

In August, EDWINS will graduate its second class of students, following on the heels of the first class of 23 who graduated this past April.

During their education, students come to the restaurant three times a week and learn everything about the restaurant business. Whether it’s on the floor or in EDWINS’ tiny basement classroom, they are taken through the rigors of food safety, culinary math, serving, bartending, cooking, hosting, and more.

It’s not an easy task for Chrostowski, for his paid staff, or for his students, but it doesn’t make it not worth doing. A reminder is painted on the kitchen staircase that leads to the basement classroom. It reads: Today, we will win. We’ll study our mistakes and become stronger. We will win, each day, we will win.

A motto in the stairway at EDWINS.

A reminder for students painted on the kitchen staircase that leads to the basement classroom

If that sounds like the stuff of motivational speeches, it’s not. “Someone believed in me and said, ‘Hey, you can do this’, ” Chrostowski says of his own path. “Having that support took me in a whole new direction in life. At some point, I felt like I was on borrowed time, that I should be dead or in prison. No one does this work without being blessed. It needs to be given back.”

Josh Skoutelas, a 31-year-old Pittsburgh native who will graduate from EDWINS in August, recently told a group of Onaway Elementary School fourth graders who visited the restaurant on a field trip that he was “just like all of you,” growing up in a middle class home and playing hockey, until he got mixed up with the wrong crowd and ended up in prison.

“Before this program, I was struggling with finding myself,” he told the Onaway kids. “Now I have a second chance. I can wake up every day now and know that I have something to do. I have learned so much,” he told the students.

EDWINS has also caught the eye of Shaker residents who have lined up to help Chrostowski and his students. Chris Cole, a consultant and development manager at Deloitte, learned of Chrostowski’s mission in 2013 while attending the TEDxCLE conference. Chrostowski spoke about EDWINS at the conference and Cole offered to help him organize his volunteer human resources.

Cole’s wife, Anne, and their two children also got involved with EDWINS, providing much needed time and elbow grease painting and cleaning the restaurant before it opened. Today, Chris sits on EDWINS’ board of directors. “We meet every two months and we help him manage the organization,” Cole explains. “If he wants to try something new or if he needs another perspective on things, we give him that.”

The Future

Chrostowski and his team are just scratching the surface of what they hope to accomplish.

(Look no further than the colorful assortment of shirts, jackets, and Chrostowski’s signature bowties dangling from the pipes in his basement office for evidence of how much time Chrostowski spends at the restaurant.) Chrostowski wants to lengthen his program and increase the monthly stipend for students from its current level of $200 a month so that students won’t need part-time jobs to make ends meet.

He’d also like to purchase nearby housing to give students dorm-style living and a safe home while they train at EDWINS. Childcare, access to drug rehabilitation services, and a fitness center round out the short list of to-do’s.

Students and staff in the kitchen at EDWINS.

Students and staff in the kitchen at EDWINS.

For now, Chrostowski is humbled by the way his concept has been embraced. “I want to thank the people who come and support us – the people in the neighborhood and in the community,” Chrostowski says. “They’ve spoken with their appetites, with the cards they’ve written – with all their support. A lot of people said this was impossible.”

He also appreciates the role Shaker Square plays in EDWINS’ concept. “It sets the pace in terms of racial, gender, and ethnic diversity. It’s significant historically. It has public transport and it’s a crossroads of neighborhoods. And there’s a community here that supports the businesses and each other.”

Square resident Zack Bruell became close to Chrostowski during his tenure at L’Albatros. He says that EDWINS has always been part of Chrostowski’s path.

“This is what he chooses to do. And he believes in what he’s doing,” Bruell says. “If you’re stubborn and you know what your vision is and you’re relentless, you’ll succeed.”

When You Go

  • EDWINS’ Steak Au Poivre

    EDWINS is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit, so there’s a donation line instead of a tip line on your dinner receipt. Donations are fully tax-deductible.

  • Busy reservations times for the restaurant are 6 -7:30 pm. “No one wants to eat at 5:30 or 9. People think it’s uncool to eat late, but it’s very European. Or eat early and then catch a movie,” Chrostowski suggests.

  • Be patient with the service. Some servers are just hitting the floor while others are more polished. “Even with its inconsistencies on the floor, my team has to stay two or three steps ahead, so there’s a lot of movement in order to insulate the students from a bigger mistake that a guest might see. I still believe we can deliver a great experience because even what we may lack in perfection, we make up for in energy,” Chrostowski says.

  • EDWINS is located at 13101 Shaker Square (northeast quadrant) and is open Mon.-Wed., 4-10 pm; Thur.-Sat., 4-11:30 pm. Call 216-921-3333 or go online at opentable.com for reservations.

Originally published in Shaker Life, Summer 2014.