Take that, New York.
Take that veal chop au jus, that white-truffle-and-quail-egg appetizer, and that chocolate sorbet. They're all from the hands of Cleveland chefs, and you paid big money to get them. But if you want them again, you'll have to come to us.
That was the sentiment in Brandon Chrostowski's conversation last week, just before his culinary team from Edwins Restaurant and Leadership Institute cooked a dinner at the James Beard House in Manhattan using classic French techniques.
Appearing at that mecca of food can mint a national reputation. Chrostowski wants one badly, and not for him alone.
He and his crew are among the formerly incarcerated, and the not-for-profit Edwins is his plan to provide not just food, he said, but second chances. Edwins is both his middle name, taken from his grandfather, and shorthand for "education wins," which is the mission.
In the past five years he has raised money and established the high-caliber restaurant at Shaker Square, built a school downstairs from the restaurant that graduates 100 people a year, traveled to prisons to teach cooking skills and constructed a dormitory for students of the program who need housing. A butcher shop is in Edwins' future plans
Last year Chrostowski ran for mayor of Cleveland. Lucky for Edwins, he was unsuccessful.
On Tuesday, a film about Edwins called "Knife Skills" became a finalist for an Oscar in the documentary short film category. The 40-minute work by director Thomas Lennon covers the first year of the school at Edwins in 2013.
"It's amazing what happens when you give someone a fair and equal opportunity," Chrostowski said after the nomination. "This ... is a testament to the re-entry program and the Cleveland community.
"I'll be opening a bottle of Badoit tonight."
Edwins got the invite to New York because of its reputation, menu proposal and mission, said Izabela Wojcik, director of programming for the James Beard Foundation.
It's that mission, she said, "that makes Brandon's work so much more impactful to our industry and our society."
When he got to the Beard House last week, Chrostowski had only New York City in his conquering sights. Chrostowski, initially a Detroiter, said he lived in Manhattan when he first planned Edwins. But he never believed it could take shape there.
"That city wasn't ready for it," he said by phone from New York. "They might worry about how to make Washington Heights [neighborhood] better, but they're mainly a center of finance and fashion, with a social justice piece.
"In Cleveland, a sense of community is a priority. It's in our DNA. We know what we're fighting for. Volunteers don't just donate, they show up. We fight with time, talent and treasures.
Of the trip to the James Beard house, Chrostowski said, "So, I'm ready to stick it to some people. This is a mission, since New York is also regarded as the pinnacle of the culinary scene. We want to show that our cuisine is alive and well and that we can hang with anyone who comes to this house."
Practice started weeks ahead with a team that included graduates Kris Edwards, who now works with Dante Boccuzzi; and Michelle Mattox, Edwins' pastry chef; plus current students Adam Brown, Calvin Gatheright and Christian Blue. Just before the trip, Chrostowski said, Blue's parole officer found he was not allowed to cross state lines. He was replaced by Hendrick Wimberly.
"You can imagine how that felt," Chrostowski said.
The team arrived in the city two days ahead of time to make sauces and other preparations. Not everything went well. A gelee never gelled on the plates, and 75 failed versions had to be redone. The space was tight, and on the night of the dinner, they had to open the windows in a side room and turn it into a refrigerator for the orange cream and phyllo dessert.
"The cream is delicate," Chrostowski said of the pre-assembled dish. "We needed the cool temperature so the piped shapes would hold their edges."
Chrostowski passed his phone to one of the cooks, Brown, 32, who would spend the evening going from cutting vegetables into petite shapes ("His nickname is now 'Rutabaga,'" said Chrostowski) to flipping prized Dover sole in pans before placing the delicate white fish on a plate with lobster sauce and black truffles.
"It was a lot to start over again," Brown said of his first post-prison days. "I didn't think I'd ever make it through Edwins. I wasn't great in school, and the classroom and training at Edwins was pretty intense.
"Now I can read anything and got my GED [high school graduation equivalency]. Now I'm here, and it's a big deal."
Chrostowski said later that the dinner went well. "Dynamite," he called the reactions. A video feed taped live from the kitchen can be viewed here, and a re-staging of the meal, at $250 a ticket, is being held tonight at the Cleveland restaurant.
One minute Chrostowski talks like a scrappy street guy, and the next he's singing the praises of the $66-a-liter Cornille-style olive oil from France, touted by its makers as "luscious, buttery, golden and elegant." The team drizzled it on baby potatoes just before serving.
"You gotta taste it," he said.
Like Brown, each member of the team participated in the meal from beginning to end.
"There was nothing here that was beyond someone's touch," said Chrostowski. "That's why we trust and train them, dammit."
Not every Edwins graduate succeeds, but Chrostowski said he has seen a success rate (not returning to prison) three or four times higher than usual.
Chrostowski turned his attention back to Brown to pass along a message from a reporter:
"She said, 'Good luck.' But you don't need it."
Brown has tryouts lined up at two top Cleveland restaurants.
"I have to show them what I can do," Brown said, "and go from there."
By Debbi Snook, The Plain Dealer email@example.com
January 24, 2018
Image Credit: Edwinsrestaurant.org
Video Credit: You Tube | ro*co films
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