August 02, 2023

James Beard Nominated Chef, Restaurateur, Sommelier, Fromager, Politician

Dana Bernardino

James Beard
1Huddle Podcast Episode #104

On this Bring It In episode, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci sat down with Brandon Chrostowski, James Beard nominated chef, restaurateur, sommelier, politician, and founder and CEO of Edwin’s Leadership & Restaurant Institute.

When he was 18, Brandon was charged with resisting arrest after being suspected of a drug related offense, which could have landed him up to a ten year sentence, but the judge only gave him one year of probation.

Ever since he got his second chance, he went on to become a chef and made it his life’s work to give those formerly incarcerated something similar. This led him to found Edwin’s Leadership & Restaurant Institute to give those reentering society the opportunity to work in the restaurant and hospitality industry.

His “you won’t fail” approach has helped hundreds of former inmates become talented chefs. On this episode of Bring It In season four, Chef Brandon Chrostowski sat down with Sam and discussed the process of re-humanization to society formerly incarcerated individuals must face in the culinary industry.

Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Spotify.


Below are some of the insights Chef Brandon Chrostowski shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.

  • “If theres ever been a model, its just developing great leaders.”
  • “It’s not practice that makes perfect. It’s perfect practice that makes perfect.”
  • “Excellence is always employable.”

Sam Caucci: Well, I guess, to start out, for folks who are maybe unaware of your background and, Edwins, can you maybe just lead us in Brandon with some background on yourself and what you’re doing? 

Brandon Chrostowski: Yeah, you bet. You bet. So I mean, the short of it,  I’ll tell you the story of Edwins, how it started and, and really our scope where it is today. 

Okay. So, I had a break when I was younger. It was one of many, but the most important break, I was 18 going on 19 and got arrested facing a five to 10 year sentence. And, I had a judge gimme probation instead. So just doing some time in county jail. That was it. And, really spared me a lot of my good years in my early twenties. While I was on probation, I ended up meeting a chef in downtown Detroit. He mentored me. He said, “Hey, Brandon, it’s not practice that makes perfect. It’s perfect practice. That makes perfect.” The fundamentals he taught me in that kitchen, and on Woodward Avenue lasted to this day, and I got out of Detroit, went to the Corner Institute of America, Apprentice Center, Charlie Trotter. And then from there ended up going to Europe. I worked in France, initially a two and three star restaurant in Paris, and then New York City where I said, I’m gonna be the best chef in the world, and we all know the world ends at the Hudson River.

So I said, this is where I need to be. And I started climbing myself in the ranks. But when I got a phone call, I remember it, 2004. and it was the chef who mentored me, calling to tell me that the guy who came up with the younger man was murdered. Two weeks later, another incident, the same.

And I had this idea that I said, look man, if there’s a restaurant that could give someone a second chance, like I had back in Detroit, if it was built, it could help others, right? In some way, shape, or form, it would work. So that’s how it started. Now, fast forward about 10 years, 2012, start teaching in prison.

So we continue teaching in, Ohio Institution, hands-on, in one institution. We opened the restaurant in 2013, so it’s a six month training program. So, French fine dining restaurant, right? There’s gonna be no announcement. You’re in  this idea of a nonprofit social enterprise.

It’s like, listen, you’re just coming into a Lights Out great French restaurant, and for six months, the staff are actually students who are coming outta the criminal justice system or been affected by it. Learning every position, dining room, kitchen, as well as getting business basics. And, looking at P&Ls, we make sure we have you, you cover for driver’s license or health insurance and bank account you have to have.

We’ve expanded that into housing. So a few years later, started doing housing. We now have four buildings. So if a student needs free housing, that’s available. If they need graduate housing, we have that for like 200 bucks a month. We opened up a butcher shop, a bakery, a second restaurant, Childcare Center opens this month. I got one more inspection and I’ll have the state come through next week.

 And we reached now not just one prison, we reached 400,000 inmates across the country who can take our video series on tablets if you’re incarcerated. So, oh, in juvenile detention center too, we teach in juvie five days a week.

So it really hits hard and the idea is, just continue to develop great leaders. If there was a motto. That’s what it is, man. Just developing great leaders. 

Sam: That’s awesome. I mean, and you’ve had close to, I think I read 550- 600 graduates come through the program so far. Yeah, yeah. We just did another, we just did another class on Saturday.

Brandon: Graduated a couple more. So we’re, yeah, we gotta be at least 600, close to 600. 

Sam: What’s the hardest thing to teach? 

Brandon: It’s re-humanization, right? I mean, it’s not like be Chael or, confi. It’s really, Having someone feel like they’re human again and, poverty, prison, that sort of thing, just strips it away.

And, six months isn’t nearly enough time to do it a hundred percent, but it definitely gets someone on the pathway if they’re challenged with feeling strong again. That’s definitely the toughest thing to do in six months. 

Sam:What would, and the reason I ask, we had a guest on, a few episodes ago, his name’s Jamie McCullum. He is a sociologist and he writes a lot about poverty and frontline work. And, one of the things he said was those who were paid the least often pay the most. He talked about how, only three in four of America’s inmates received no job training while incarcerated. And when they re, when they’re reentering,they’re oftentimes still not done paying, the cost of their incarceration.

Brandon: Sure. 

Sam: What would, what would surprise. Another restaurateur or another, CEO or executive who’s listening to this right now,  about your experience to hopefully persuade them to consider, creating more opportunities for more people within their organization.

Brandon: Yeah, I think what would surprise them is, looking at their own culture and finding out their culture sucks. You know what I mean? And they’re like sustaining that is continuing all those devastating facts that you just said. Businesses are contributing to what you just said by not having a culture that can benefit others with a second chance or, someone’s struggling through a rough patch. 

I think that’s like the realization, consulting around the country. People are faced with this idea like, shit, we’re not, we’re not doing the right thing, or we’re not doing a good job, but they’re so far down the river, to change that culture around would mean a lot of changes to their time schedule or, or maybe their profit margins in the short term, but in the long term, would obviously  come back five or tenfold. I think that’s the biggest surprise, man. I mean, there’s no surprise to anyone in this world what a human can do.

I think that maybe there’s some fear out there that people surrender to, but  again, there’s no story I could tell you that’s not gonna be like, oh yeah, of course, of course that’s possible, right? I think the biggest surprise is like, your culture sucks and you’re contributing to these issues that you see that plague our country.

And, You need to take the time or make the investment, which is generally more time than it is money into fixing that, that culture.

Sam: I look at what you’re doing and I mean, you are at the end of the day, through, I mean even the program, as you have graduates coming through, you’re creating a learning environment, like a high speed learning environment to get people from point A to completion and continuing to develop, employee development is a real challenge in a lot of environments.

Yeah. Especially in frontline environments like yours and hospitality and restaurants, I guess. Any keys that make it work in your environment where, not to throw another point in this question, but a lot of the people you’re, you, that you’re working with might get labeled as unskilled or low-skilled by other HR folks out there in the world. I guess, how do you make it work? 

Brandon: For sure. So there’s  a couple things. I mean, I could narrow it down to just a few, right? So the first would be like, that idea of perfect practice makes perfect, right? Excellence is always employable. If you look like a Ferrari, you drive a Ferrari, you’re probably a Ferrari, right?

So, if you can do something that’s so far above and beyond the skillset and level of what, what others can do, then. I mean, you and I probably agree on this, I don’t think your past matters, right? If you can make someone money or save them money in business, someone’s looking right past that. So you just, you just have, my advice would be one, just train to the top.

You know, excellence is always employable. How do you facilitate that? Well, perfect practice. I always encourage employers, they’ll call me, they’ll say, Hey, we need someone to, I need someone at the factory to cut boxes or something like that. I say, okay, do that. Okay. I mean, where’s someone gonna go with that after a year or two?

The other other thing I recommend is showing someone the whole perspective of the business you’re in. You know, at Edwins you’ll work the dining room, you’ll work the kitchen, use some business sense, right as well. 

If you can, work every position in that factory, including the cutting the boxes and look at what management looks like to work in. If you can run someone through a course like that on the front end of their employment, when they do settle in the position of whatever’s needed, they understand what their action and reaction does. There’s more of a roadmap and how to, how to get to the top, right?

So I think sometimes what employers will see is, ah, there’s no productivity here. Yeah, you, you, you’re showing someone a tree and they’re not looking beyond that because you’re not showing them beyond that and, and telling them, Hey, if you work here and you work your way up, you can do that.

What does work your way up look like? You, you see what I mean? So I think introducing that whole perspective  is essential. Creating a work environment, obviously that is like we meet people where they’re at. Like, we don’t even ask about your offense, we say, Hey, you’ve been affected by the criminal justice system.

You say, yes, okay, good. That’s all we need to know and let’s move forward. And,  a little sprinkle of care every now and then doesn’t hurt. But those would be the five things. Sam, I say really rock rocked the house here. 

Sam: I read when I was preparing for this conversation, multiple times I heard people in interviews talk about how, like the quote was, they didn’t even ask me about my background. 

Brandon: Mm-hmm. 

Sam: And we just live in a world where there’s probably some HR and lawyers running around saying, we can’t do that. Right. 

Brandon: Yeah, there is, but there’s always a lawyer who says, you, there’s a way out. You know what I mean? There’s a way you can, I mean, like, look at man, the stuff that we do here. Something that’s never been done before. Cause no one ever likes pushing to see how it can be done, right? You say, I said, you know what? Everyone here gets paid a stipend, right? It’s not like it’s that you’re not getting paid a million dollars an hour, which again goes, this contradicts this idea that you need $20, $25 an hour.

You know, you get someone a better future. I think that you shouldn’t be working for less just because, but pay a decent wage, right? As an employer, offer a decent future. You’re gonna get a great result, right? Here we do a stipend because we provide everything else. Okay? And  I said, dude, no one should be able to get garnished during this, this time that they’re here.

Whatever debt you owe, just give someone six months to breathe. Get on their feet. And it’s such a low amount. It shouldn’t be taxed. I put all these attorneys and people, we found an exception here that now they can prevent the garnishment of it. Your accountant there says, because of the income level over the course of the year, you’re not gonna have to pay taxes.

I mean, we make sure that someone’s, what they get is, bang for their buck, right? We take food stamps here and allow people to buy their food here for wholesale with food stamps if they have ’em, right? You see, there’s all these things you can do and, and rewrite the system.

But if you just surrender to the fear and say, hey, we can’t because it’s, it’s dangerous. Well, that can be accepted by some people. But if not for us, it’s not acceptable to say, to do that because we, and you, just gotta find a way around it. So you’re right, HR man. HR, it’s a nightmare.

But man, I guess the good thing, we don’t have an HR department here. 

Sam: Well, the other thing that, I had come across was you talked in an interviewer in another podcast about their, you having a, “you will not fail approach.”

Brandon: Mm-hmm. 

Sam: And I’d imagine that like any workplace, some folks coming in may not be immediately receptive to the environment because they’re not bought in yet, and they’re going through that process and coming out of an environment that was much different than the one that you’ve created. How do you create that as a leader? A you will not fail approach that in turn gets the most out of employees who maybe aren’t quite bought in just yet, even though they’re appreciative of the opportunity.

Brandon: Yeah. So I’ll give you, like, the nuts and bolts approach of how we do it. But  I think, like, again, I mean, I don’t have a television man. I don’t, I apologize, but don’t listen to podcasts. I just, I feel like, just clear instincts are the best medicine. And there’s a sense from a lot of people, in the program we have that the other shoe’s gonna drop.

You know what I mean? It’s just like, it’s always happened. It’s just a matter of when, and I think you gotta break that. Okay? You gotta break that to more of a mentality of like, where can I go from here? Like the happiest and saddest moments I had was a few months ago I was up in Detroit doing this James Beard dinner.

They invited a couple of us out there and I always take a student with me or two or three and, and it was in Detroit. And so when you’re driving up there, you got Canada, right around the Detroit River. And she was with me. She said, I’d really like to get my passport. Maybe travel.

And you know what it’s like, there’s the moment, man, like you broke it. You broke the idea that you would fail. And now you’ve bought into the idea that there’s a future and you could do something. You see what I mean? Like that’s big psychology. So, how we do it in the first two weeks, man, we try to hit very hard with challenges.

And they’re simple challenges that require effort. And if you overcome them, you’re confident, right? So it’s memorizing how many teaspoons are in a tablespoon, how many tablespoons to a cup, how many cups to a quart, quarts to a gallon, right? You see, you challenge and you say, okay, here’s how you measure now.

Now this is the effect that your measurement has when you’re making a recipe. Then, that affects how much money you make. Now we start talking about business and how you control costs, and this is how you essentially determine whether there’s a loss or not. Then we go over things like service safe, so temperatures and danger zones.

And, then in the meantime, we’re making sure you have a bank account or you have your ID, or license, or health insurance. We wanna connect you with, that’s a big thing, we wanna make sure you’re connected with that. So in a very short time of a week or two, we’re trying to convince that this more powerful, yes, that the temptation around you or doubt around you is less than the power of what’s going on right now.

And, there’s nothing that can replace time. There’s nothing that can replace a challenge. That’s also why the program switches positions, right? You’re bartending, you’re serving, you’re hosting, you’re cooking.

I mean, because once you feel like you got it, it’s time for a new challenge. You gotta break and rebuild this esteem, right? This muscle we have. And so that’s how we do it in practice. But theoretically it’s just about popping that bubble, that something else is gonna fail. 

Sam:When you explain it, it’s kind of like, reading a recipe, it looks really easy as it’s sitting in your kitchen going through it.

Aain, I think what shines so brightly to me  in what you’re doing is the reality that you’re seeing potential in every person that works with you, in the environment. And makes me wonder how can we create that type? How can we duplicate that type of environment, not just in more restaurants, but in more organizations?

Brandon: Yeah, I mean, That’s what we do. I mean, we work with manufacturers, we work with other companies, and, from the top down has to become a sacrifice. Sometimes, you gotta put yourself in third or fourth place every day behind your business, your community, even your family, right?

And, I think when people see that from the top down, they start to say,  we can do that. Like we see it, we can do it, right? So on an ongoing basis, it’s always practicing that, but, but two, it’s starting to implement, the fact that every work culture is gonna have its own vibe, right?

And like, we wanna make our culture here. You’re hardworking, you’re coming on time, but if the music’s a little different, if the swagger’s a little different, like, it just takes on its own vibe. And that’s okay. And I think some people are comfortable with that.

We’re very proud of ourselves and where we’ve come from. And, so, to embrace that with whoever’s style, I think sometimes it’s challenging, maybe, I don’t know, for other cultures, it’s a ground up approach here, so it’s hard to say, if we had to start it over, what would we do?

Sam:I mean, I’m sure you have countless stories of folks that have come through the program. Is there anyone that shines out to you that again, Someone, an organization listening that’s trying to create a culture like you’re talking about might motivate. What story comes to mind?

Brandon: Oh geez. I mean, there’s a ton, man. You know, we ask everyone to do a life plan, like when they start, like where you wanna be, we’re gonna start to visualize these things. And when someone says they wanna have their kid back, or custody of their kid, partial or full, they achieve something like that.

Like, that means they spoke it, they said it, and over the time they’ve achieved it, I mean, what does it do for our bottom line? I don’t know. I mean, we still sold wine, we still sold, you know, foie gras but, personally, that life improved. Now you have a mother at home, with an income who has a family, and the same goes for fathers alike.

You know, you see that a lot. So, I mean, everyone’s got their bottom line, man. But at some point, what is that bottom line gonna produce, another watch? You know what I mean? Fancy pair of jeans? I mean, like at some, at some point, like, there’s having enough or maybe more than enough, then having too much.

And I think if some of that space in between could be shed for, helping others get to where they want to go. And for those who are on the cusp, you know what I mean? Like, shit, it’s business, man. I mean, like, trust me, payroll comes in here every two weeks and I see that train coming and I’m always hustling, man.

It’s not as giving a speech as catering. If it’s not catering. We’re upselling, I mean, you’re always trying to hustle, but for those in the cusp, you know what it’s like to have that drive and, we have that in a lot of people here. Just that drive to survive. And so I never worry about when the time comes, we have to ring the bell and say, we gotta go.

Everyone goes, you know, we rise up. So, 

Sam: Yeah. If I hear you right, I mean, it’s also good business to do this. I mean, at the end of the day, you’re unlocking the true potential, I mean, of your workforce. I mean, doing a life plan with an employee, I mean, that’s wild. That, I mean, that makes perfect sense. But, you know, it’s maybe not something that’s so common. 

Brandon: Yeah. Like I said, man, people, I mean, you see it. Amazon’s got that. I mean, around here, I think it’s forty or fifty percent  turnover a month. Twenty, twenty four dollars an hour doesn’t work. Okay. Helping someone get to their future and what they believe is where they wanna be.

That’s where the gold is. And, it requires hard work. Right? Nothing in this world is gonna be given, that, you know, you see a, maybe a social media feed or some movie, but the reality of life is it takes time, man. Yeah. It takes time. 

Sam: Totally. Well, Brandon, last question. I appreciate you taking time. 

I know how busy you are. Talking about the future of work, things you’re talking about are in many ways creating a future of work that is a hell of a lot better than maybe the way it was. What is your hope for the future of work? 

Brandon: The hope, I mean, I’d be a little selfish cause you know, our mission speaks to people coming outta the justice system. But, that every human being has the right to a fair and equal future, regardless of their past. And, if the future of work looks like developing systems or culture within a system within that culture that could take someone with the least and develop into the most, that to me is the hope for the future work.

So whether it’s out of prison or, coming through addiction or whatever that rough patch is, man, maybe someone just got out of a divorce, they’re not feeling too good and they need to get back on their feet. I mean, whatever it is. That system within each workplace, that culture that supports the system, that would be the hope for the future of the workplace.

Sam: Brandon, thanks for taking time. 

Brandon: You’re welcome.

Topics Discussed: Restaurants, Hospitality, Future of Work, Leadership, Management

Dana Bernardino, Manager of Digital Marketing at 1Huddle

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