What I see is a tremendous amount of desire.
One of the students at Edwins Leadership & Restaurant Institute explains how ex-convicts wear the stigma of that label as a badge. It tells potential employers that they are willing to work harder and prove their loyalty because anyone who gives them a chance at a second life is someone they’d do anything to repay. There’s a lot of truth to this sentiment even if it isn’t a guarantee. Those who do leave prison with a desire to better him/herself and contribute to society will possess those traits. Unfortunately not everyone has that specific passion or good fortune to prove it when addiction, allegiances, and external circumstances interfere. Provide the opportunity to change that luck by offering someone a redemptive road, however, and you will literally save lives.
It’s therefore not surprising that the man at the center of Thomas Lennon‘s short Knife Skills—a man who goes out of his way to hinge his livelihood and business on the backs of ex-cons—was almost one himself. Brandon Chrostowski was facing five to ten years of hard time when the judge granted him leniency and a one-year sentence of probation instead. In a real-life example of “paying it forward,” he would educate himself in the culinary arts and reach a place in his life where he could open a restaurant in Cleveland, Ohio with the purpose of granting his own form of “leniency” to others. With French chef Gilbert Brenot at his side, Chrostowski hatched Edwins as a school to teach a trade and offer hope.
Lennon takes us inside to watch this social project from its six-week training program attended by men and women with little to no formal culinary education to the restaurant’s grand opening where each student works inside the kitchen and out to the celebration enjoyed by all those who stuck with it and completed their full six-month class. He focuses on a handful of standouts either because of their ability to excel or their missteps so we can understand the why and how behind what could be seen as a controversial experiment. Chrostowski tells us the hard facts about how 180 applicants gets whittled down to the class cap and then further as a result of skills, temperament, and extenuating circumstances. The adventure isn’t perfect, but it is inspired.
The tough thing to acknowledge is how a single second chance is rarely enough. Brandon knows this better than anyone as his emotional testimonials reveal the self-loathing that remains beneath his suited exterior and the frustration of knowing he still has to work at suppressing his own temper when triggered into action. Some of his students do everything in their power to succeed and others find themselves helpless to a life of trouble they simply can’t yet leave behind. And while Lennon doesn’t show the ones who let ego burn bridges down, he does expose the difficulty of some to reconcile who they are and who they hope to be within the constraints of a world that demands and admires as much humility as it does strength.