"I came to Cleveland for a pretty face," confesses Brandon Chrostowski. "What can I say? Love is blind."
That a man would find himself in Cleveland thanks to a girl is nothing new; persuasive Midwestern gals have been wearing the pants since John D. Rockefeller's time. But that a man, especially one as accomplished and worldly as Chrostowski, would remain in town long after that relationship went south says volumes about both man and municipality.
"There is something very special about the energy here," he explains. "It's something elusive. I can't tell you what it is."
That opinion is a far cry from the one Chrostowski held a short two years ago, when his then other half beseeched him to abandon New York City in favor of -- wait for it
-- Norton, Ohio, her family's hometown. As a compromise the couple agreed to settle in Cleveland, the closest big city.
"I absolutely loved living in New York," he acknowledges. "I had never even visited Cleveland. My opinion was that anything west of the Hudson River didn't count."
That's ironic considering that Chrostowski hails from Detroit, a city he himself fled 12 years ago. In between, the compulsive learner has made his way from New York to Chicago to Paris and back to New York in a seemingly never-ending quest to glean everything worth knowing about fine dining. His current title as general manager at L'Albatros
restaurant in University Circle fails even to scratch the surface of his culinary curriculum vitae
. Chef, sommelier, fromager, teacher -- now we're getting warm.
"If you want to learn about a city's culture, go to its restaurants," Chrostowski suggests.
It worked for him two years back upon landing in town. After interviewing with every top restaurateur in town -- simultaneously evaluating those evaluating him -- Chrostowski accepted a job with Zack Bruell to work at his soon-to-open French bistro on Bellflower Road. If you've dined at the breezy brasserie, you may know Brandon as "the wine guy" or "the cheese guy," two roles he both relishes in and excels at. What is less visible is his role as educator, as mentor, passing along his near encyclopedic knowledge of life's finest things: wine, cheese, cigars, scotch.
Like any good boss, Chrostowski's booted him out the back door of the restaurant while he was still in high school. "Go learn something I can't teach you" was the message he less than delicately tried to convey. Leave he did, begrudgingly he admits all these years later, to work at other Detroit restaurants. That newly padded resume proved enough to secure him admission to New York's Culinary Institute of America, the nation's premier chef-maker. While still in school he landed a plum apprenticeship at Chicago's famed Charlie Trotter's, a key that unlocked doors few young chefs ever get to open. What followed was a worker's tour of Michelin three-starred joints in France, including Jean Bardet in Tours and Lucas Carton in Paris.
Back in New York City, Chrostowski continued his lofty culinary education, working in restaurants seemingly plucked out of Zagat's. Le Cirque, Picholine, Chanterelle -- together these houses amassed more stars than a Palm Springs rehab center. At each, the chef harvested another set of skills for his professional tool bag.
Despite his indulgent surroundings, Chrostowski says he is anything but mollycoddled. When he isn't working -- a rarity, he admits -- he can be found close to his home in Little Italy. "My church is around the corner, my boxing gym is down the block, and the museums are just down the hill," he explains. He enjoys holing up for a "musty, dirty cider" at La Cave du Vin
, hitting up Pacific East
for sushi, and Mister Brisket
for hot pastrami sandwiches, which offer a tasty reminder of the Jewish delis he left behind in New York. One of the things Cleveland lacks, he says, is a robust hardball baseball league.
Chrostowski's move from chef to manager -- from back of the house to front -- was neither accidental nor impromptu. Nor was it borne out of vocational fatigue, as is the case with many professional chefs. "I switched to the front of the house in order to accomplish the goals that I set for myself," he explains. "I needed to learn how to run all aspects of the business."
While it would be understandable to assume those goals include opening a restaurant of his own, that assumption misses the point. Chrostowski is planning to open a non-profit restaurant and culinary education center that teaches inner-city youths a practical trade. "This will be a very aggressive program that doesn't just teach the bare essentials," he says, "but gives them the tools to succeed at the highest levels in that career." Many of Chrostowski's colleagues have already agreed to hire graduates of the program, and he's hoping it serves as a broader national model.
Two short years ago Chrostowski would not even have considered Cleveland as home base for the school. Now, he wouldn't dream of launching it anyplace else.
"There is an amazing amount of culinary talent that is groomed here," he notes. "And the city's restaurants are supported wholeheartedly by the community."
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