In late 2012, Brandon Chrostowski, founder of EDWINS Restaurant and Leadership Institute, and Thomas Lennon, an award-winning documentary filmmaker, met at a dinner hosted by mutual friends. The conversation they had shaped the course of their lives for the next year.
“Tommy asked me what I did for a living,” recalls Chrostowski. “I told him, ‘I’m opening the greatest French restaurant in the country, in Cleveland.’”
This alone was enough to pique Lennon’s interest—but then Chrostowski told him the restaurant would be staffed entirely by people just out of prison.
“I knew in 10 seconds there was a film,” says Lennon.
That film was Knife Skills, a documentary on the founding of EDWINS released last summer. Like its subject, Lennon’s documentary is an independently funded, unlikely passion project. Also much like its subject, the film battled setbacks and funding issues.
And—like its subject—it has ended up a roaring success, so much so that Knife Skills is now a favorite to be announced for “Best Documentary Short” contention when the Academy Award nominations are announced next Tuesday.
Brandon ChrostowskiFood with a Mission
The goal of EDWINS—implied by the unusual title, short for “Education Wins”—is providing training, education, and employment in French cuisine for men and women recently out of jail. The model has proven to be more than a well-intentioned stunt: since opening in 2013, EDWINS has become a constant fixture on the city’s top restaurant lists, garnering local and even national acclaim.
It was far from a sure shot when it opened, though, and one area where Knife Skills succeeds is in demonstrating just how remarkable that success is.
“It would be interesting if [Chrostowski] didn’t pull it off,” says Lennon, “and it would be interesting if he did.”
The film begins with the formerly incarcerated men and women of EDWINS’ inaugural class beginning their unlikely education in classic French cuisine. Few have any industry experience, and as the title cards state, “The restaurant was due to open in less than six weeks.”
From that point, the film takes on the feel of a classic training montage: a ragtag group, a tight timeline, a seemingly impossible task. The EDWINS students become the underdogs we all cheer for over the course of the 40-minute doc—but the rub is that not all of them will make it the full six months to graduation.
Further run-ins with the law, clashes in personality, and events beyond student control whittle down the class from 80 to 30. The effect is something like watching a “Survivor”-style show, but one where you don’t want any characters to leave the island.
Eliciting an emotional response from viewers was Lennon’s goal. “I didn’t know a lot about the prison justice system [going in],” he says. “I didn’t start with an agenda. I just started filming what I saw.”
Knife Skills isn’t an explicitly political film. Lennon’s goal is to present the viewer with a series of characters they could connect to: “Here’s an improbable situation, here are some people. Meet them and try not to care about them.”
“A Stock Market Ride”
Since Knife Skills opened at last summer’s Traverse City Film Festival, the documentary has gathered great acclaim on the festival circuit. “People came up to me crying,” says Chrostowski, who has attended every screening.
Chrostowski himself was convicted of a crime at age 18, which in large part inspired him to found EDWINS. He spent nearly 10 years working on his plan for EDWINS until it opened, and he has worked tirelessly at it since then, breaking only to run in last year’s Cleveland mayoral race.
At around six feet tall, with tailored suits and George Clooney hair, he’d make a good reality TV restaurant owner—which is what a lot of networks thought when word of the project first got out. “I had the scum of the TV world knocking at my door,” he says.
Brandon Chrostowski discussing menu items with Chef Kyle Fioretti
Chrostowski chose Lennon to tell his story, he says, because of “his integrity.” He doesn’t regret his choice. “I never wanted someone to look bad or get embarrassed,” he says. “I wanted to make sure people were proud when they saw this. And they are.”
Completing the film was not an easy task. The bulk of shooting wrapped in spring of 2014, but it took almost three years to finish edits and post-production. Lennon calls it “a long haul for a short film.”
Funding was the biggest obstacle. Lennon financed the film with only a few small grants and his own wallet. To save money while shooting, he snuck his camera in his backpack to avoid airline fees and stayed at a Super 8 motel. He’d take on a bigger project, then put the profits from it right back into Knife Skills. He didn’t want to let Chrostowski or the students of EDWINS down.
“It weighed on me,” he says. “I don’t like taking as long as I did.”
One advantage of Knife Skills coming out four years after EDWINS’ opening is perspective. EDWINS has proved itself to be a sustainable project: its seats are still full, and the recidivism rate of students who complete the program is incredibly low.
Which doesn’t mean every transition is a smooth one. Case in point: one of the students Knife Skills follows is a young woman named Marley with “great instincts” in the kitchen. She’s sentenced to a rehab facility midway through the course and has to drop out.
“Setbacks are part of the process of re-entry,” says Lennon. “It’s a stock market ride. You go up, you dip again.”
Marley’s story ends on an high note: she came back to complete the program, and now works as a sous chef in an upscale Florida sports bar. She calls EDWINS “probably one of the best experiences I’ve had in my life…. When nobody believes in you, just having people behind you is amazing.”
Knife Skills has yet to be picked up by a distributor, which means the ability to view it is—for the moment—limited to festivals and special screenings (including one at the Chagrin Valley Little Theatre this Sunday). Of course, that could change if things go well for it next Tuesday.
An Academy Award for Knife Skills, should it happen, would not be Lennon’s first: he shares an Oscar with filmmaker Ruby Yang for the 2006 documentary short The Blood of Yingzhou District. His attitude is somewhat zen: “The Oscar gods do what they want to do.”
For Chrostowski, the prospect of an Oscar represents an opportunity to “leverage the press to keep seats filled and keep the project sustainable.”
Learning culinary skills at Edwins
The Oscar buzz comes at a time that EDWINS is already receiving national recognition. Just yesterday, Chrostowski, along with five EDWINS students, presented a Grand French Adventure meal at the historic James Beard House in New York. The Beard Foundation is one of the most prestigious food organizations in America, but Chrostowski views the opportunity as a way to advance the mission: “[The invitation] invalidates the idea that if you come out of prison, you’re mediocre.”
Outside of attracting new patrons and donations, Chrostowski has higher aspirations. Being part of a widely recognized film “helps you open doors,” he says. “That’s when you can start to talk changing hiring policies.” He hopes other restaurant owners and businesses will follow the EDWINS lead: “We’re a national model. I really do believe that.”
There’s an even more basic power he feels the film holds: “If we could get this across the U.S., that could really bring some hope.”
Marley is delighted at the prospect of an award for Knife Skills. “I’m so proud of Tommy,” she says, turning pensive. “I keep my story pretty private; it’s something I’m not proud of. But if my story can shed light and help somebody along the way, it’s totally worth it.”