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This top Cleveland restaurant gives second chances to formerly incarcerated people

Fewer than one percent of the institute's graduates end up returning to prison.
/ Source: TODAY

Edwins is a high-end Cleveland restaurant with a mission. Equal parts food and purpose makes it a standout amongst the city's top culinary destinations. Al Roker explored this unique establishment and heard words of hope and resilience from its owner, Brandon Chrostowski, who gives former inmates a second chance at life through his restaurant/culinary school.

At Edwins, located on Shaker Square at the border of Cleveland and Shaker Heights, Chrostowski is betting on the success of people who otherwise might not have found work ever again. He attributes his passion for helping other succeed to the break he got from a judge when he was a teenager.

"I was 18 going on 19, and a judge gave me probation instead of a long sentence," he told TODAY. "And from there I found a chef who mentored me." The chef took Chrostowski under his wing and he went on to work in Michelin-starred kitchens in Paris and New York. From there, he decided to create Edwins Leadership & Restaurant Institute.

"It hit me that I have to give this break back," he said.

The name of the restaurant, Edwins, is short for education wins. It's a six-month culinary training program specifically designed for formerly incarcerated men and women.

"We're not asking about what you did," said Chrostowski. "We're not looking at your experience, we're not looking at your past. Whatever it may be, we're looking at taking you to where you want to go."

Applications have flooded in from all over the country from folks eager to learn skills of the industry.

Students learn every position in the restaurant, dining room and kitchen, Chrostowski explained. They take on every post from host one day to server the next. They are in the kitchen making pastries, but also cooking fish. It's a well-rounded education that students can use as a jumping off point for a real career in the culinary arts.

"It was challenging," said Rufus Hill, a seven year alum of the program who recently joined the kitchen line as a sous chef. "I had my ups, my downs. I was frustrated at times. There were times I wanted to quit." But Hill said that the people at Edwins were more than just coworkers. "They're really passionate about helping people."

"It takes a lot of hard work," said Kamielya Prosser, a current student in the program. "It's worth it," said the mom of two who is now studying wines and spirits. "I've done the front-of-the-house. I've done serving. Now we're getting ready to start our rotation on the bar week. So we'll be learning cocktails and drinks."

The students at Edwins are grateful to put their pasts behind them and start looking toward the future.

"We're not the ones that society is really looking at to succeed," said Hill. "You know, but Brandon and his staff, they made it a way where not only do you come and get educated, but you get a sense of guidance, I guess, to kind of teach you how to live life."

Over the past decade, the school has grown into a campus with a bakery and a butcher shop and offers free student housing and recreation.

"Ninety-five percent of the graduates coming out of here are walking right into a job," said Chrostowski. "And right now we have a waiting list of probably 45 restaurants who want to hire a grad." He said that while the national rate for reincarceration of former prisoners is nearly 50 percent, less than one percent of Edwins grads ever go back to prison. For Chrostowski, that's even better than a perfectly braised cut of meat.

"What fulfills me, and what makes me excited every day is someone being alive, someone surviving, and someone achieving their goal," he said. "That's all I need."