An Ohio chef is renowned for training inmates. Could he fix the Cuyahoga County jail’s food problem?
The chef said he’s been trying to help the county fix its jail food problem, which is so severe correctional officers have worried it could spark a riot
By Lucas Daprile
CLEVELAND, Ohio — Cleveland restaurateur Brandon Chrostowski thinks he has a solution for poor food quality in the Cuyahoga County jail.
Chrostowski, a James Beard award finalist renowned for his work training inmates and employing them upon release at Edwins, his classic French restaurant on Shaker Square, says he has been trying “for years” to help the county fix its jail food problem, which is so severe correctional officers have worried it could spark a riot.
But while corrections departments in other parts of the country are happy to put his expertise to use, Chrostowski says the county has expressed little interest in his approach, which has shown promise.
Despite the county’s dissatisfaction with the existing system, County Council agreed recently to spend $7.9 million on another year-long contract with that same vendor, Trinity Services Group. Cuyahoga County is paying Trinity a premium, 166% more per month than its prior contract, to replace inmate labor in the jail’s kitchen with Trinity employees, which officials say will improve food quality.
Trinity’s parent company, TKC Holdings, also owns the company that provides the jail’s commissary. Critics say this gives Trinity a financial incentive to serve bad food, so it can funnel inmates into buying items for the commissary, which hiked its prices over the summer.
Chrostowski’s idea – if he had a chance to formally pitch it to the county — is the exact opposite of Trinity’s. Rather than cutting inmates out of the process, he wants to use the kitchen to train them in classical French culinary techniques. Rather than trying to produce meals for less than $1.30 each, Chrostowski wants to use raw ingredients. The services inside the jail would also dovetail with his nonprofit, EDWINS Leadership & Restaurant Institute, which houses and trains formerly incarcerated people on how to work in fine dining. As far as equipment goes, the jail’s kitchen already has everything he would need to get started, he said.
“The idea is to go fresher, go more scratch cooking, providing foods that feed the soul, but doing it in a way that sustains and educates,” Chrostowski said.
Chrostowski isn’t aware of any existing programs like the one he is proposing. And though his plan may sound idealistic, he has the track record to back it up.
Chrostowski, 43, founded the nonprofit EDWINS Leadership & Restaurant Institute in 2008 and now also owns nearby sister site EDWINS Too, EDWINS Butcher Shop and EDWINS Bakery, all of which train and employ former inmates. The EDWINS operations are largely located together on a campus in the Shaker Square neighborhood, along with dorms that can house up to 39 students, family housing, library, fitness center, thrift shop, garden, playground and basketball court. Though cooking is his specialty, Chrostowski also runs a program that provides legal services, basic medical care, clothing, job coaching, literacy and other programs to formerly incarcerated people.
In 2022, Cuyahoga County approved $263,000 to fund a two-year program at the Juvenile Detention Center, where EDWINS trains inmates in basic kitchen skills. Every year, roughly 100 formerly incarcerated people graduate from the EDWINS institute and, on average, fewer than 1% of them end up back behind bars, cleveland.com reported previously. For comparison, the statewide, three-year recidivism rate is just under 21%, according to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction’s most recent Recidivism Report.
Chrostowski’s interest in helping incarcerated people stems from his own experience in the criminal justice system. In 1997, he was arrested in Michigan for running from the police. Chrostowski spent time in jail, but a merciful judge spared him from prison. After that, Chrostowski began training with a chef, which was the second chance he says he needed to get his life back on track.
The bigger picture
Chrostowski says Cuyahoga County is approaching the jail’s meal program myopically. By simply focusing on providing food for inmates, the county is missing an opportunity to use foodservice as a part of a larger goal of rehabilitation and job training.
“It’s a vision constraint,” Chrostowski told cleveland.com.
Chrostowski said he has had an informal conversation with Cuyahoga County Executive Chris Ronayne about bringing his services to the jail, but nothing official.
“He definitely wants to do something, but how and when it gets done — it’s a whole other question,” Chrostowski told cleveland.com.
Cuyahoga County spokeswoman Kelly Woodard said the county supports the work Chrostowski has done and encouraged him to apply when the county begins its formal bidding process for a potential new vendor to serve food in the county jail.
“Our goal is, and will always be, to provide the best services to those in custody,” Woodard said in an email. “We look forward to seeing what opportunities there may be to partner with other food vendors.”
Cuyahoga County, which has for years expressed concerns about Trinity’s food quality, passed up an opportunity this summer to seek new vendors. The county had not issued a request for potential bidders before Trinity’s contract expired in June. That forced the county to extend the contract until the end of September, with the expectation that newly appointed Sheriff Harold Pretel would review all jail contracts and determine the next steps. It’s unclear if that review was done, but the county, again, did not issue a request for bids during that three-month extension, prompting yet another contract extension with Trinity – this time, for a year.
Though Cuyahoga County is sleeping on Chrostowski’s skills, other places aren’t, he says.
When cleveland.com reached out to Chrostowski in late September, he was at the airport, headed to Arkansas, where he is working with officials from the city of Pine Bluff, to help create opportunities for formerly incarcerated people, he said.
He has a program that has installed traditional French cooking classes on tablets for roughly 100,000 incarcerated people. Those tablet-based, 30-hour courses teach students how to make sauces, make bread and even how to make wine, though many jails and prisons skip that last one, he said.
Arizona’s Maricopa County Jail, which houses nearly 7,000 people, has been using Chrostowski’s tablet-based courses since at least 2022.
“I fly across the country, trying to help people make this connection,” Chrostowski said of pairing inmates with foodservice training. “But right here in my backyard, it’s not like the phone is ringing off the hook for the county jail to get better.”
Initially, Chrostowski acknowledges his plan would likely cost more than Trinity or other companies, solely seeking to serve meals at the jail. Chrostowski said he would offset that increased cost through fundraising, which he has done with success in the past.
For example, the Cleveland Browns and Key Bank have kicked in funds to help Chrostowski provide housing and transportation for formerly incarcerated people from out of state, so they can get hands-on experience at EDWINS, according to Chrostowski. Of the $2.6 million his nonprofit reported in revenue for 2021, the most recent year available, $1.6 million of that came from grants and contributions, according to tax forms.
“We’re not going to manufacture food; we’re going to cook food and we’re going to educate,” Chrostowski said. “The answer to the missing link is the funding we’d use to offset this. I’d come in at higher than (competitors), but I guarantee you we’re going to find people to get in here and bring the price down. If I need signed agreements with funders to make sure they’ll be part of it, to make sure we’re in that ballpark, that’s what I’ll do.”
From Chrostowski’s perspective, the biggest barrier to a smarter, more humane food system in the county jail isn’t a lack of funding, expertise or commitment. It’s a lack of vision, he said.
“If the culture resists it, it’s not going to happen,” Chrostowski said.