Former Prisoner Gets Second Chance at Famous French Restaurant

Andrew Thomas August 26, 2018

Second chances in life are not always possible, but there are some good people out there making the odds of success much higher. This formerly incarcerated man took advantage of one such opportunity, and is now relishing the rewards.

Josh Cooper, a 29-year-old from Cleveland, Ohio, has always had an interest in cooking. However, the criminal justice system would put that dream on hold.

Prior to his release in 2014, his aunt sent him some news articles about an organization that she thought Cooper would be interested in. It was called EDWINS Leadership and Restaurant Institute.

EDWINS dining room. (Courtesy of EDWINS)

Brandon Edwin Chrostowski founded EDWINS in 2007 in Cleveland with the aim of training recently released prisoners how to cook and work front of house in a restaurant.

The six-month program sounded perfect and Cooper was motivated to attend.

“I’ve always been interested in cooking, so this was another opportunity for me to fulfill my dream and try something different,” Cooper told Humanity.

EDWINS’ mission is simple: “Arm those re-entering society with a skill set and a smile.”

Not only do students learn culinary and hospitality skills, they are offered assistance finding employment, medical care, clothing, job counseling, free housing, and literacy programs.

Cooper began at EDWINS in November 2014, and there was a lot to learn.

(Courtesy of EDWINS)

EDWINS Restaurant opened in 2012 and is one of the best French restaurants in Cleveland. The standard of cooking, presentation, and service is incredibly high.

Cooper had to step up to the challenge.

“It was like a shell shock because there’s so much information coming from so many different people from all different types of backgrounds and walks of life,” Cooper said.

For three months, Cooper learned knife skills, how to make sauces, grill, sautée, make cold appetizers, how to follow a recipe, and one of the most important skills in the kitchen: plating.

“Plating is one of the most important things because you can’t just slop food on the plate and send it out to a customer, because if it looks like garbage, who wants to eat garbage?” Cooper said. “I don’t care how good the food is, you got to learn how to plate it the right way.”

(Courtesy of EDWINS)

Working in the kitchen is a fast-paced and dynamic environment, and mistakes happen.

Meals can be overcooked, orders can be forgotten about, and there’s no time to think. Speed is king.

“Everybody makes mistakes. Everybody has a mess up moment,” Cooper explained.

But Cooper was finding his feet. He knew how to learn from his mistakes and move on.

Knife skills are critical in the kitchen. (Pixabay)

Working 10 to 12 hours a day in the restaurant was exhausting, yet for Cooper it was the best experience.

“It was more so a breath of fresh air for me. You know you’re doing something you love to do,” Cooper explained.

The next three months were spent learning how to work in the front of house.

Serving customers came with its own difficulties.

Cooper had to learn how to deal with rude customers in a graceful manner and how to make sure they have a pleasant experience in the restaurant.

It was a long six months, but it was incredibly gratifying. Cooper graduated in June 2015.

“You feel complete. You feel like you accomplished something. It’s like graduating college or high school, or even having your first child. It’s an accomplishment. It’s a milestone,” Cooper recalled.

Cooper went on to work at Pier W in Cleveland as a sautée cook for three years; then he returned to EDWINS. He is now the sous chef there.

“My overall experience with EDWINS has been a blessing. I met lifelong friends and mentors. It’s like a second home to me,” Cooper said.

EDWINS was recently featured in an Oscar-nominated documentary about the opening of the restaurant and its first cohort of trainees.

And from the reviews on TripAdvisor, it seems to be fulfilling its mission in every aspect.