Restaurants are among the biggest employers of people in reentry. But what’s it really like for those leaving jail or prison to work in one of them? How do formerly incarcerated workers adjust to their new lives and responsibilities?
Academy Award winning filmmaker Thomas Lennon takes us into their world in his new film, Knife Skills, an inside look at the creation and opening of Edwins, an upscale French restaurant in Cleveland. Its name stands for “education wins,” and its staff is made up almost entirely of previously incarcerated individuals. They are trained at the Edwins Leadership & Training Institute, which has graduated about 180 students in its three-plus years of existence.
But back to the beginning where the 40-minute documentary opens with the training of the original restaurant staff members. Lennon shows the intense determination of these workers as they learn how to cook and serve the 25 dishes on the menu in a few weeks. There was so much to absorb, since some of them had absolutely no cooking or serving experience at all. But Gilbert, the French head chef, was up to the challenge. Among other practical knowledge, the students needed to become well versed in French culinary terms and the world of wine.
During 45 days spent filming in Cleveland over a three-and-a-half-year period, Lennon was able to get to know a few of the personalities who make Edwins the special place that it is. And he introduces them to the viewers. There’s Dorian, who received 11 years for drug trafficking; Mike, nine years for heroin and aggravated robbery; and Alan, four years for drug trafficking and robbery, among others profiled.
When he decided to do the film, Lennon had no experience with people who had been imprisoned. The idea for the film was totally serendipitous. He was having dinner with a friend who’s a chef. Another guest announced that he was going to establish a restaurant in Cleveland that would be the best French restaurant in the U.S. And it would be staffed entirely by previously incarcerated individuals. Lennon thought it would make a good subject for a documentary and decided to take it on.
Not an easy film to make
It wasn’t an easy film to make, however. Brandon Chrostowski, Edwins founder, president and CEO, had turned down a number of producers who wanted to do reality TV programs. “He made an exception with me but was very cautious and ferociously protective of the people in his training program,” Lennon says.
Another reason why it was difficult to make is that it’s, as Lennon calls it, an ensemble piece. “There’s no one person who’s the central story of the film. It jumps from one person to the next,” he says. “I had to develop each of these characters and at the same time develop the story as a whole. I felt very passionately that the film should not be very long. The goal was to make it as short as I possibly could and still convey the message. Making it as short as possible and telling everyone’s story took a long time.”
He also had challenges raising funding but eventually was awarded a Soros Justice Fellowship from the Open Society Foundations.
From Lennon’s point of view, the effort was worth it. He says he gained insight into a subject he was totally unfamiliar with.
“I wasn’t well read at all in the field. I just went in and captured what went on in front of the camera,” Lennon says, At first, he thought that the second chance (in the form of a job) that Edwins was offering was all the employees needed. Lennon discovered that he was wrong, however, when one after the other ran into real difficulties.
“This is a very vulnerable population with any number of risk factors, like PTSD or addiction. It’s a population that needs our respect and support. The film is about the human face of reentry. I wanted other people to meet these folks and care,” he says.
During the time he got to know the employees, Lennon was impressed by their resolve to step up and deal with the challenges they faced.
“Everybody had something that they were trying to prove, and the stakes are enormous,” he says. “In many cases I felt that there was some flaw they were trying to fix, and they didn’t want that flaw to come back. They wanted to repair something within themselves. I felt extremely privileged to be there and be inside those experiences.”
And he made friends with many of the people he filmed.
Film festival appearances
Knife Skills has been shown at a variety of film festivals, including the 2017 Flickers Rhode Island International Film Festival and Ohio’s Chagrin Documentary Film Festival. Upcoming appearances are scheduled at film festivals in Hot Springs, Ark., Woodstock, N.Y., Wilmington, N.C., and Napa Valley, Calif.
At the Chagrin Documentary Film Festival, Knife Skills was the opening film, which Lennon says is very unusual for a short documentary.
“We’d scheduled two screenings of Knife Skills. There was so much enthusiasm, we added a third, then a fourth screening. In the end, we held six screenings of the film! In all my years running this festival, I’ve never seen that before,” says Mary Ann Quinn Ponce, director of the Chagrin Documentary Film Festival
After the film festival circuit, Lennon hopes the film will appear on Netflix, PBS or other channels. He would also like Knife Skills to be shown to people who are about to be released or were recently released from prison or jail. Any organizations that would be interested in doing so can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
From the editor: We suggest that restaurant recruiting managers looking to hire those previously incarcerated contact transitional housing and rehab facilities, as well as reentry organizations. These can all make good community partners for sourcing people in reentry who are likely to make good employees. In addition to finding these facilities and organizations by searching the Internet, you can also check with your local American Job Center, which should be able to offer referrals.
For those in reentry, check with your local American Job Center for any restaurant paid internship training programs. Feel free to share this article and refer to Edwins. Craigslist and directly visiting successful restaurants — a best way to hunt — are both great ways to look for positions in the kitchen, or as a busser, dishwasher, bartender or server. Aim for a successful interview and get your foot in the door. Work hard, offer your best attitude, prove yourself and advance.