“I thought, ‘It probably won’t be me, but I worked on getting my passport anyway,’” says Nickole Rivera. Nickole was talking about her reaction to being told last winter that some of EDWINS Leadership and Restaurant Institute’s (Edwins’) top students would be going to Paris for a week this summer. Edwins is the nationally known workforce training program for the formerly incarcerated that prepares students for all aspects of a career in gastronomy.

Currents has covered the good work and effective outcomes of Edwins before; but we wanted to find out more about this program. Edwins’ founder Brandon Chrostowski started as a “confidence builder” that will likely motivate even more students to become top performers during this comprehensive six-month training program and to complete it expeditiously. After all, Paris is quite a carotte (carrot.)

The inspiration for the trip to Paris happened quickly. Brandon’s not the kind of guy who likes to over analyze. “It [the idea] came to me spontaneously. I worked in Paris…Living and working abroad is life-changing and knowing French is a huge help in gastronomy,” he notes. That’s why he asked former therapist Mira Donenwirth to teach his students French. Last January, Donenwirth had just retired from her private practice. She was in Edwins’ Butcher Shop on Buckeye Road one day when she approached Brandon about helping with counseling, team-building skills or whatever. Donenwirth explains, “He immediately said, ‘No – I want you to teach my students French. Please e-mail me.’” Their brief conversation was in French as Donenwirth speaks it fluently and knew Brandon had worked there.

Mira followed his instructions and Brandon called her back 30 minutes later. “You will teach every day [Monday-Friday] at 2 p.m.” Donenwirth was a little surprised, but jumped in with both feet to give these students enough language skills to know their way around a French menu and to be able to greet and seat Edwins’ customers.

Nickole loved her French class. Even though she took Spanish in high school, many of Donenwirth’s lessons stuck. “I learned a lot about French restaurants. I remember colors and days of the week,” she notes.  Rivera was so excited she’d been selected for Paris that she called her mother right away.  As a single mom, Nickole knew she’d need help looking after her children while she was away. Her mother and friends were happy to help and Nickole’s classmates were happy for her. Rivera was reluctant to tell her colleagues because she’d feel badly if they hadn’t been selected too. But she quickly realized confidence also breeds generosity. Her classmates congratulated her and said, “You deserve this!” Rivera agrees. She thinks it was her “hard work ethic” and attitude that caused her to shine. “I’m a good ambassador and I only missed one day of the program,” she added. Those were the criteria Chrostowski used to select the winners: “best grades, best attendance and who would be a good ambassador.”

Chrostowski asked Donenwirth to accompany the winners but didn’t give a lot of parameters for the trip: Take them to French restaurants and hit the landmarks. They did that (one of Nickole’s favorites was the Egyptian bricks at the Louvre: “I could smell the earth!”) and then some. Mira’s son lived in the 16th arrondissement; so she knew her way around the city and French officiousness. She took them to Le Dôme in Montparnasse where, despite the maître d’hôtel’s objections, the group met the chef. The chef of this venerable institution was so overwhelmed by the group’s expression of appreciation for his meal, he invited them into his kitchen—a rare privilege given its small size.

There were other lagniappes along the way. It was so ungodly hot while they visited that one day, when the group was near Place Vendôme, Mira decided to treat them to a refreshment at the Hotel Ritz’s elegant bar. This was not a Ritz-Carlton—THE Hotel Ritz. Nickole couldn’t get over the ladies’ room. “There were gold wings all over the place,” she says.

Rivera and her fellow students learned a lot from their Parisian sojourn. In her case that might include the possibility of living in France. “I would go work there anywhere; or at least I would take my kids there on a family vacation.”

Mission accomplished as far as Brandon is concerned. He fervently hoped one of the lessons these students—some of whom had rarely been out of the county—would learn from their trip is to “dream big.”

Chrostowski has no idea how he’ll fund this trip in the future. He creatively used some profits from the sale of a secondary liquor license to obtain funding for this group; but he dreams big every day. So, Brandon has faith that funding will happen for future Edwins’ ambassadors to take this trip of a lifetime that helps launch their gastronomic careers–and perhaps more importantly–launch their productive next chapters.  See for more information.

Three of Edwins Institute’s top grads went to Paris this summer. From left: Walter Bolden, Nickole Rivera, Jackson Studzinksi and their French teacher, Mira Donenwirth. 
Mira Donenwirth chose Le Dome, one of Paris’s most venerable restaurants, for Edwins students to experience haute cuisine. (Photographs by Nickole Rivera)