Knife Skills film highlights previously incarcerated employees at Edwins restaurant in Cleveland

Knife Skills

Employees at Edwins in Cleveland, Ohio, are profiled in Thomas Lennon’s new film, Knife Skills.

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 knifeskillsthemovie@gmail.com.

 

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.

S.F.’s Cala restaurant gives second chance to those in reentry

second chance employer

Cala Restaurant, San Francisco

In San Francisco, a city of exceptional eateries, one recently opened restaurant stands apart – and not just for its amazing food but for the fact that it is a second chance employer, making a point of seeking out and hiring formerly incarcerated individuals.

That restaurant, Cala, is the latest and first U.S. venture for celebrity chef Gabriela Camara, who has four restaurants in her native Mexico. And although she wholeheartedly supports targeting this population for her employees, it was her general manager, Emma Rosenbush, who came up with the idea.

Before operating a pop-up restaurant in Mexico City, where she befriended Camara, Rosenbush studied sociology and criminal justice, and worked at the Prison Law Office in Berkeley, Calif. During her time there, she visited all of the California state prisons. And it was that experience which inspired her hiring practices when she got into the restaurant business.

A whole population who can’t get work

“When I had the opportunity to work with Gabriela there was a hiring crunch. No one can afford to live in the city (San Francisco) and work in the service industry, so it’s hard to find good people to work in restaurants,” she says. “And, at the same time, there’s a whole population of people who can’t get a job because they have a record.”

Rosenbush had decided several years earlier that if she ever had an opportunity to hire people with criminal records, she would. And now she has the chance to give them a second chance.

The restaurant opened late last September, and she started the hiring process in the summer by reaching out to former professors and holding meetings with CJCJ (the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice) and Delancey Street.

Rosenbush worked with the San Francisco Probation Department’s Community Assessment Service Center (CASC), where she conducted seminars and was able to interview 40 to 50 applicants.

75 percent of employees have convictions

And among the 33 current employees, 75 percent have convictions.

Although Rosenbush has been able to hire quite a number of formerly incarcerated individuals, it’s been a challenge.

“I wish that I had more support,” she says. “The biggest challenge is that a lot of people I’ve hired are getting support elsewhere like living at Delancey Street or there’s some kind of safety net under them, but I’m not a social service. I’m a business. Another issue is a lot of insecurity. It’s intimidating to go into a new world.”

The restaurant business requires a certain level of knowledge and sophistication, and she says that Cala has diners asking about wine from servers who may have never drunk a glass of wine in their lives.

Doing the right thing by giving second chance

In spite of the challenges, Rosenbush is convinced she’s doing the right thing. “I wouldn’t have done it any other way. The level of loyalty and the sense of family we’re in the process of creating make it all worthwhile. And it’s why I want to go to work everyday,” she says.

What’s she’s looking for in a potential employee above all else is a sense of commitment. “I’m interested in people who are interested in something more than just a paycheck. I don’t care if you don’t know anything about food or wine or cocktails. If you’re committed to showing up every day that counts,” Rosenbush says.

She’s lost many of her earliest employees. But she’s also had some amazing success stories, including a guy who had been living in a halfway house and on his first day of looking for a job had heard that Cala was hiring.

“He came in off the street, and I was having a meeting, but he shook my hand and looked me in the eye. We hired him as a back waiter, and he did so well that we promoted him to server,” she says.

Unfortunately, the man no longer works for the restaurant, because he was able to find a job near his family 250 miles from San Francisco.

Others have graduated from back serving to serving and transitioned into working the bar, but in addition to their own personal success stories, the employees have been part of Cala’s success.

“The restaurant has had great acceptance into the city in part thanks to who we’ve hired. It adds to the experience,” says Rosenbush.

Tips for re-entry job seekers

Rosenbush offers tips for people in re-entry who are looking for a job:

  • Perseverance is very important. If you come back again and again it shows you really want to be there.
  • Look people in the eye. If I interview someone who doesn’t make eye contact that’s the first red flag.
Advice for businesses

She also has advice for restaurants or other business who are committed to hiring employees who were formerly incarcerated:

  • Have a lot of patience with your staff and support them during their the training. You might have to say things three times instead of just once.
  • Be aware of the other life issues that may come up for them.
  • Understand that employing someone and giving them a regular paycheck offers access to stability, and in some cases an opportunity to transition out of halfway housing and into their own living situation. You’re making a big impact on their lives.