It’s been several days since the Oscars, and I’ll admit it: I was keenly disappointed when Knife Skills didn’t win for Best Documentary Short. But now that I’ve had a few days to reflect on the Oscars as a whole (go, Frances McDormand, go!), and now that I’ve listened to part two of my interview with Knife Skills filmmaker Tom Lennon and Cleveland chef-restaurateur Brandon Chrostowski, I’ve realized that it was a winner regardless of Sunday’s outcome.
Why? Because the film has succeeded in making more people aware of the multifaceted problems recently released convicts face in reentering the community. And that awareness has resulted in positive steps by the restaurant that stars in the film, Edwins, and the related Edwins Leadership Institute. As Brandon notes: “Since the time of the shooting, we built a campus, so there’s housing for people; there’s a fitness center, a library. There’s graduate housing. Got another building, working on a butcher shop. We’re [Edwins Leadership Institute] in 13 prisons now.” What makes the film even more amazing is that, as you’ll hear in this episode, Knife Skills was shot on a shoestring budget and was turned down by Netflix, HBO, and Hulu—which is why serious eaters can watch it for free on The New Yorker‘s website. That’s why I think Knife Skills comes out on top, no matter how the Academy voted. The film represents a triumph of determination, artistic expression, and genuinely life-affirming extended-family values. Watch it, listen to our conversation, and decide for yourself.
Ed Levine: Welcome to Special Sauce, Serious Eats’ podcast about food and life. Every week on Special Sauce we talk to some of the leading lights of American culture, food folks and non-food folks alike.
Thomas Lennon: We really tried to get Netflix to buy it. No dice. We really tried to get HBO to buy it. No dice. But meanwhile, we were getting great buzz.
EL: We are back with documentary filmmaker Thomas Lennon, whose terrific Oscar-nominated new film, Knife Skills, tells the story of Brandon Chrostowski opening a white-tablecloth French restaurant in Cleveland, Edwins, employing only recently released convicts.
Brandon Chrostowski: There’s still this perception of people coming out of prison, we’ve got to go further, we’ve got to go faster, can’t ever, ever say, we’ve arrived.
EL: Tom, making a great documentary short film is hard enough. But getting it noticed and seen and nominated for an Oscar is another. First, I want to hear all about that. And then Brandon, of course the same is true about opening a French restaurant with or without an experienced staff and making a go of it. Tom, let’s start with you, it’s like, you found some money-
TL: Yeah, I found the money to finish the film. But there’s a hell of a lot of films being made these days and anybody who’s got $2,000 can get a great camera and start shooting something and then edit on a computer that cost $500. And so there’s a lot of work getting done and a lot of it’s crap, but some of it’s really good and it’s really tough out there.
After I finished it, I just did the normal thing, which is apply to a bunch of film festivals, got turned down by a number of film festivals. It’s 40 minutes long and that’s a difficult length for festivals, for understandable reasons. They don’t really love it, because people aren’t going to go out of their home and come down to the movie theater and watch something for 40 minutes. So we got turned down a fair amount.
And then we started not getting turned down. And then the first time we finally got into a film festival was Michael Moore’s film festival in Michigan, and we won an audience award. And Brandon was there with me and Brandon actually, it was the first time he’d seen the film on-
TL: …anything, but his little-
BC: Laptop, yeah.
TL: …computer. And the place went nuts.
BC: Crying, crying tears.
TL: And I know this sounds like filmmaker PR, but Brandon-
BC: They were crying.
TL: …you can back me up on this. The place went nuts. They stood up. And I think they were standing up, I think, more for Brandon than for the film. But the combination of the two, just being so excited by what the restaurant was trying to do and the universe that the film had brought them into. And they went crazy. And they kept clapping and clapping. It felt to me like 10 minutes. It was probably about a minute-and-a-half. I started almost crying because it was the end of a three-and-a-half year-
EL: I still cry when I watch the movie and I’ve seen it six times.
BC: Hey, Tom. I have to point something out. There were three people in this crowd who weren’t cheering and it was the people who made the film before us, and they were sitting there with this shit look face and I remember looking at them and I was like, “Fuck you.” I just remember looking at them like, “You think you own a restaurant, you don’t know how to run a restaurant.” I remember that feeling of looking at them. But you’re right, it was… They were crying, they were moved. I think it was about three or four minutes of clapping, man. It was more than a minute-and-a-half.
EL: And we should explain, Tom, why you arrived at 40 minutes.
TL: Well, I was working with a great editor, Nick August-Perna, and I said to him, “I don’t care how long this film is. Let’s just make the best film we know how.” So we made different edits and we made a 50-minute cut and then we cut a couple minutes out and we kept changing things. Each time it got shorter, it got better. And then it-
EL: It’s like a sauce, Brandon, reducing.
TL: Reducing, yeah, but it is. It’s exactly the same idea. And then I think the natural length of the film is about 41 or 42 minutes or whatever. We were really happy with the film at that length.
You cannot make a film for 42 minutes. If you can get under 40 minutes, you can be eligible for short film categories in film festivals and at the Oscars. If not, you’ve got to do 52 minutes or so and do a broadcast hour. So I had to go either up or down and I decided to squeeze it down. And it’s really tight.
BC: It doesn’t feel like it though.
TL: You mean it feels shorter, or longer?
BC: It doesn’t feel like it’s 40 minutes. The way it comes together, it just feels like it’s longer, because there’s so much, but it’s smooth.
TL: Good, good. We didn’t get any awards until we got the Oscar nomination. There are these award things that are the indicators as to whether or not you’re going to get a chance at getting an Oscar nomination and we got turned down by every one of them. We didn’t even get into the competition. I don’t mean we didn’t win, we didn’t even get picked to be-
EL: Into the short list.
TL: To the short list. I thought, we are just so screwed. Our goose is cooked. In fact, I know Ed and he was advising me and I was saying to him, “How the fuck can I get to somebody who will endorse this film. I’ve got to get some life into it.” And then I wrote Ed this email and I said, “We’re getting turned down by all the indicators of the Oscars, so I have to get used to the idea that, that’s probably not going to happen.” And I think it was because there’s so much packed into that film that they didn’t feel like it was a short. That’s my-
BC: Yeah, I would agree. I would agree. I would agree.
TL: I could be wrong, maybe they just didn’t like it. But I think that’s why.
EL: When we’re at the film festival, the first film festival you got in, in Traverse City, Michigan. You still didn’t have a distributor, you still didn’t have a place to exhibit it. You didn’t have anything.
TL: Now you’re going to ask, “Why does Ed Levine know all of these things?” And that’s because Tom Lennon was his friend and would call him up about every two or three weeks and cry about this. And say, “I’m dying. This film is dying. I can’t get anywhere.” We really tried to get Netflix to buy it. No dice. We really tried to get HBO to buy it. No dice. But meanwhile, we were getting great buzz. And we had made it eligible for the Oscars and then we made it to the short list. That’s 10 films that have a shot, out of which five are going to get a nomination. Then I thought, “Okay, now I’m in. Somebody’s going to buy me.” Nope, nobody bought me.
Then we got the nomination, and then New Yorker Films actually had been courting us for a little while, they didn’t have a lot of resources, but they said, “We can’t pay you a ton, but we can really get this film on the map.”
EL: And this is the New Yorker Magazine-
TL: This is the New Yorker Magazine, which is Condé Nast, which is in fact, very committed to a website presence.
EL: And they’ve done a great job on the New Yorker website. It’s quite brilliant.
TL: I’m an old-fashioned guy, so I always read the magazine, so I didn’t spend a lot of time looking at the website. When I started looking at it… When they did an article about us it was on the website, but that was not on the magazine, I got a ton of calls from people, so I realized that this has a whole life that I wasn’t so aware of. And they’ve been pushing the film ever since. And it was a relief to get somebody behind us. But part of the strategy was, let’s see if we can buy ourselves a ticket to the Oscars lottery and…
EL: Yeah, and I remember talking to you and we would go back and forth on music and chefs that we could get involved.
TL: Right, right. Could we get a celebrity singer to do part of the soundtrack, would that help since Ed, A, has a cooking background, but B, had a music background. I was calling… This is the life of the independent producer. Take all your best friends and just exploit them horribly.
EL: No, but then you had that screening in LA, and I emailed Roy Choi’s assistant and Roy Choi, is of course this great restaurateur and chef with a huge heart, and does lots of things involved social justice. And he totally stepped up to the plate, right?
TL: Upstaged me, man. We’re at this damned screening and I’ve paid a whole bunch of money to try and impress the Oscars and Roy Choi just ran away with the show, but it was great. He’s a very charismatic chef. And he said something right at the beginning of the thing, he said, “Restaurants saved me.” And that’s of course a line right out of the film, because Brandon used an almost identical phraseology.
EL: Yeah, he did use… I wrote that down, actually. He used that exact same line. He said that exact same thing. And I think that it’s both a cautionary tale and a hopeful tale about making art in 2018 that has a strong message, but it doesn’t give you any easy answers-
TL: I’m not preaching. I’m not preaching.
EL: Yeah, you’re not preaching and I think that’s really great. And so that leads me to a question for you, Brandon, which is, the restaurant gets open, Tom’s making his movie, you get to see it on a screen for the first time… On a big screen in Traverse City. Then what happened with the restaurant?
BC: Immediately after the Oscar nomination, the restaurant explodes, almost like back to the times when we first opened. But during this journey, no one could really give a shit, to be honest with you. They’d say, “Hey, this is great. There’s a movie out about you that no one can see. Great.” I mean, if it doesn’t do you, it does you no good-
EL: What’s the good news.
BC: It does you no good. But the restaurant itself… Since the time of the shooting, we built a campus, so there’s housing for people, there’s a fitness center, a library. There’s graduate housing. Got another building, working on a butcher shop. We’re in 13 prisons. The training hasn’t slowed down while this movie’s being made or when it came out. But I can tell you-
TL: Just as well, since it took me so goddamn long.
BC: …that when the Oscar nomination came through, that train just got put on some super fuel and it’s flying. I mean, it’s just incredibly busy right now. Incredibly busy.
EL: You do amazing work, Brandon. You just casually mentioned, “Oh yeah, we’ve got housing and we have a butcher shop. And we have a fitness center.” All about your mission of re-entry, right, which, you have made it your mission. And there are not too many people who can marshal resources and be so focused on something so singular, and yet so important, involving the culture at large.
TL: I mean, can I just say one thing, which is after the first class of people finished their six months, they moved all the chairs around in the restaurant and turned it into almost like a high school graduation and they put bunting up and they put up a big sign that said “Edwins”. And all the graduates bring their families and dress to kill and all sit and then they each receive a diploma.
And I’m struck by the fact that, what is this diploma? What is Edwins? What is this thing? It’s just, comes out of Brandon’s head. And here we are six months later, and people are receiving a diploma with immense pride. In other words, a miniature institution is born out of nothing.
EL: And to create something that has meaning and value to many people, is an amazing, amazing accomplishment. Is this what you imagined when you set out on, as you say, this 10 year journey that you’re still on, right? You haven’t gotten to your destination, clearly. But did you imagine, “Oh yeah, maybe eventually we could get a butcher shop and a program in a dozen prisons and we’ll have housing.” Was that all part of the-
BC: Yeah, that was the plan, man. That was the plan.
TL: That was all there, in your head?
BC: It’s all on paper. I was so paranoid someone would take this idea, I mailed the original business plan to myself and I haven’t opened it up since 2004. Poor man’s patent, right.
EL: That’s awesome.
BC: And you’re welcome to open it up and break the seal, but it’s-
TL: Can I just say, you’ve learned something very important about Brandon, which is part of the fuel that drives his paranoia.
BC: Yeah, it’s all there, but the thing and here-
EL: But that’s so fascinating.
BC: …I’ll tell you what I didn’t expect, the acceleration on this. The amount of velocity this has happened much faster, so the campus, I didn’t see until year five. It happened in year two. The film, I had never put in the formula, but that’s in fact there and that just accelerates a lot of-
TL: That was one of the slower aspects of this thing though, was getting the film done. Oh man, it took me forever because I couldn’t-
BC: But I had never expected a film to be made, so in this plan this was never part of it. But it’s just accelerated the mission spreading throughout the country, which was always a plan; changing the face of re-entry.
EL: I always tell people at Serious Eats, it’s a long race. And the path is not linear. Clearly, you have embraced both those notions with the restaurant and the leadership institute.
BC: We’re so far from where we need to be. Whatever’s been accomplished is beneath the mountain, and you’re climbing it looking up and I just keep saying, “Shit, we’ve got to go farther. We got to go faster.” And all this behind it, you just thank, you’re fortunate for, but you can’t ever, ever say we’ve arrived, because we haven’t. There’s still another life. There’s still this perception of people coming out of prison. There’s still this short stick vision of someone who’s been incarcerated. We’re still just so far behind. So far behind.
EL: And it’s such an overwhelming problem that society has not adequately addressed. Maybe because there are no easy answers the answers are found in the things that you’re doing, which is on a relatively small scale, but suggests a larger scale, that if it was incorporated into other places, would really make a difference all over the country.
BC: That’s the goal. We’ll get there though, we’ll get there.
EL: You seem to take the long view. I admire that.
TL: And things of value take time.
BC: And they should.
TL: This film was four-and-a-half years. It took for you, Serious Eats was many years before you could stop worrying and you knew that it was going to survive. I mean I watched you, you were a wreck with, was Serious Eats going to survive. And Brandon, as I say, started talking about this idea in 2003 or ‘04, and opened in 2013.
EL: What’s interesting, Brandon, is that it seems to me, unless I’m missing something, that you created this model. There was nobody doing anything like this.
TL: Can I say one thing?
TL: I talked to the chairman, who was the chairman of his board, who he recruited and who’s then started helping raise money and stuff. And that guy reached out to various places that had bakeries or catering things and stuff like that and he said, “We’re going to do this high-end restaurant.” And everyone said, “It’s a bridge too far, don’t try to do it. Do not do it.” Not only had people not done it, they really thought it was a very bad idea.
TL: And that’s among people who were very progressive, they wanted to support re-entry, but they just said, “from prison to a high-end dining, white-, what you call ‘white -tablecloth’ dining experience. It’s too big a leap. Just stick to a bakery or a catering service.”
EL: I mean, Brandon, you must know about Homeboy Industries in LA, which does amazing work. So, there was no model, right? You just created this in your own head.
BC: It’s literally the story of my life. And that’s how I knew it would work. There’s no denying that if it worked for me, why couldn’t it work for another human? And it was just about manufacturing and engineering a curriculum around that and that was it man. That was it. Yeah, there’s nothing else like it. And there’s things like you said, Homeboys, they’ve got other things around the country, but nothing to this level.
EL: Yeah, and-
BC: You have to understand, until you run that three-minute mile, whatever, you break these records, until you see it, you don’t know it’s possible. When you live it, you know it’s possible, so you’ve seen it. And other people didn’t see that. So you can’t expect someone else to say, come up with this idea, it can work, because they’d say, “It’s impossible. I’ve never seen it.” And that’s really how I knew it would work. There’s not a doubt in my mind it would work. Not a doubt in my mind. Bingo. And then, you can replicate it. And now it’s replicated, people see it. Now they see it a lot more with the movie. And now this is a chain reaction that hopefully can really change the tide across many, many continents, not just here.
EL: And let me ask you both the same question, so Brandon, you found yourself running for Mayor in Cleveland, I believe. It’s not like you’d spent a lifetime in local Cleveland politics. I don’t think you made your way up the Cleveland Democratic machine.
BC: Nor would I want to.
EL: And again, that was just your pursuit of something that you thought was the right thing to do and it would enable the city to make strides in a way that they wouldn’t have made under somebody else’s leadership?
TL: Put less tactfully, what the hell were you thinking of Brandon, could you explain?
EL: What were you thinking, Brandon?
BC: Exactly that. I couldn’t help but see what we were doing here at Edwins and helping those in the inner city. Helping those that society has just thrown and tossed into the rubbish. And then here we’re making great careers and lives from that experience, using that perspective. And you look at it citywide, how Cleveland’s still the most distressed city. Unemployment’s at the highest, infant mortality is on par with a third world country. You’ve got 2,000 homeless schoolkids.
You’ve got these numbers that you would say, “Are you kidding me?” And to me I said, “If this guy runs again, I’m going to fight him.” And that was the only thought I could think of. Then he announced, and the very next day, I announced. And I was like, “This fucking guy has got some nerve to think he can keep doing this to us.” He keeps doing this to us and keeps doing this. And for 12 years he’s been mayor, screwing those that have less and enough was enough. So, that was it, I was just pissed off. I-
TL: Was it really the day after?
BC: The day after-
TL: This brings us back to the fisticuffs theme of the first podcast, that’s the fighter. You’ve got something of a fighter.
BC: It was so maddening, so maddening.
EL: And you didn’t win, but you didn’t come in last, either.
BC: I knocked out some 30-year politicians. We did good. We came in fourth out of nine. Only the top two advance, so I was very, very close. I was maybe, I don’t know, either six or 7,000 votes shy of advancing-
BC: And that was with a very low budget. No machine. Just boots on the ground. Knocking doors and relentlessly saying the same thing that was right and resonated. And it was fun.
TL: When we knew we had a shot at the Oscars, we’d been shortlisted down to 10, and of those 50% were going to get a nomination. And I have to admit, I really wanted it. I wanted it bad. I knew it would be great for the film, be great for me, great for Brandon. I wanted it.
EL: I know, just by how many emails I got.
TL: Brandon’s peppering me with emails and he’s saying, “What are you doing?” And I’m explained all the various things I’m doing to try to increase our chances and he’s saying, “Well, I mean you haven’t gone fucking door-to-door and knocked on Academy Member’s doors.” And it was like, “This is a little different from running for Mayor. This is not quite the way we do it.” But anyway.
EL: What about you, Tom. I mean, now you’ve had this experience with Knife Skills and many of your films have dealt with social justice issues. But I don’t think you’ve ever seen… And you made that film about polluted river that did actually cause-
TL: Have an impact, yeah.
EL: …political and social change in China. But I mean, now that you’ve seen the power of this kind of art, how does it frame what you’re thinking about doing next?
TL: I don’t know the answer to that. I just know that it feels really good to have been involved in something worthwhile. And that doesn’t capture it. There’s a satisfaction that’s unbelievably deep, where you feel like you’ve done something worthwhile, with people who are worthwhile. And also in the process of trying to get that film, first of all made, and second of all noticed-
TL: It involved me tapping every friendship that I had. I was joking before about being exploitative and trying to rip you off, Ed. But it wasn’t really like that, it was like showing you the film and then you saying, “This is good. This is a good film. I want Anthony Bourdain to see it.” Or, whoever to see it. And helping me. And it does take a village to raise a film and it took-
EL: And to make a restaurant, Brandon.
TL: To me, the relationships… I mean, I’m going to get mushy in a moment. But those relationships, like Brandon and I, we had quite a careful relationship when the film was being made. I had to make it very clear to him that he had no control over what the shape of the film would be. That I think was a little difficult for him, because he’s used to being in charge of stuff and I had to make it clear. I could never eat at the restaurant, because I didn’t want to be indebted to the restaurant.
But now that it’s done. It’s done. And it’s got its own integrity, so now I can relax and be a real friend of Brandon’s, which I never allowed myself to be while the making of the film was going on. And the same with the other people in the restaurant. And the same with the people like you, Ed, who’ve been helpful along with way. I just feel happy. I’m sorry to sound so corny, but I just feel good.
EL: Now, Brandon, I have a very important question.
EL: Now that the film is made, does Tom get comped? That’s really one of the most important questions I ask any chef restaurateur.
BC: We make sure we spoil every one of our guests. Every one of our guests gets spoiled. To that degree, it-
EL: That’s a very political answer.
TL: In other words, no.
BC: To that degree, he’ll be spoiled, that’s for sure.
EL: I have a whole list of questions that I usually ask Special Sauce interviewees that I’m not going to ask, but I am going to ask you a couple of the Special Sauce, All You Can Answer Buffets. The first question is, and I’m particularly interested in what both of you have to say here. It’s just been declared Thomas Lennon Day all over the world. What’s happening on that day?
TL: I go into hiding.
EL: No, no, no, no. But what’s happening all over the world, because the fact that you go into hiding only affects one zip code.
TL: What I would love is for people to be reading and watching things that are truthful and telling things to each other that are truthful, because to me the most disturbing thing about my world right now is that it’s become a universe of polarized falsehoods in which everybody… The only thing anybody looks for is the piece… Not everybody, but the piece of information that reinforces a preexisting prejudice. And everything that I’ve tried to do in documentary film has been to do the opposite of that. To just try to tell a story as I find it, regardless of the preconception that I have or that anybody else has. And so that would be my dream, that would be my fantasy.
EL: What about you, Brandon? What’s happening on Brandon Chrostowski Day? Not just in Cleveland, we’re talking all over the world.
BC: Celebrating the power of food and second chances. That’s really it. Just the idea that someone is not who they were.
EL: What’s happening all over the world is that people are being given second and in your case, from what you’ve articulated, and third and fourth… as many chances as they need, you can’t stop believing, right?
BC: Actually I want to change that. They’re celebrating their perspective. No matter what that perspective is, because that’s truly what this mission is doing. It’s taking someone’s past and saying, “Celebrate it. Reflect on it. Learn from it. Be better from it, but don’t be ashamed or embarrassed of what your past was.” That’s what they’re doing. They’re celebrating their past faults. Their past victories. But they’re celebrating what they’ve done.
Everyone keeps talking about this, Ban the Box. And I’ve been arguing against it. I say, you should expand the box. They are saying Ban the Box because that perception is going to hurt or harm your chance of getting employment or someone’s going to cast judgment. But if we expanded it and showed it how it renewed your perspective, then wouldn’t it be complimentary to say, “Hey, this person, yeah they did four years in prison, but here’s another candidate who did four years at Yale, and the perspective of this person in prison is more valuable to me.”
If we expanded our past, no matter how gruesome or how mistake-riddled, that’s what I want celebrated. That’s what I want celebrated.
EL: You’re talking about is it’s really acceptance, and an ability to move forward?
BC: Yeah, that’s right.
TL: That’s really interesting, because Ban the Box is all about don’t let anybody know-
BC: Expand it.
TL: …or be able to find out that a person has been in prison-
TL: And you’re saying, “No, forget that. Own the fact that you’ve been in prison. Own the fact of what you’ve learned from your time in prison and how that learning can then make you a desirable employee to somebody who’s interviewing you.”
EL: So, Ban the Box-
TL: I love that.
EL: …is that a movement?
TL: I’m sorry, yeah. I was going to explain. The Ban the Box means, don’t allow people who are interviewing, ask you-
EL: Oh, to check the box.
TL: Have you been convicted of a felony.
TL: That’s the typical box. If, yes, please explain.
EL: Got it.
TL: And so there’s a whole movement… The Ban the Box, and I agree, I don’t think that’s really the way to-
BC: You can do a background check.
TL: First of all, there’s a five year gap in your resume. You don’t have to be a genius to figure out that there’s a story there. And rather than cover it up, because there’s all sorts of stuff that people when they come out of prison, there’s studies that suggest that there’s a determination to try to set things right that actually can work for an employer. For one thing, there’s a greater loyalty, there’s much less turnover. There’s liabilities. There’s dangers of PTSD, of trauma coming and rearing its head up-
TL: There’s danger of addiction and that problem coming back. So yes, there’s certain risk, but there’s also an upside to it, and I think Brandon is talking about the upside that comes from learning from having really made a mistake and having learned from it.
EL: You would wish on Brandon Chrostowski Day that the world would always seem pregnant with possibility to everyone.
TL: It’s an old-fashioned idea. Most religions are steeped in that idea that we are sinners and that we fail and that failure does not define us. And it’s radical to put that into practice, which is what Edwins is about.
EL: All right, well listen. Gentlemen, thank you so much. This has been awesome. And Serious Eaters, please watch Knife Skills. Go to newyorker.com and just type in Knife Skills in the search box. And really, it’s been a pleasure having you both on Special Sauce and we’ll see you next time, Serious Eaters.
BC: Thanks, Ed.