We don’t usually make a big deal about the Oscars on Special Sauce, but when I saw the brilliant Oscar-nominated documentary short Knife Skills, I knew I wanted to talk about it. The film shows what happens when Cleveland chef/restaurateur Brandon Chrostowski opens Edwins, a white-tablecloth French restaurant staffed almost entirely by recently released convicts who are reentering the workforce. As I previously wrote on Serious Eats, Knife Skills is funny, deeply moving, and brimming with humanity. So this week, in anticipation of this weekend’s Oscars ceremony, I invited Brandon and the filmmaker behind the documentary, Tom Lennon, a longtime friend of mine, to come on Special Sauce to talk about their extraordinary collaboration.
For Brandon, a hardscrabble childhood that nearly ended in incarceration was saved by a demanding chef and mentor he worked for in Detroit when he was 18. “I finally found a place that would push back on whatever energy level I would exert…. There was always something to do, and there were so many personalities. It just fit with the way my body and mind are wired.” While working for the late, great Charlie Trotter in Chicago, he learned that “you can do anything with what you have, no matter what the situation or how deep or how tough.”
With Edwins, and the Leadership Institute he created alongside it, Brandon set a lofty goal: “changing the face of reentry, and that’s going to take a couple of lifetimes, but I knew that the right lens could accelerate that.” That lens turned out to be Tom Lennon’s, and Knife Skills was the result.
Was the making of Knife Skills a political statement? Tom says no: “I didn’t have any agenda. I just stumbled into this, it sounded like a good story, and I just filmed what I found. I think that that was an advantage. I’m not sitting here preaching to you about a political assertion I’m already confident in. That’s not what it is. I’m just having you encounter a bunch of people in a very, very dramatic and difficult situation at a very difficult stage in their lives…really anxious, vulnerable, complex people who are yearning to not screw up again…. Then you, the viewer, I’m asking you to think about what you saw.”
Take Marley, who says in Knife Skills that, in the throes of her drug addiction, “I’d wake up and be so mad to be alive.” Marley has her ups and downs in the film, but all Brandon can do is provide a path to forgiveness: “I can’t tell someone to be ready for this opportunity. What I can do is always leave that door open.” Thinking about the process, Brandon told me: “When you’re demanding excellence, you understand that maybe someone’s not going to be able to do that, but can they do that for a moment, and can we make that moment a little longer each day, so that they can do that for an entire shift?…. If you get the right heart in there, that has the right energy and affection, that will breed hospitality. We’ll work on the finer points, but just give me someone who cares and is going to work hard.”
When you listen to this moving episode of Special Sauce, you can’t help but notice how honest Tom and Brandon are, much like the film itself. You can watch the film here, and after you do, I bet you’ll join me in rooting for Knife Skills when you watch the Oscars. For a full transcript of this episode, scroll down to the bottom of this post.
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Ed Levine: Welcome to Special Sauce, a 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.
Brandon Chrostowski: If we don’t open we fail, so all the focus was on the quality of food and so on.
Thomas Lennon: Which was a huge advantage to me, but they couldn’t worry about me, which was great. The only thing is that I was in the way.
TL: In the kitchen.
EL: This week, we are lucky enough to have the chef/restaurateur Brandon Chrostowski, founder of Edwins Leadership and Restaurant Institute, and Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Thomas Lennon. In Lennon’s new Oscar-nominated film, Knife Skills, viewers get a front row seat as Brandon opens a white-tablecloth French restaurant, Edwins, in Cleveland employing recently released convicts. The film is the restaurant story, Brandon’s story, and perhaps most importantly, the film is the story of some of the trainees. As I wrote on Serious Eats, Knife Skills is funny, deeply moving, and brimming with humanity. It’s a film full of heart and soul that poses tough social justice questions and offers no easy answers. Welcome to Special Sauce, Brandon Chrostowski and Tom Lennon.
BC: Thanks Ed.
TL: It’s great to be here.
EL: We feel honored that you have graced us with your presence in the middle of what must be a whirlwind of activity promoting Knife Skills before the Oscars. So much that I want to talk to you guys about, but let’s start with the standard Special Sauce opening. I want to know what life was like at your respective family tables. Let’s start with you Brandon, what was life like at the Chrostowski family table?
BC: My mother would cook, she would do it herself. It was three boys and a mother, so sometimes not everybody was there, but food that was hot and palatable.
TL: But where were you? You were in Detroit, right?
BC: Yeah, no, yeah, yeah. Well, outside Detroit is really where most of the formative years of growing up. The table was simple. It was like anyone else’s dining room table, spaghetti and meatballs. She makes Salisbury steak, meatloaf, it was just some of the hearty Midwestern food that one could sit down after running around and eat and then just run around some more.
TL: I’m going to take this liberty just because I know Brandon well and say, set the scene a little bit more in terms of Detroit, pretty hardscrabble, pretty scrappy background. When you say keeping the three boys straight, doing her best… it took me a year before I cracked Brandon. Ed doesn’t have a year. I’m just saying, this was not an easy childhood, it’s my sense.
BC: Yeah, I mean, circumstances were what they were. Single mother raising three boys. There was nourishment, there was warmth, there was someone who physically made the food. That really transcends into that plate.
EL: At my house, I can tell you it was not warm. It was basically endless confrontation and argument.
BC: I mean, during the holidays it was complete different, there would always be good cooking but there would always be a fisticuffs, that was just the norm of the holidays.
TL: Who would hit who? Come on, fess up Brandon. Now you’re telling me this after the film’s finished? Who would hit who?
BC: It’s because of which holiday but I can remember going pretty far back as kids breaking family members up or having them break me up. That was unusual.
TL: Define break me up? Are we talking hospitalization?
BC: No, but I mean that was the holidays. That was the holidays.
TL: Are we talking incarceration?
BC: Look, it was filed absolutely but there was no suit to file.
EL: What about you Tom, what was life at the family table and where were you?
TL: I was outside of Washington DC. My dad was in the government and my mom, I’m old enough, you guys will barely remember this, but my mom become a devotee of Adele Davis, that health food-
BC: Oh, my god.
TL: …one of the first health food writers. I would be so bummed out because like, everybody else in school would have these nice, white Wonder Bread sandwiches that were tidy and that had the edges cut off and all this stuff, and my mom would make this thing with brown bread, and sprouts, and stuff like that-
EL: Sounds awful.
TL: …and it was just like, it was, more than anything it was like, “Why can’t I be like other kids?” You know, it was like so horrifying to have this organic stuff.
EL: It would have been better if you were getting served what Brandon was getting served. Salisbury steak, meatloaf, spaghetti and meatballs.
TL: Totally, totally, totally. Although that I don’t know that I would have handled the fisticuffs that well, but the rest of it sounds way, way better. Everybody else would have a dessert, I would have like a tangerine in my lunch box. I was like, “What the hell?” You know?
EL: You wanted a Twinkie.
TL: I wanted a Twinkie. I wanted Oreo cookies, you know? That was like really, really humiliating, but then my dad, as I said, was in the government and then we got stationed overseas and we got put like, I was eight years old and suddenly I was in North Africa. Suddenly I was eating like shakshuka and artichokes and all of this kind of Mediterranean food that I had no idea about-
EL: That’s so cool.
TL: …and it was like heaven because it was just, it was really, really good and fresh. My mom actually is not a bad cook and so that’s my memory of suddenly, like the sun coming out almost, and suddenly there were like… like a tomato that tasted like… I’d never knew a tomato could taste good like that because I’d had nothing like a ready-made supermarket America tomato. Suddenly I’m in North Africa. My mom had this bag and it was called a coffa, and it was just a straw thing, and she would go down to an open-air market, stuff that’s routine now, but who’d ever heard of anything like that in the ’60s. It was glorious and then suddenly it became an adventure for me, food.
EL: Something that I had no idea about Tom. Were you eating like, couscous and that kind of thing?
TL: Yeah, with like chickpeas and harissa sauce.
TL: My mom go into it and got into the local cuisine and started cooking those things and it was just, it was suddenly like life got a little brighter.
EL: Yeah, wow, that’s cool.
TL: Now we’re not talking about the tensions within the home, which were rife-
EL: Yeah, but that’s a given.
EL: What household doesn’t have tension?
BC: That’s true.
EL: Brandon, I want to know about your path to becoming a chef and then a restaurateur. It doesn’t sound like this was destiny. This was a course that you created yourself.
BC: Yeah, I think it was destiny maybe to someone else, but for me, it hasn’t felt that way. It’s been a bit of a fight. I started at a restaurant called Risata, which was on Woodward Avenue in Detroit, right next to the Fox Theater for anyone who knows the area.
EL: How old were you then? You-
BC: 18 years old.
EL: You were just cooking.
BC: Yeah, yeah, I mean that’s where it started.
EL: You graduated from high school and you figured out you wanted to be a cook.
BC: No, I mean I had probably 13 jobs before I was 18 from putting in pools, to working in bowling alleys, a floor shop, pump gas, installed carpet. This sort of thing. I just like to work and I like to work with my hands and then stayed busy. What made this situation unique was, I came off of my sentencing, and I was facing five to ten years in a prison and I got probation so I figured I needed something different; something a little bit more outside of what I was normally doing. A restaurant was it. Finding this restaurant, working in it, learning about emulsions, learning about the different ingredients and their history. I had a great mentor, this mentor just changed my entire life. He ended up teaching me the fundamentals-
BC: …so that’s how the hook was set was, here’s a place I can go that’s safe, that I can do something I’m good at, and that someone’s teaching me to be the best in. He eventually kicked me out of that restaurant about a year and half and said, “I can’t teach you anymore.” I ended up working at another restaurant before I went to the CIA, Culinary Institute of America, that was his alma mater.
EL: Was that his advice to do that?
BC: Yes, absolutely.
EL: How did you scrape together the tuition, because I know that place is not cheap dude.
BC: I had an uncle who’s passed now, alcoholism took his life. He was a drinker man, he was a good-time Charlie, he was the one person in the family that had enough money to co-sign for a loan. I was able to get every sort of public loan or grant because of income status-
BC: …but I couldn’t do it. My one uncle’s like, you know he’s like, “Fuck it,” he signed it one day. I don’t know if he was sober or not.
EL: Doesn’t matter. Got the job done dude.
BC: It did, and that is how I got my ticket to the CIA was because of him. If he didn’t sign, there was no one else in my family that could have signed.
EL: When you started working in that restaurant when you were 18 as a part of your suspended sentence or whatever it was, did you immediately fall in love with working in the kitchen.
BC: You know Ed, it wasn’t… I don’t think it was immediate love, I just… my energy level’s a bit higher than some and I finally found a place that would push back on whatever energy level I would exert. If I knocked out the day’s work, well there’s an oven to clean, if you clean the oven, you can clean the hood. If you clean the hood you can clean the drains. There was always something to do and there was so many personalities, it just fit with the way my body and mind is wired. It wasn’t immediate like, “Oh, my goodness this is it.” It just felt natural. Everything felt right and it was fun.
EL: It was the right rhythm-
EL: …for you.
BC: CIA’s really where, that just showed me that those without a mentor are usually set up for mediocrity, because when I got there I excelled. Where I ended up from there because I said, “Look at, if this is what these guys are doing, I can go work for the best.” I had this apprenticeship at Charlie Trotter in Chicago. I went through his kitchen and I remember the first night, we used to have these team meetings at like 1:00 AM after we polished the pots and cleaned the ovens, the whole team would get together and say, “What do you think we could do,” blah, blah. First day, as an apprentice, it come to my turn I said, “I think we could all work harder.” From that day, it was like, they put the fucking mark on my back. They were like, “We are going to ride this fucking punk.”
EL: We should say that Charlie Trotter, just passed away, was a seminal chef in America and had this restaurant that you worked in called Charlie Trotter’s, and trained many, many of the great chefs in America.
BC: Yeah, and what he did so… So if I make this statement I’m like the marked man for the next however many months. The thing was, they kept trying to drill me, but you know again, I was relentless and just kept overcoming, overcoming, overcoming. I remember one time he asked me to shovel the back alley and the only thing you said is oui chef, and they gave me this four-inch spade shovel. I ended up doing the whole fucking alley and I came back in and there was still blood on the handle. I said, “Here you are,” and the thing was pristine. It was pristine, you could have played basketball off there, but they couldn’t sink me. I think at some point they realized that this guy was made of something because he didn’t pay you. I’d work at Pottery Barn on the weekends to foot the bills for rent and whatever. There was no stopping this train. Then they end up taking me under their wing, but what Charlie really taught me wasn’t the seasoning, it wasn’t this idea of cooking. It was the psychological approach to say, “You can do anything with what you have, no matter what the situation or how deep, or how tough.” He kept pushing that, and pushing that, and pushing. That’s what he’s done to all these great chefs that worked under him. It wasn’t just the food, it was the psychology that you can do it. That’s really the edge.
EL: You see that in the film throughout, I mean, that attitude comes through not just in what you say to the camera, but really in how you act and what you’re trying to impart to all the trainees that came through the program.
TL: Did Charlie try… was he friendly? Or did he just push you and push you like a drill sergeant?
BC: No. No, he wasn’t friendly. There was never moment that he would put his arm around you physically or spiritually. He would just keep driving you, and drive you, and drive you, and drive you into that point of always trying to persevere for something you could never touch.
EL: Wow, and this issue of mentorship is clearly very important to you, it’s at the heart of Edwins and the heart of the Leadership Institute. You take responsibility very seriously.
BC: Yeah, I think a little too seriously but look, his method worked, right? Ed from there, it was Paris, New York, it was other great restaurants around the world, but it was his psychology and this one chef in Detroit’s fundamentals that got me to where I’m at.
TL: I got a question for you. I should say to the people who are listening, that I’ve known… I’ve never worked with Ed Levine until just now, but I’ve known him as a friend for 10, 15 years or more, and a person I care a lot about. I’m not talking as a stranger, but I’ve got a question for you Ed, I said, mentorship is really important for everybody. I was agreeing with Brandon when he said, “Without a mentor you’re kind of destined for mediocrity,” but did you have a mentor? I don’t know that you really did, right?
EL: You know, it’s interesting. No, I didn’t. I tried when I was in the music business. I was hoping to be mentored by Jerry Wexler, the famous producer-
TL: Producer, yeah, incredible.
EL: …and one of the co-founders of Atlantic Records who produced many of my favorite sides of all time, everything from Aretha Franklin to Ray Charles. It just didn’t work out. I actually got a job working under him at Warner Brothers Records, and then right at exactly that moment, he lost a power struggle there and left me clinging to a life raft. What’s weird about my path that’s a little different than probably both of yours is that I really didn’t have a mentor. I had a series of almost mentors. I worked for this guy Fred Cyber who ran a branding agency and production company. I did learn a lot from him and I think he learned a lot from me, but I don’t know that I would call him a mentor, and-
TL: What about your older brother?
EL: …it’s funny because I am now writing this book about Serious Eats, and so I’ve been thinking a lot because my parents died when I was a kid. My dad, when I was 12, my mother when I was 15, and I was adopted by my oldest brother who did in fact mentor me in many ways.
TL: In that kind of Charlie Trotter way-
TL: …nothing is explicit. No… right.
EL: Yes, and you know, he was a forceful presence-
EL: …yeah, and you know-
TL: High standards.
EL: …ridiculously high standards. But I think in a way he actually may have mentored me in many ways that I didn’t even know at the time. I’m like you Brandon, where you had the chef in Cleveland and then you had Charlie. I want to hear about Tom, because I know you have some mentors.
TL: I had an incredible mentor.
TL: I did and I was a kind of …I thought I wanted to be a still photographer in college and right at the end of college I realized that I was more interested in film. I’m very glad I made that choice but it meant that I came out of college without any technical skills. No start, I didn’t know anybody, I was just lost. I spent a lot of, two or three years in what I really call the New York Film Slave Trade. You know? Where you just kept getting paid nothing and you’re getting treated really badly. In every way, you’re being underutilized. Then I get into ABC News back at a time when ABC News actually had a real documentary division. I started clawing my way up, but by then I was already in my mid to late 20’s. This was not right out of school.
TL: When I was 28 maybe, I went to work for a woman called Judy Creighton, and she was this kind of …just this force of nature. The first day I met her, I was assigned to work for her and she just reached out her hand, she was about six feet tall and she had this deep gravelly voice because she smoked nonstop, and she said, “Hi, we’re going to be friends.” Then she just kicked my ass for like two years. Just relentless, I never had any time off. I was working Saturdays and Sundays, and at the end of that year and a half or two years, I felt two things. One, I know almost as much as she does, and I certainly didn’t feel that way at the beginning, and two, because she had in her own way, really believed in me, I sort of believed more in me. My whole career was different after that. I really believe in mentorship, I really have tried to do that with other people in my own field, and when somebody shines that light on you of belief, it doesn’t have to be affection, it just has to be belief like, “You’ve got this. You can do this.” Then, for somebody like me who didn’t carry that sense inside myself, it was transformative.
EL: Yeah, that’s interesting because one of the things that I have learned I founded Serious Eats in 2006, it’s now 2018, so it’s 12 years, that’s the longest I’ve ever worked anywhere. That’s why you know it has to be-
TL: It’s because there’s nobody there to fire you.
EL: …exactly. But, the thing that’s interesting about it, is the most unexpected pleasure I’ve gotten is scouting talent and developing talent to the extent I can. I try to keep the torture level low unlike Charlie Trotter, or …
TL: Judy Creighton.
EL: Judy Creighton, but, you know, I just, I love watching people take flight.
TL: Yeah, it’s amazing.
EL: It’s the greatest thing in the world and I wish people had done it for me.
TL: But there’s one hitch. Judy and I for example, we ended up on very rough terms.
TL: I had this big success that she had, had a little bit to do with, but not much to do with, and suddenly I’m at Sundance and I’m doing interviews and this and that. Then it was my first Academy Award nomination, and it just tore at the relationship. On the one hand she wanted me to take flight, but on the other hand she was a bit ambivalent about that.
EL: Yeah, no-
TL: …we fixed it up before she died. We patched it up. But-
EL: That’s good, and what was that film?
TL: …it was called The Battle over Citizen Kane, and it was the clash between William Randolph Hearst and Orson Welles, over the release of his landmark film. That had nothing to do with food although I will tell you that Orson Welles’ routine meal, consisted of two steaks, two baked potatoes, like a bottle of Scotch, and like double thing of ice cream. That’s partly why he got to be the shape that he was in, in the end.
EL: That’s really funny. You’ve really, you’ve both had really great careers, and not linear in many ways.
EL: Mentors have played invaluable roles in-
TL: And this one …can I jump in and say, and there’s one person we have in common. Or a couple who actually were very important in Brandon’s life and have come to be close friends of mine and that’s how Brandon and I met. Brandon for two years worked in the front of the house at Chanterelle.
EL: Which is this famous new American restaurant in Tribeca, that David and Karen Waltuck, who are both friends of Tom’s, had, right?
EL: For many years, in two different locations.
TL: My understanding Brandon, is that you worked in the front of the house under Karen, right? David was the kind of famous French, the sort of new French whatever, you guys can describe him better than me. Karen was the front of the house, the floral arrangements, the décor, the art on the menus.
EL: The welcome.
BC: The hospitality, yeah.
EL: That’s where you came together.
TL: That’s the link. The link is that one day I got invited, my wife was childhood friends with Karen Waltuck, nothing do with food, nothing to do with film, nothing to do with any of that. Just, they went to elementary school together. We’d become friends and one day I got invited over, Joan and I got invited over and I thought it was just going to be Karen, and David and me and Joan, because we’d get together pretty often. Then there’s this other like, odd guy there. And-
EL: Is he talking about you Brandon?
TL: …I am. I am.
EL: He just called you an odd guy. On the air.
BC: It takes one to know one, I don’t think there’s …there’s no mystery there.
TL: I couldn’t quite figure out this guy, I didn’t know what he was doing there. I gathered that he had been working for Karen and David, but he was mumbling a lot. I remember we had meatloaf, right? Isn’t that what we had? Yeah, we had meatloaf.
BC: It had shiitake mushrooms in it, there were shiitake mushrooms, David made.
EL: Your mother made meatloaf Brandon, but it didn’t have shiitake mushrooms in it.
TL: And it didn’t have Tom Lennon at the table. Brandon is kind of mumbling into his food and then he says something about like, he’s going to open the greatest French restaurant in the United States. And I went, “Hm, oh, that’s interesting.” First of all, I’m at the table with David Waltuck with Chanterelle, who might have been offended by that.
EL: Right, he’s no slouch.
TL: Yeah, and then he says, “And it’s going to be in Cleveland.” And I went, “Mm, okay.” Then a little bit later it came out that all the people working there were going to be people just recently released from prison. I knew within 10 seconds-
EL: You had to make-
TL: …there was a film. I didn’t know that I had to make it, but I know that there was a film there, that there was an opportunity. The really lucky part was that he was telling me all that before he’d started. He was just about to sign the lease. It gave me an opportunity to get in on the ground floor and like, 10 days later, or it was two weeks later I think, I was flying out to Cleveland to hang out and shoot.
EL: …Brandon, how did you feel when Tom brought up this idea?
BC: Felt okay, because as you know Ed, this work was been 10 years in the making, this progress, it wasn’t like a …you stumbled upon something and it worked. This was very calculated, at least the framework of it. Once you opened the doors you’d never know what you get.
BC: But the calculations includes changing the face of reentry, and that’s going to take a couple lifetimes but I knew that the right lens could accelerate that, and I already got calls from a dozen other, movie people, film people, and they were all …they’re a bunch of sharks and just snakes.
BC: …you don’t include. Oh yeah, they were wretched. The bottom line was, we came through one very, very, very trusted relationship and then two, just looking at what Tom’s accomplished with an Oscar. What that Oscar was for, showed me that this guy has integrity and on a handshake it was simple. Just shook hands and just we rolled.
EL: Tom, tell us what you won your Oscar for?
TL: It was a film I did with a colleague of mine, Ruby Yang, and it was about orphans who were kind of wandering through the Chinese countryside, abandoned in the early days, terrible early days of AIDS in China. It was a pretty dark film, but it was something we found and felt we needed to document and we were lucky to win and Oscar for it.
EL: I could see why Brandon would look that up, or look at that film and think he’d found the right person to make the movie.
BC: Yeah. Yeah, it was pretty simple.
EL: Tom, if I remember, because I lived through this, the usual way that someone makes a documentary is you raise money, you get a commitment from a distributor, you get a commitment from HBO, you get a commitment from somebody, but you’re a dope, so you decided you were going to make this and spend your own money.
TL: Pretty close. Listen, I was dying to sell out I just didn’t have a buyer. That’s not quite true actually. I wanted to keep control of the film-
EL: Got it.
TL: …and I wanted to have final editorial control and that, you can’t really do that if you get hired by HBO or Netflix. I mean you can, but it’s much riskier. Also, I was kind of trying to figure out what the story was, you know? I just figured, let me just keep going. I knew a wealthy person who cared a lot about criminal justice, who by sheer good fortune, I mean great good fortune, is a friend and so I asked her for help and she wrote me a check for $50,000 and that covered me for a while. It’s just enough money to get you into trouble. It’s enough to start a film, but it’s not nearly enough to finish a film.
EL: That got you-
TL: But that got me-
EL: …flying to Cleveland and staying in Motel 6 as far as I can tell.
TL: …you got it. I was, actually I got corrected. It was not Motel 6, it’s the Super 8 motel, because I was calling it the Motel 8 and then a friend emailed me, he said, “There is no such thing as a Motel 8, is that like a special upscale Motel 6?”
EL: Sounds like a horror movie.
TL: No, it’s the upgraded Motel 6, you know if you got real big money, you go to the Motel 8. No, it’s a Super 8. It was really low budget, I was shooting it, I was taking sound myself, I was flying to Akron instead of Cleveland because it was-
TL: …it was cheaper and then I’d rent a car and drive. It was just horrible. But, it was also this glorious experience of meeting these men and women who were so different from what I expected when I heard that everyone had been doing jail time. I expected some really, really tough customers. There were a few of them but more than that, much more often there was just these really anxious, vulnerable-
EL: Complex people.
TL: …complex people who are yearning to not screw up again. They were really eager to talk to me. Actually, almost everybody I turned to was really eager to talk to me and almost everybody I turned to really had a story to tell. Except the person who first invited me out there, Brandon. He was actually the toughest customer. He took a long time before he really started talking to me. He was eager for me to get the message out about his trainees, but it was-
EL: He was-
TL: …six or eight months before he really started talking to me and if you watch the film, and you have, remember the first time he really starts talking he says, “Okay, turn off the camera.”
EL: Yes, I remember that.
TL: Yeah. Yeah, and I didn’t.
EL: What’s interesting is, that is one of the great things about the film and we’re going to tell people where they can watch it. New Yorker magazine is now showing it on its website and it’s really awesome. It’s the story of the restaurant, of Brandon opening the restaurant, seen through the lens of three of the trainees. Dorian, Allen, and Marley. I loved their stories and they were so different and so layered with complexity. You know, I remember, was it Dorian who quoted Shakespeare about what a tangled web we weave? Allen going to visit his mom and talking about how his mom tried to fill them up with art and history and literature-
TL: Because he’s filled with remorse. He hasn’t doesn’t right by his mom, he’s disappointed his mom.
TL: Then it turns out that she’s a real foodie-
EL: Yeah and-
TL: …and so that there’s that whole layer.
EL: It’s great, and the woman Marley, there’s this moment when she first starts to talk about what it was like to be a junkie and she said, “I’d wake up and I’d be so mad to be alive.” I was so taken by that line. What an articulation of desperation.
TL: Just, so mad, so mad to be alive.
EL: So mad to be alive. It’s like, I’d never heard that expression be before.
TL: Yeah, me neither, me neither.
EL: We should fill in the blanks a little bit about what the film is about. We follow these three trainees working for Brandon-
TL: In the first six months of the restaurant’s launch.
EL: Yeah, and you know, one of the things that I love about the film is that it poses a lot of difficult questions and not a lot of easy or pat answers about social justice, about the problems that recently released prisoners face. It’s such an amazing film that way because you didn’t go for any of the easy lines that you might have.
TL: Well, thank you. That’s good of you to say. I don’t think ignorance is ever an advantage when you’re making a film, but I didn’t have any agenda. I just stumbled into this, it sounded like a good story and I just filmed what I found. I think that that was an advantage. I’m not sitting here preaching to you about a political assertion that I’m already confident of. That’s not what it is, I’m just having you encounter a bunch of people in a very, very dramatic and difficult situation at a very difficult stage in their lives. Then you the viewer, I’m asking you to think about what you saw.
EL: Right, and Brandon, what was it like to be opening this restaurant? You’ve given yourself this incredible challenge that you clearly relished, what was it like to have Tom in the middle of that? Was he a pain in the ass? Let’s face it, let’s start there.
BC: No, it was good, it was easy. I’ll tell you, Ed, the focus was on survival, was on this opening, right? So if we don’t open we fail, so all the focus was on the details, the individual’s lives, the quality of food and so on.
TL: Which was a huge advantage to me, because they were so busy worrying-
BC: Don’t even notice-
TL: …Brandon had set this insane deadline that they had to be open six or seven weeks after the people first came. They couldn’t worry about me, which was great.
TL: I was like… the only thing is that I was in the way in the kitchen.
TL: But other than that, I just didn’t matter.
BC: Yeah. It wasn’t a distraction, there were sometimes when gathering he wanted to do some front of the house shots and it wasn’t… to me it wasn’t appropriate when opening a restaurant that people’s impression of us was this show. There were, sometimes it’s like, “Look, just stay to the back,” but we circled back I think sometime later and got what was needed so it wasn’t a problem. It was easy and once you trust somebody… the first thing I did in that restaurant from the old owner was tear out the cameras. He had cameras inside this restaurant, I tore them all out. You just-
TL: What were they? Security cameras or what?
BC: …security cameras over the register, in the kitchen, all over the place.
BC: I ripped them out. First thing I did was rip them out and everyone was like, “You shouldn’t rip them out,” it’s like, you just can’t have a culture when you don’t trust. Once someone comes inside, you trust them and you can do whatever you want. It wasn’t a distraction, not at all. Not at all.
TL: I think you’re romanticizing this Brandon because it took… you were a total pain. You took four, or five, or six months before you signed a release and committed to letting me… it was months before I was sure I was going to be able to edit the film, that I was going to be able to finish it. You were quite wary, you were not… it was not total trust.
BC: Yeah, but when the lens was there, I didn’t have time to care and you were in there with trust.
TL: I had to get a release. I had to get everybody to sign releases and that meant that they were really trusting me because that freed me to then edit the film exactly the way I pleased without any permission or something. Man, that’s a very important moment in a film to get all those releases and it was not… Brandon was just still trying to figure out whether he should really trust me or not.
BC: But anytime, Tom, I’ll say this, anytime anyone puts a piece of pen and paper in front of me to say, “Sign this,” ultimately that means there’s something beyond that a handshake can’t solve. Absolutely, there’s a lot of apprehension because that’s breaking the trust in itself saying, “Here, sign this,” it’s like you’re breaking the trust bubble man, didn’t we shake hands on this? “Well no, I don’t trust your handshake Brandon.” Well then, fuck you, I don’t trust yours.
EL: That’s interesting.
TL: That’s great-
BC: You broke the trust. So I mean-
TL: …it was interesting.
BC: Yeah, it really was.
EL: This is like in that De Niro film, the circle of trust, right?
BC: Yeah, whatever that means.
EL: Meet the Fockers. I have a question about Brandon, you started with 90 trainees, right?
BC: Just about, yeah.
EL: 80. Did you have a pretty good idea, could you predict who would make it through and who wouldn’t? Or was it really a matter of just seeing what happened?
BC: Correct, I mean look at, it’s a restaurant and if you’ve been in these things or you haven’t, you just know that not everyone makes it and your opening crew will definitely part from you at some point. What you have to do is just take human beings and put them in this atmosphere and see where energies go and then continue to keep them together, and then focus on the points that need to be strengthened. It’s all organic, you don’t know who’s who, what’s what. You just go. Anyone in the restaurant business will tell you it’s pretty much how an opening’s gonna roll. This one was a little more.
EL: What’s interesting, unlike a lot of people I know that have opened restaurants, you decided that you weren’t going to render any judgments. There’s this line in the film where you say to them, “We have to give people not one chance, but seven chances,” or whatever, it’s like, that’s an aspect that’s I think, unique to you in terms of opening a restaurant. Because you both had really high standards, you were quite demanding, and yet there was this layer of forgiveness that not a lot of people have in that situation.
BC: Yeah, I suppose you’re right but when you look at this, you say it’s unusual. This is like the life I’ve led for a longer time, so it doesn’t seem to be too awkward to take this approach. When you’re demanding excellence, you understand that maybe someone’s not going to be able to do that, but can they do that for a moment and can we make that moment a little longer each day so that they can do that for an entire shift? I just think it’s about, if you just get the right heart in there, that has the right energy and affection, that will breed hospitality. We’ll work on the finer points, but just give me someone who cares and is going to work hard.
BC: Outside of that, you just hit it every day and just know that eventually, eventually something with click and someone will get it, and they do. Usually what that clicks is that esteem. Usually it’s the belief of themselves to say, “Hey, I can do this.”
EL: Well that’s it-
TL: And that gets us back to the mentorship-
EL: .. Yeah, and it’s what you said.
TL: …it’s that moment where you suddenly incorporate that into yourself by feeling like, “Hey, I can do this.”
EL: Right, it’s like-
TL: I remember I was 30 and I was walking down this road in the Middle East in Israel and I suddenly said to myself, “You know what? I’m a documentary filmmaker. I could do this.” And it was incredible. But that does not, for most of us, that doesn’t come by itself, that comes from somebody you backing you up.
EL: Right, and Brandon you learned that and you said that, that’s what Charlie Trotter instilled in you, not through the warmth and generosity of his spirit, but just the way he kicked your ass to the point where you’re like, “Wow, I’ve got some skills. I know how to do something tha… and I have the confidence to move forward with it.” That’s, it seems like…
TL: That’s one of the most precious feelings in the universe, right? That’s like one of those things and it happens to you sometime between the age of 18 and 30, or 35, if you’re lucky and your life is completely different.
EL: Yeah. Brandon, when people would drop out or fall short, was that… was that something you took personally-
EL: …or did you realize that going in? I know for me, whenever someone leaves Serious Eats, I take it really, really personal and I think must have failed. But when you’re in this situation, that’s sort of built into the process but does that make it any easier to accept?
BC: Firstly, you have to redefine failure. Failure for me would be, “Did I or did I not provide every possible way for this person to succeed?” Now if I didn’t, then I failed. Now if I did provide every possible way for this person to succeed, provide child care, provide a ride here, provide this, if I did every damn thing I could and this person wasn’t willing to, then I’m not losing sleep over that. If someone’s not ready to do this, only they can do that for themselves. I can’t tell someone to be ready for this opportunity. What I can do is always leave that door open. When providing every opportunity possible, and someone doesn’t take the ball, I don’t feel bad. I certainly don’t feel bad for keeping the door open if they ever wanted to come back and try again.
EL: Which actually happens in the film.
BC: Yeah, with Dorian.
TL: And Marley. Marley-
TL: …we don’t see it in the film but we learn that she comes back after.
EL: Which is amazing. I’m going to ask you the same question. It’s like, what was the biggest hurdle you had to overcome in your case, Tom, to make the movie and in your case, Brandon, to open the restaurant?
TL: Can I go first?
TL: For me the biggest hurdle was that I began to have enormous sympathy and admiration and I’ll use the word, love I guess, a kind of love, for the people that I was following in the restaurant. Then, one after the other, like several of them got themselves into real trouble, and I realized that the story was a lot more complicated than I thought. That moment where I had to stop and say to myself, “Holy shit. What is this film I’m making… Am I making a film that is going to persuade every potential employer that hiring people who are formerly incarcerated, is trouble? What the hell is the message of this film?” And I had to just take a deep breath and just say, “Keep filming. Stay with it, just tell the story as it’s unfolding in front of you and don’t think about it just go.”
TL: But that was hard.
EL: Yeah, because-
TL: Because like, you know, I suddenly thought like, “What if I’m making a really unsympathetic, unhelpful, stigmatizing piece of work?”
TL: But you can’t pull your punches. You gotta just go deeper in, you know? There’s no escape except deeper into the story, and hoping that-
EL: Right, because the truth does set you free as-
TL: …the truth, I hope, will set you free, but I was quite anxious at that point.
EL: …Yeah. What about you Brandon? What was the biggest hurdle you had to overcome in opening Edwins?
BC: That’s a good question, and I don’t know if I could rank them. The-
EL: I’ll take three.
BC: I mean, again, it was a long journey, like a decade of turning stones over and make sure they’re polished, yeah.
TL: I met this guy in San Francisco who had worked with Brandon in 2006 or seven, but hadn’t had much to do with him for years. He told me that Brandon had been talking, like in 2006, about this restaurant. In other words, this was a long, long time coming.
BC: It wasn’t… you could throw, it’s the standards out there, hey, you know, financially if you… They had to continue to raise money and get this thing open, finding space, or… they’re all challenges Ed. I don’t think there was one golden one I said, “Oh, my goodness.” It wasn’t for me.
TL: I would say, come on, Brandon. It was setting… just the timing was such that at the beginning of October is when he finally got his lease and his people going. He knew that the biggest money to be made in a restaurant, is from like, the beginning of November through-
EL: The end of the year.
TL: …end of the year. He basically said, “In five or six weeks, we gotta be open.” And most of the people had no serving or cooking experience of any kind. That was wild.
BC: …for a filmmaker, but when you know the extremities and you have total control in this business, that’s …look at, you’re dealing with humans who… my approach and belief is always velocity. Speed is great but velocity’s even better and when you can get someone connecting to winning faster, and the velocity’s higher, you can develop something. Six weeks… that’s good, it’s good that it’s that short because-
TL: Okay, maybe good but your own chef and your own staff, if you bail it’s going to be…
BC: But you don’t, but Tom, let me ask you this.
TL: But then I would turn on the camera and you’d go, “Well I think we can do it.” Then you’d turn off the camera you’d go, “This is fucking crazy. I can’t possibly… this is going to be a disaster.”
BC: But you don’t think what that time like-
TL: People were scared. People were nervous.
BC: …they were scared, but you don’t think with that energy they over-performed in the moment that we needed them for? So there’s a bit of engineering behind-
BC: …this, but that wasn’t… that still wasn’t… I don’t think that was the biggest challenge. It was difficult, we were all working our tails off, but I just don’t think there’s… I think the biggest challenge has yet to come to this project. I don’t think it’s here yet.
EL: That’s actually a perfect way to end part one of our Special Sauce episodes with you, Tom Lennon and Brandon. If you guys can stick around, I want to talk some more about Knife Skills and its aftermath, which you’ve just introduced, Brandon, in a beautiful way.
BC: Thank you.
EL: In the mean time, every Serious Eater can and should watch Knife Skills by going to video.newyorker.com/watch/academy-award-nominee-knife-skills.
TL: Have you got that all written down guys?
EL: We’ll have that on Serious Eats.
TL: New Yorker and then Knife Skills, and you’ll find it.
EL: Yeah. We’ll see you next time, Serious Eaters.