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.