by William Engel
What does it take to build a world-class French restaurant? What if the staff is almost entirely men and women just out of prison? What if most have never cooked or served before, and have barely two months to learn their trade? The message of the Oscar-nominated documentary “Knife Skills” is a bitter pill to swallow; for ex-convicts, change is possible, but it’s anything but easy.
The film follows the founding and the opening of EDWINS Leadership and Restaurant in Cleveland, Ohio, a restaurant and culinary school that specifically seeks to hire and enroll former convicts who were recently released from prison. Through rigorous training and education, the students are given the chance to improve their lives and follow a lucrative career in the food industry that will forever free them from the penal system. The founder, Brandon Chrostowski, is an ex-convict himself, as we learn late in the film. He sees himself as no different from the people he hires, and he goes out of his way to show them the patience and compassion they need.
From a technical standpoint, the film is absolutely gorgeous. As the former convicts are put to work, we’re treated to several tantalizing shots of the exquisite food they’re preparing, enhanced by an elegant orchestral score.
The content of the film is just as beautiful – if not more so. The film goes out of its way to humanize the men and women who took part in the program, framing them as genuinely good people who found themselves in bad situations. We hear Alan, a former prisoner who did four years for drug trafficking and robbery, reminiscing about his mother’s cooking and noting that he’s always wanted to be a chef himself.
But while the program provides ex-cons with a way to rebuild their lives, that doesn’t mean that it makes the process easy for them. The students, many of whom have no culinary experience, are expected to master 25+ recipes in a matter of weeks. Such a task is easier said than done, and the film makes no attempt to whitewash that fact.
Brandon Chrostowski explicitly says that he doesn’t expect most of the students to reach graduation – and, indeed, most of them don’t. Of the 120 students who started the first program, only 35 made it to graduation. One student, named Dorian, dropped out over a heated argument with Chrostowski, while another, named Marley, had to check back into rehab for her heroin addiction (though the latter later came back to finish the program).
The film also points out that two-thirds of men and women released from prison are arrested again within three years – a harsh reality that Chrostowski was all too aware of when he opened the restaurant.
But it can be argued that the acknowledgement of that fact makes the conclusion of the film all the more inspiring. The 35 ex-convicts who finished the program had to work doggedly to re-train themselves and abandon the world of crime for good – and by doing so, they’ve accomplished something truly meaningful.
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