‘When I see something which is not right, I am not afraid to stand up,” declares social entrepreneur Brandon Chrostowski, a notable figure in the field of criminal justice reform in Cleveland, Ohio.
We meet in Tel Aviv at Asif Culinary Institute of Israel, where, for the last week, he has been cooking for Israelis who have been evacuated from their homes and for surviving victims of the October 7 massacre.
At the end of a long day of cooking, everyone around him seems tired, yet Chrostowski is full of energy.
I extricate him from behind the restaurant’s huge pots.
“What are you doing here in the middle of a war?” I ask.
“I heard about the murdered children and women and that was it. I packed my bags. I don’t have a rifle, but I can cook. That is my weapon. I cook and I serve for whoever needs it. It is simple,” he says.
I try again.
“What made you come here? Do you have friends who live here?”
“I have never been here before,” he answers. “But I saw all those terrible things on TV and I thought that there’s no place for that in the world,” he says with a shrug.
Chrostowsky is best known for his work in establishing and leading the innovative Edwins Restaurant in Cleveland, Ohio. Edwins is a restaurant with a mission.
“Cooking saved my life and I want to give back,” he tells me. “It got me off a bad pathway and into a world where I can channel my energy in a way that will always be used. There is always food to be cooked.”
In 2007, inspired by his own journey, Chrostowski founded Edwins, a French fine-dining establishment with a commitment to training and employing formerly incarcerated individuals, and helping to reintegrate them into society.
His work has received widespread recognition and praise and his dedication to providing second chances and reducing recidivism through education and employment has made him a leader in the field of criminal justice reform.
“This is what I do. I feel deeply about these things,” he says.
“[Now in Israel] we cook for families, people who have lost their homes; for the victims of the terrible attack and for everyone who needs it – the old, the sick, people alone in their homes,” he continues. “Tomorrow we go to Mitzpe Ramon and we go there to cook.” He asks me to show him where it is on the map.
When I ask Chrostowski what triggered his decision to leave everything and come here to help out, he turns on his phone and shows me photos of his four children, aged eight to six weeks.
“They are the reason I do all these things,” he says.
When war broke out in Ukraine, Chrostowski went there, bringing with him supplies and the hope of helping those impacted by war. So when he heard of the October 7 attack in Israel, he immediately decided to come to Israel. “I heard about all those children being killed and kidnapped. It is terrible. I looked at my children and I said f**k this, I’m going over there. I am not a soldier, but I can cook,” he says angrily.
“I am a simple man,” he continues. “I was given the opportunity to cook with some great chefs so this is what I do – I cook. We feed the soul – for a few minutes someone, perhaps, forgets the horrors; food can give some relief, even if only for a moment,” he says.
“It is the one thing I can do, to show people here that we support you.”
“Back in the US they started talking about the justifications for the Palestinians and all that, and I said – let me set this straight, this is terrorism. They hurt children. I said I must go. This isn’t war between armies. This is terrorism and there is no place for it in the world. I know what I can do. You know I went to the Ukraine, so I am not uncomfortable in these circumstances,” he says.
“I am angry. I don’t want my children to grow up and ask me what I did when it happened. I began to hear in the US people rationalizing about why Hamas did what they did. I don’t want to hear this. There is always wrong [in the world] and people should stand up for what is right, and support others, I just hope that if one day my people, my family, need help, Israel comes to help us.”
‘How did you go about coming here? You said you did know anybody here,” I ask.
“I called some Jewish people I know and asked if they could connect me with someone. They connected me to one person and the next thing I know, I get a call from Na’ama Shefi, the founder and CEO of the Jewish Food Society in New York and the Asif Culinary Institute of Israel in Tel Aviv, and she invited me to come to Asif, so I got on a plane and came.”
Hitting the ground running
Chef Chrostowski landed at night at Ben-Gurion airport and by the very next morning was at Asif, a restaurant and the center for food culture in Israel, located in the heart of Tel Aviv. It was established by the Jewish Food Society in collaboration with Start-Up Nation Central. Shefi connected Chrostowski with her people in Israel and arranged for him to come.
“The team at Asif is responding to the war the best way we know how – by cooking,” shares Chico Menashe, the institute’s executive director, in a letter posted on Facebook. “Along with a group of dedicated volunteers, we have cooked thousands of meals every day for displaced families and hospitals.”
Menashe explains that from October 7, they turned the restaurant and culinary center into an emergency kitchen, providing more than 20,000 hot meals to a variety of people from around the country.
“We get approached by so many organizations as well as private people and even municipalities. Unfortunately, the need is great and we plan to continue to do what we can, to alleviate some of the suffering.”
Menashe explains that he does not want Asif’s volunteer efforts to negatively impact their suppliers: “We believe that they have to survive too, so we make sure to pay all our suppliers as we always do. We must make sure that they will not collapse.”
Therefore, in order to be able to continue with this activity, Asif is raising funds dedicated to the support of these efforts.
“I am afraid that, in the coming months, more and more families will enter the emergency cycle and will need help providing the most basic needs such as food,” says Menashe. “Brandon is here first thing in the morning and leaves last in the evening,” lauds Menashe.
“I cook what they ask me to cook,” says Chrostowski. “I made meatballs for 700 people the other day. I am willing to do anything. Food can provide a moment of relief, of comfort, even if only for a short while.” A man of few words, he smiles and rushes back into the kitchen.
For more information: secure.givelively.org/donate/jewish-food-society-inc/nourish-israel