Director Thomas Lennon talked with Food & Wine about the making of the film.
Some stories just fall into your lap, as documentarian Thomas Lennon puts it. Lennon is a good friend’s with David Waltuck, former chef of the now-closed Chanterelle, a formidable French restaurant in New York City. In September 2013, Lennon attended at dinner party hosted by Waltuck, where he was seated near one Brandon Chrostowski. Lennon says that the additional guest sat there mostly mumbling throughout the night, and at one point, said, almost under his breath, that he planned to open the best French restaurant in the country. Where would this restaurant be, his dining companions wondered? In Cleveland. And who would staff said restaurant? Men and women who had recently been released from prison. Lennon knew immediately that he had the subject for his next documentary on his hands. He flew down to Cleveland and began filming what would become Knife Skills, which has been nominated for an Oscar in the Documentary Short Subject category.
This is the fourth time Lennon has been nominated for an Academy Award; he won an Oscar in for his 2007 film The Blood of Yingzhou District. With Knife Skills, Lennon invites viewers into a class of around 120 recently released prison inmates, who have entered Chrostowski’s restaurant Edwin’s as trainees—many with no experience in the kitchen at all. They are subjected to a rigorous education helmed by Edwin’s head chef Gilbert and his sous chef Gerry, the curriculum of which includes geography (they must memorize the regions of France), French vocabulary, and cooking techniques over the course of six weeks. The entire training program lasts six months, during which the trainees work as chefs, hosts, servers, and sommeliers until they graduate and a new class is inducted. Many of them drop out, relapse, or have another brush with the law, which lands them back in jail before they have a chance to complete the program—but as Chrostowski says, fully re-acclimating to life outside of prison usually takes not seven attempts, but more like 77.
Lennon calls himself lucky—he met Chrostowski before he had even opened the restaurant and would be able to film the very first class of trainees as well the restaurant's chaotic opening night. When he flew to Cleveland for the first time, Chrostowski and a few volunteers were still painting the restaurant’s walls.
Chrostowski—a former convict himself—is at the center of Lennon’s film. He’s a complex figure, still struggling with the torments of his past while running a program that could potentially save the lives and livelihoods of the people who walk through his restaurant’s doors. One climactic moment in the film finds him at odds with one of the trainees, a position Lennon also found himself in while filming.
“Now I really consider him a friend but during the making of the film we had a difficult relationship,” Lennon told Food & Wine. “At one point he almost punched me out.” (Lennon had approached a pair of guests and asked them to sign a release so that they could appear the film, ruining, in Chrostowski's mind, the dining experience).
“You don’t to be on the wrong side of Brandon,” Lennon says of his film’s central figure. “But he has a lot of energy and a lot of drive and even the complicated stuff, he uses that as fuel.”
Lennon calls his film “admiring,” but in no way “promotional.” Instead it, “parachutes you into a world that you’re unlikely to know, populated by people that we don’t spend time a lot of time talking to.”
One of the main conflicts of the film centers on what happens when formerly incarcerated people enter the world of elegant French cooking. It’s one of the aspects of Edwin’s that intrigued Lennon the most.
“Most of the men and women came from pretty rough backgrounds and suddenly they are in this world, where there’s a vocabulary and there are rituals,” Lennon continues. “I saw those men and women grab it and want it and love it. The idea that they were being inducted into a world that they would otherwise [not have been in] was enormously exciting for them. There was an excitement in the air about discovering those old fashioned civilities.”
Edwin’s offers trainees what Lennon calls an “elegant, aspirational world,” and it’s the juxtaposition of that lifestyle with the situation of the staff where “an interesting exchange happens.” One of the most compelling aspects of the film is watching the newly minted chefs embrace a dictionary of cooking vocabulary—types of cheese, wine, cooking terms—and finding, in many cases for the first time, a sense of belonging, a support system, a passion, a home.
Knife Skills is, in that way, an indirect response to food documentaries like Chef’s Table—documentaries which highlight Michelin-starred restaurants operated by celebrity chefs and accessible only to the wealthy. With his camera crammed into the tight spaces of the Edwin’s kitchen, Lennon captures the restorative power of cooking.
Find out more about Knife Skills, including upcoming screenings, on the film's website.