“And then I walked into prison with a bag full of knives!” says the man grinning. As I spray Bourbon across the room in disbelief, I scream “what the hell man?” With a belly laugh and slap on the back, he responds “yep, and then locked myself in a room full of inmates!” And I already knew we would need a bigger bottle!
What does a hero look like? Is it someone wearing a cape, a lab coat, a badge or an army uniform? Is it someone who has a congregation on Sunday mornings or drives a firetruck? What if I told you about a different hero who wears a chef’s coat, carries a sharp knife and is helpful to others. A family man who cares more about his community and people than about himself. What if a hero was standing right next to us teaching immigrants to roll sushi so they could get a job? What if that same hero was spending his “day off” in prison teaching knife and life skills to convicts and people who never had a chance? Meet Antwon Brinson a chef, father, entrepreneur, teacher, husband, and son who’s changing the way Charlottesville, Virginia thinks about life. One knife cut at a time!!!!!
Antwon was born in upstate NY outside of Niagara. At a young age Mary Brinson (Antwon’s mother) found out she could no longer bear children. Not one to feel sorry for herself she went on to foster over 250 kids in her life. As Antwon glowingly states “she was the worst cook I ever met, but she loved to eat.” With so many mouths to feed from so many ethnicities and places the Brinson's were spoiled with too much family. such a variety of foods also developed a strong palate for the youngster, and taught him the importance of family and helping the underprivileged. A “skinny kid with 2 left feet” as his Mary calls him, Antwon was always up for a challenge. Whether it was scrapping with anyone who messed with the family, creating a way to pay the bills or getting a date with the prettiest girl in class, Antwon never shied away from the challenge.
As a teen he enrolled in a culinary class in his vocational school. The first year was taught by an old school, hard ass Hungarian Chef who demanded respect unwilling to give it to others. Mr Brinson spent the majority of his year suspended from class and hating the kitchen. The next year a new chef took the reins and inspired Antwon to over-achieve. Telling him he believed in him and challenging him to lead the class, Antwon entered a contest that led to advanced level competitions. The team made it to the state finals that year, but as chef so eloquently puts it “got his ass kicked”! Regardless of the outcome the challenge and future was set, Antwon would cook!
Much of Chef Antwon’s resume reads like a who’s who of culinary destinations. Out of school he scored a prestigious internship at the renowned Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia. After 3 years grinding his way through every position, learning from 2 Master Chefs and other titans of the industry he was picked to open an Asian eatery in the resort. Two years later, bitten by the bug of all things Asian he moved the family to Kauai as Executive Sous Chef at the Princeville resort. Here he learned his greatest lesson in the kitchen. “I could cook with anyone and thought I would just cook my way to the top. But I learned real fast to be the best I needed to be a better leader.” Soon the job offers started rolling in. Eventually moving back to the mainland to San Francisco and then Palm Springs where he spent years running some of the greatest private yacht clubs and resorts in the country.
Deciding to get closer to home the Brinson’s were recruited to Charlottesville, VA to open the hottest restaurant in town. Quickly he learned even though he could open resorts, restaurants and lead staffs in his sleep, he couldn’t do it without employees. Charlottesville is home to more restaurants per capita than anywhere in the states. However trained cooks, servers, dish washers or any professionals whatsoever are impossible to find. Thus bringing Antwon to his biggest realization yet, there had to be a better way and Culinary Concepts AB was born.
Taking noticing of his demographic Antwon did something most people would never have attempted. He went to prison with a bag full of knives and locked himself in with inmates. Well sort of! Chef went to the local prison (Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail) and provided a course to ladies behind bars. He demanded more from these women than anyone thought possible. The prison assisted with purchasing knives, aprons, cutting boards, and basically built a kitchen for the class. 5 students graduated that class and 3 are on the streets today, gainfully employed at local restaurants. One of the toughest, scariest and rewarding things he’s ever done, Antwon is being recruited to teach life skills at local schools and universities.
As if he didn’t have enough on his proverbial plate, Chef wanted to feature students and other local chefs in the community. As a lover of music he organized a Reggae festival with 14 chefs cooking international cuisines. Thai, Israeli, Indian, Japanese, Lebanese, Burmese, Peruvian, Jamaican and many others. Over 2000 people attended the festival on the windiest day of the year. The team had to hold tents and tables from blowing away, as they moved the party in doors. With 2 hours remaining and a line out the door, the team moved back outside. By this time all of the ingredients, chefs and kitchens were a hodge podge, creating one big melting pot. You could almost hear Mary Brinson laughing in upstate New York. His very own “foster kids” came together as a family and faced the challenge just as he always has. Newly minted leaders in front of their own community!
In a day and age where chefs are known as much for their tattoos, TV shows and harassment in the work place, there are many other stories. So if a man shows up with a bag of blades and says “let’s go to prison,” don't think twice. Hell, maybe even give the dude a ride!