Benny Se Teo is the founder of Eighteen Chefs, a three-chain restaurant staffed by ex-convicts and young people with troubled pasts. Teo himself struggled with heroin addiction from the age of 14, and was in and out of prison and rehab until his last release in 1993. He trained at Fifteen – the London restaurant run by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver – and started Eighteen Chefs in 2007
First published on 28 Jun 2012. Updated on 3 Jul 2012.
How did Eighteen Chefs start?
I have spent more than ten years of my life in and out of rehabilitation centres and prison because of my heroin problem. After my last release, I was determined to lead a normal life, just like any Singaporean chasing the Singapore dream. I wanted to start all over again at the age of 33. I went for six job interviews. No one called me back for a second interview after learning about my past. It is a very realistic world.
I vowed to hire this group of people in the future if I were a business owner. With Eighteen Chefs, I tried to hire mostly ex-convicts. My last restaurant, a 200-seater Chinese, was 80 per cent ex-convicts – but it was too hard to control and I ultimately failed. Now my staff is a mix of professionals and about 35 per cent ex-convicts and delinquents, though I want to increase that number.
How do you measure success with your trainees?
There have been some sad stories, but also more than 30 success stories I am very proud of. I had an F&B director who began as a server and is now a regional manager at an international restaurant earning more than $6,000 a month. If they are still working for me in the next three years, that is not success for me. If you head out and start your own business, in a food court or hawker centre, that’s succeeding – if you have a good opportunity, you should go for it, and I don’t mind if my staff pick up my recipes and start businesses in food courts or hawker centres. They can have a more meaningful life rather than going back to their old ways.
Describe your experience at Fifteen.
I went to Fifteen as a self-taught Chinese chef. I didn’t know what beef bolognese or aglio olio was. It taught me how kids from the street can be taught to be part of a team in a restaurant, and opened my eyes. My food is a heartlandstyle Singapore version of Jamie Oliver’s – if I sold my pasta al dente, the locals would tell me it isn’t cooked.
What is the significance of 18?
The number 18 has an underworld connotation in Singapore. During our forefathers’ day, secret societies were formed according to dialects. My father was from 18. He was a drug addict involved with gangs and opium. When I was younger, I recall seeing slabs of opium in my house. He died in the early 1980s when I was in a halfway house. When he died there was a wreath. That wreath was very special. It had the characters ‘18’. I knew more about secret societies when I went into prison. I was closest to those from 18. But with Eighteen Chefs, I am not promoting secret societies. I am actually challenging the young people to come out of the gangs, take up a pan and become a chef instead.
Eighteen Chefs (www.eighteenchefs.com) has locations at Eastpoint Mall, Tiong Bahru Plaza and Fusionopolis Way.